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Israel, Palestine and the US: the next four years

Dialogue no. 1, March 2005, between Ghassan Khatib and Yossi Alpher

Alpher: To discuss the next four years, I think we have to look first at the past four years.


They have been tragic for both Israelis and Palestinians in many ways: escalating violence, the absence of a political process, economic hardship--all inflicted by us on ourselves. In this sense, the most striking tragedy of all has been the absence of sound leadership. Neither Yasser Arafat nor Ariel Sharon nor George W. Bush had a realistic strategy for peace, or even for stopping the violence. This, more than any other single factor, determined our fate during this period. The reasons for this failure of leadership were multi-faceted: they included the Palestinian reaction to the collapse of the peace process and outbreak of violence--thereby supporting Arafat's reliance on violence; the Israeli reaction--electing and supporting a leader, Sharon, to wage war rather than peace; and the American reaction to 9/11.

What, if anything, is already changing or is likely to change in this paradigm during the coming years?

First, Arafat has departed the scene and been replaced by Mahmoud Abbas, who rejects the strategy of violence. Under the best of circumstances he will require time to stabilize his rule and reduce the violence. And at the level of issues, Abbas’ peace menu is no more realistic than was Arafat's.

Secondly, Bush has been reelected, midst a flurry of statements to the effect that Arafat's departure and Abbas' election will reenergize the American commitment to a viable two-state solution. But the US still faces issues in the region to which it assigns much higher priority--Iran, Iraq, al-Qaeda--and it is not at all certain that it will risk large doses of its prestige on our problems, particularly if this means a clash with Israel.

And it does. Sharon has committed to unilateral disengagement--a welcome innovation. But he still seems to reject genuine peace negotiations with an Arab partner, whether Abu Mazen or Bashar Asad.

This means that the next four years will probably, at best, witness limited progress toward Israeli-Palestinian peace.

Khatib: The future of Palestinian-Israeli relations and the future of Palestine and Israel depend not only on the political dynamics in the two countries but also to a large degree on the rest of the region and international powers, in particular the United States.

The fierce and bloody confrontational nature of the last four years, during which the American administration’s policy toward this conflict is best illustrated by its near total absence, are both important factors in predicting what will happen in the next four years.

The negative effect of the deliberate American reluctance to engage in the conflict ought to influence American strategy in the coming four years, if only for American interests. On any reasonable analysis, most people have concluded that the lack of a solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is a negative factor on the regional scene and that a solution would create an atmosphere more conducive to improving the overall regional situation.

Meanwhile, both Palestinians and Israelis have suffered immensely, and both sides have moved further away from any previous achievements they might have made.

The Israelis, who experienced the most prosperous period in their history during the peace process years, have suffered their worst ever economic downturn as a result of the violent confrontations. In addition, the average Israeli has never before been so unsafe. Needless to say, the movement toward normalization with the Arab countries that characterized the 1990s has been replaced with the most hostile regional atmosphere ever in the absence of actual war.

Palestinians, meanwhile, have also gone through some of their worst years in the history of the conflict, with disastrous economic deterioration, the huge number of casualties, especially among the youth, debilitating damage to the infrastructure, and the resulting retreat in the process of constructing the fundamentals of a state. This is in addition, of course, to the damage that has been done, at least in the US and some European states, to the Palestinian image.

These gloomy situations should alone be enough to convince the two parties to look for different approaches and means to get them to their respective and legitimate objectives.

Alpher: We agree on the negative effect of Washington's lack of involvement and the need for that to change in the coming four years. But I don't agree that the current regional attitude toward Israel is "the most hostile ever"--at least not at the regime level. Indeed, somewhat to my own surprise, the past four years of conflict have alienated Israel's neighbors to a lesser extent than anticipated. Jordan and Egypt withdrew their ambassadors but did not sever relations. The conflict did not overflow across the Jordan River.

Now Egypt is reengaging, thanks to the Gaza withdrawal plan. While Israeli expectations of Arab countries establishing or renewing relations with Israel in the coming months are exaggerated, the outlook is better than expected.

One explanation for this phenomenon is the Arab perception, like ours in Israel, that Arafat preferred violence to statesmanship. Abbas appears to share this assessment; witness the dramatic success of his diplomatic ventures thus far in the Arab world. A second explanation, at least regarding the past year, is Sharon's disengagement plan, which our Arab neighbors view in a positive light.

Thus, with Abbas running the Palestinian Authority and assuming Sharon proceeds with disengagement, the coming year is likely to bring regional and international diplomatic benefits for both Israel and Palestine. But beyond that year, the doubts loom. After disengagement, Israel's new coalition will collapse and elections will be in the offing. The Bush administration will not try to capitalize on the momentum of disengagement if this means friction with Sharon. Abbas may be less than fully successful in preventing suicide attacks against Israelis. Hence, after a relatively good year in 2005 we may be in for a bad or problematic year, one without progress, in 2006. The big question beyond that is whether, in a best-case scenario and with American involvement, we will witness more disengagement or the return to a genuine negotiating process.

An additional intriguing issue for the coming year or two is: assuming Palestinian violence ends, how much democracy will Bush demand from Palestinians before he'll get behind their statehood needs? He's already asking for more than he asks of Egypt and Jordan.

Khatib: Sharon’s unilateral plan for disengagement from Gaza will not by any means be a reason to expect positive developments toward a peaceful future. There are two main reasons for this: as it stands, according to a recent World Bank assessment, implementing the plan will only lead to further deterioration of the social and economic conditions in Palestine. Secondly, the plan involves a parallel consolidation of occupation through settlement expansions in the rest of the 95 percent of occupied Palestinian territories, i.e. the West Bank including East Jerusalem.

To get to a reduction of violence and peaceful negotiations to lead gradually toward peace requires a change in the current governing paradigm of Israeli politics. Unilateralism must be replaced by bilateralism. There can be no real peace without negotiations, and negotiations are held between at least two sides. It borders on the illogical to talk of a unilateral ceasefire.

The orderly and peaceful transition since the absence of the late President Arafat, in addition to the acceleration in the reform process on the Palestinian side, should see a shift in international pressure from that side to the positions and behaviors of the current anti-peace process government in Israel. This may allow and contribute to a possible change in Israel.

Changes in both Israel and Palestine will create a different and positive atmosphere. This in turn should attract growing international efforts to seize these new opportunities as it corresponds with the growing interest on the international level, including in Europe and the US, of removing the factors of instability in the region created by the continuous confrontations and violence between Palestinians and Israelis.

Without intense international interference that includes the US administration, however, all regional efforts, including Egypt’s, will not move things forward. Only the readiness in both Israel and Palestine combined with a renewed international involvement led by the US can prepare the ground for a different phase in the history of this conflict.

Alpher: I believe your assessment of where disengagement is leading us is far too pessimistic, while your hopes for a genuine peace process in the coming years have little basis in the realities of the day.

After the first phase of disengagement, both the Israeli public and the US will demand more disengagement, this time entirely in the West Bank. Israeli elections might get in the way, but more disengagement, not more settlement building on the West Bank, is likely to be the only alternative to more fighting. In this regard, Sharon does not talk of expanding settlements in 95% of the West Bank, but rather of consolidating the settlement blocs near the green line. Nor can you expect a change in the "governing paradigm of Israeli politics": the new paradigm is unilateralism, because most of us have lost faith in an end-of-conflict scenario in the near term, and anyway we have a prime minister who simply doesn't believe in negotiating peace with our Arab neighbors.

Sadly, in the coming four years there is not likely to be much movement toward real peace. But there will be movement, and if Palestinians start adjusting to the advantages of Israeli unilateralism they can benefit from them too. The benefits for them are the increment of additional territory and the dismantling of settlements, both key building blocks for an independent Palestinian state. Whether Gaza after withdrawal is a "bigger jail" or not will depend on whether Palestinians get their security act together and whether Egypt comes through and takes over security along the Gaza-Sinai border. In the worst case, a bigger jail is certainly preferable to a smaller jail, especially when you're not being asked for a quid pro quo.

The international community is not likely to pressure Israel on this account as long as things are moving, even unilaterally. International--meaning mainly American--pressures will focus on Israel only if, first, the Palestinians deliver on democracy, reform and security, and secondly, Israel ceases to move forward, either unilaterally or bilaterally.

This brings me back to an earlier question that I invite you to address: if the key to American support for a peace process is, as Bush insists, reform, just how much Palestinian democracy and suppression of violence will satisfy him? And shouldn't you be talking to Washington about this? Indeed, looking toward the next four years, shouldn't one of Abu Mazen's first acts as chairman of the PA be to upgrade the quality of PLO/PA representation in Washington?

Khatib: To argue that a withdrawal from Gaza will lead to any kind of public or international pressure for further withdrawals in the absence of a negotiation process is counterintuitive. Israeli unilateralism is exactly designed to do only so much and no more. It is designed to show the international community that Israel has “made sacrifices” and to show Israeli public opinion how difficult it was to make these “sacrifices.” In the absence of any negotiations, this unilateral approach is set to solidify the current status quo rather than alter it. To argue in this context that a bigger prison is better than a smaller one is neither here nor there; in the long run, a prison is a prison.

Unilateralism is designed by the strong party to further its interests. A withdrawal from Gaza and four West Bank settlements will buy the stronger party time. That time, in the absence of negotiations, will be used, as it already is being used, to consolidate the occupation of the West Bank by consolidating the settlements there. Any such consolidation will only prolong the time it takes to reach a peaceful settlement. This land is a homeland for a people who will continue to do whatever they can in order to achieve their independence by ending the occupation from all Palestinian territories.

There is a strong link between these efforts toward freedom and independence on the one hand and the democratization and reform process on the other hand. Once again, and hardly surprisingly, the main obstacle to democratization has been the occupation. After all, whom should you vote for under occupation? The first thing the Palestinian people did after the establishment of the Palestinian Authority was hold free and democratic parliamentary and presidential elections. And now, after the death of the previous and democratically elected president, the Palestinians are again engaged in a series of elections at the local, parliamentary and presidential levels

Palestinians have demonstrated and are demonstrating both the willingness and the desire to push on with the democratization and reform programs even while living under an oppressive and violent occupation that counteracts such programs at every step. Witness for example the difficulties presidential candidates had in campaigning, including for Abu Mazen in Gaza during an Israeli incursion into the northern Gaza Strip, let alone the difficulties Jerusalem voters faced in casting their votes.

It should be realistic to assume that the genuine efforts of the Palestinian people in favor of democracy and reform in addition to the clear commitment of the elected leadership to the roadmap and the expected one hundred percent efforts of this leadership to fulfill Palestinian obligations under the roadmap on the security level should expose the shortcomings of the unilateralist approach of the Israeli government for all to see. There can be no substitute for negotiations and a bilateral approach. Anyone who expects a unilateral approach to bring any positive developments in the long run is sticking his/her head in the sand.

Alpher: By definition, unilateral withdrawal from Gaza and the northern West Bank will change the status quo, not solidify it. A large majority of Israelis want disengagement in order to buy us time to keep the two state solution alive, and to proceed eventually to more disengagements, either unilateral or, better, by dint of bilateral agreements.

If, as you intimate, the newly elected Palestinian leader is going to "fulfill Palestinian obligations under the roadmap on the security level"--also largely unilaterally--then while this may not "expose the shortcomings of the current unilateralist approach", it certainly will help restore Israelis' faith in the Palestinians as a partner for a bilateral process. It will also win international support for the Palestinian cause.

As I see it, under the best of circumstances we could be at such a point in about a year: Israel has withdrawn from Gaza and the West Bank, while the PLO/PA, led by Abu Mazen, has restored security. The question is, where do we go from there? Neither Abu Mazen with his devotion to the right of return, nor Sharon, who is suspicious of peace and still covets part of the West Bank and East Jerusalem, is a candidate for a final status "end of conflict" agreement. Hence, under this best case scenario, in 2006 we can either proceed with more disengagement (imagine Israel removing tens of thousands of settlers from the West Bank; this will take several years of planning and execution), which is good for both of us though not as good as a peace agreement--or Bush will have to intervene in a big way. And I wouldn't hold my breath waiting for Bush.

If, on the other hand, in the coming year we fail--meaning Abu Mazen fails at restoring security and Sharon fails at disengagement, both due to violent internal opposition--then we are looking at catastrophe, not for two or three years, but for far longer: a (pre-'94) South Africa-like reality without a (post-'94) South Africa-like solution. In that case, only massive outside intervention will resolve the conflict or even manage it.

Khatib: You are right to point out that both sides face problems in stopping the violence, but the point you seem to miss is that for Palestinians the occupation itself is an act of violence. Thus, while the Palestinian leadership will be, and already is, exerting a hundred percent effort on the security front, the failure or success of this effort depends mostly on Israel.

As such, it is Israel’s willingness to have calm that is being put to the test here. Ultimately, all sides know, or at least should know, that any solution has to be political and therefore negotiated between the two sides. Thus unilateral withdrawal is a step in the wrong direction: even though removing settlements is a desired outcome, to do so in a bid to win time and avoid political negotiations, while simultaneously expanding settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, simply sends the wrong signals.

And a ceasefire, vital to restart political negotiations, depends on signals. This is not only about violence, it is about showing a readiness to end the occupation. If the right signals are sent, if settlement building ends and expansions are frozen, if closures are lifted and assassinations end, if prisoners are released, things may move a lot faster than you seem to believe.

This brings me back to my source of optimism that you so derided originally. The above argument seems to me to be beyond question. Internationally, everyone is agreed that to end the conflict, political negotiations to end the occupation must be entered into. If it becomes clear that the Israeli government is the major obstacle to this, both internationally and domestically in Israel, pressure for a change of the Israeli leadership should become irresistible.

The Sharon-led Israeli government has failed to meet any of its objectives. If Sharon should fail to grasp the nettle now, surely that should become obvious to more secure feeling Israelis. The Palestinians are showing leadership. The international community will follow. Only Sharon remains.

Ghassan Khatib is coeditor of bitterlemons.org and bitterlemons-international.org. He is the Palestinian Authority minister of planning and has been a political analyst and media contact for many years. Yossi Alpher is coeditor of bitterlemons.org and bitterlemons-international.org. He is former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University and a former senior adviser to PM Ehud Barak.