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By Alon Ben-Meir, Ph.D.
Israel's momentous withdrawal from Gaza and the ceasefire
agreement between Israel and the Palestinians, while substantially reducing
the level of violence in the past eight months, have not produced the
hoped-for momentum to propel the peace process forward. The two parties have
remained stuck, unable to overcome the repercussions of the second
Intifadah--which left the Israelis deeply scarred psychologically and thrust
the Palestinians into an unruly situation in the territories. This explains
to a large degree why since the Gaza withdrawal in mid-August, Prime
Minister Sharon and President Abbas have been unable to meet because they
cannot agree on an agenda that deals with their respective priorities.
If one talks to Israeli and Palestinian officials and academics
and observes the political and social combustion in both societies, as I
have been doing, it is impossible to escape the fact that Israelis' and
Palestinians' misconstrued perception of each other's positions has led them
to draw incompatible conclusions about the situation.
Thus, for the Israelis
there is a growing sense of resignation over a Palestinian reality they
cannot change-an attitude that promotes the ideas of further unilateral
disengagement, while for mainstream Palestinians, there is bewilderment over
the inability of Israelis to grasp the historic opportunity to peacefully
and permanently end their decades-old violent conflict. These incompatible
perceptions obviously aggravate the Israeli-Palestinian relationship,
affecting the policies of both sides in fundamental ways and hindering any
progress. Here are some of the issues that have created serious divide
between the two sides:
Hamas' participation in the national election: Israeli demands
that the Palestinian Authority disarm Hamas and bar it from participating in
the national elections scheduled for next January, have met with stiff
resistance by the Palestinian Authority. For Israel, Hamas is a terrorist
organization whose actions have resulted in hundreds of Israeli casualties
through suicide bombings and mortar attacks; it follows then that it should
not become part of the political process. But to the Palestinian Authority,
Hamas represents a significant constituency and, although Mr. Abbas rejects
the organization's strategy of violence, he is unwilling to challenge Hamas
at this juncture, partly because he is unable and partly because he prefers
to co-opt it into the political process and so avoid more bloodshed.
addition, the Palestinians argue that they need more time to sort out their
internal problems, insisting that decades of occupation and violent
conflict, especially since the eruption of the second Intifadah five years
ago, have left much of the Palestinian territories socially, politically,
and structurally in ruin. And, even though, as a Palestinian official told
me, "Co-opting Hamas politically may entail certain risks, because in its
present form it offers an alternative to Fatah, Mr. Abbas feels strongly
that only through a political process will Hamas moderate its behavior, and
this is a risk worth taking."
Moreover, allowing political pluralism by
letting everyone participate in the election makes it more legitimate. Then,
as Mr. Abbas recently stated, "All groups will become a part of the
Palestinian political fabric and thus create a new phase in the life of the
Palestinians." Whether these arguments resonate with the Israelis, the truth
is that Israel cannot dictate who may or may not participate in a democratic
Roadblocks and national security: Another serious point of
contention is caused by the Israeli roadblocks and the consequent
restriction on Palestinian mobility. The tremendous hardship, suffering, and
humiliation that they produce incite even more resistance and hatred toward
Israel. Although the Israeli government agrees that many roadblocks and the
construction of separate roads to reduce contact between Israelis and
Palestinians traveling in the West Bank do cause hardship and are not
conducive to a neighborly relationship, it argues that they are necessary to
the security of the Israeli people.
In a conversation I had with Sharon's
spokesperson Ra'anan Gissin, he said: "Every time we ease Palestinian
mobility by removing roadblocks, as we have done many times in the past and
especially in recent months, a terrorist act is attempted and often
succeeds. . . . As long as the Palestinian Authority cannot control the
situation and prevent extremists from attacking us, we are left with no
choice but to take measures, however disdained they may be."
But Mr. Abbas
counters such a view, insisting that "peace and security cannot be
guaranteed by the construction of walls, by the erection of checkpoints and
confiscation of land, but rather by recognition of rights." Mr. Sharon's
response to this argument is that after the trauma of pulling settlers out
of Gaza, Israel cannot act to help the Palestinians unless Mr. Abbas does
more to disarm Hamas and other militant groups.
Targeted killing and ceasefire: An added source of disagreement
is Palestinian complaints that Israel is continuing with its policy of
targeted killings, while demanding simultaneously that Palestinian violence
must stop. Many Palestinians agree that no attack against any Israeli target
is justified, but they add that the Israeli retaliations are
disproportionate and simply inflame ordinary Palestinians and therefore
perpetuate the vicious cycle of violence.
Naturally, the Israelis see the
situation differently: they maintain that targeting killing has ended with
the ceasefire agreement, but, as another Sharon advisor explained to me, "
When we are fired upon without provocation or when we know of a plot of a
suicide bombing, we have no choice but to act and stop the perpetrator.
Unfortunately, the Palestinian security forces seem incapable of doing
anything about it, and we end up burying our dead."
But to the Palestinians,
this sort of argument only proves that the Israeli government is missing
the point altogether: According to Khalil Shikaki, Director of the
Ramallah-based Center for Policy and Survey Research, 77% of Palestinians
strongly support the continuation of the ceasefire and, despite their
attributing Israel's withdrawal from Gaza to Hamas' violent resistance,
their support for the Palestinian Authority has increased from 44 to 47
percent between June and September, approval of Hamas actually decreased
from 33 to 30 percent.
The respected Palestinian pollster Nabil Kukali,
Director of the Palestinian Center for Public Opinion, suggests that Israel
must capitalize on this dramatic public opinion shift and provide economic
support to encourage greater openness so that the withdrawal from Gaza is
seen by Palestinians as a political watershed and a genuine opportunity for
the economic development that they need so desperately to move forward.
The expansion of settlements: Israel's expansion of settlements
in the West Bank, is a critical point of contention which raises serious
questions in the minds of the Palestinians about its ultimate intentions and
the huge effect the settlements will have on a future Palestinian state. For
Israel, however, the expansion of certain settlements is needed for natural
growth, specifically those settlements that the Israeli government intends
to incorporate into Israel proper in any final agreement, such as Ma'aleh
On the whole, of course, the settlements have been an albatross
around Israel's neck and have only aggravated the conflict with the
Palestinians who view every Israeli house built on Palestinian land as a
usurpation of their inherited rights to that land. The Palestinians argue
against the Israeli view in this matter, insisting that any final accord
must be negotiated by mutual agreement and no unilateral Israeli action can
determine the final borders.
The fence: It is in the context of the land issue that the
Palestinians vehemently disagree with Israel about the building of the
fence, which they say encroaches on Palestinian lands, causing undue
hardship, and so prevents any prospect for the development of productive and
healthy relations. Israel's response has been to point to the undisputable
evidence that the fence has substantially reduced terrorist infiltrations in
Israel, especially by suicide bombers, and the government has a solemn
responsibility to protect its citizens at whatever cost. The fence can be
removed once the Palestinians prove that they are good and peaceful
Although both sides make cogent arguments, what lies behind each
position they take are their decades-long tragic experiences culminating in
the second Intifadah which shattered any semblance of mutual trust. One
result is that there is very little room for good faith gestures. If trust
is a means by which to manage risks, Israel seems unwilling to risk trusting
its security to the Palestinian Authority, especially when Hamas and Islamic
Jihad continue to profess their desire to destroy Israel.
Israeli government is encouraged by Mr. Abbas's commitment to a peaceful
solution; however, it has not seen any strong evidence that he can deliver
on his promises. Mr. Sharon also faces a rebellious party that rose up
against him because of his decision to withdraw from Gaza. He needs to
consolidate his position before next year's elections and is therefore
unwilling to compromise on national security as long as some Palestinian
factions continue to kill Israelis.
For the Palestinians, Israel's withdrawal from Gaza offers a
momentous opportunity to rebuild an infrastructure decimated by five years
of violent conflict. Mr. Abbas, who was among the very first Palestinians to
confess out loud that the Intifadah brought only destruction to the
Palestinians, correctly sought a ceasefire to begin a meaningful dialogue
with the Israelis. Unfortunately, his success in this regard, although real,
has fallen far short of Israel's expectations.
The Gaza that Israel left is
now made up of a variety of militant gangs, refugee camps, and Hamulah; it
is a place where the "democracy of the rifle" prevails. Mr. Abbas is banking
on the upcoming Palestinian national elections to solidify his position and
consolidate his security forces, but he has to show that his policy of
reconciliation with Israel is paying off. For this he needs some important
Israeli concessions, including release of prisoners, removal of roadblocks,
the reopening of the Rafah border crossing between Egypt and Gaza, and the
turning over to Palestinian control of cities in the West Bank: above all,
he needs to improve the economic lot of ordinary Palestinians. For much of
this to happen depends, of course, on Israeli goodwill.
The present pace of
change is slow and frustrating, because the violence remains prevalent and
consuming and the psychological hang-ups inhibit bold initiative. Moreover,
the Bush administration's preoccupation with Iraq has prevented it from
playing a decisive role and avoided pressuring either sides or both to meet
each other's urgent requirements. Instead, it has basically settled on a
holding pattern hoping to avoid major eruption of renewed violence.
Although both Abbas and Sharon are committed to peace and seek
to promote it, their differing assessments of the prevailing political and
on-the-ground conditions, both in the territories and in Israel, prevent
them from seeing eye-to-eye on how to proceed. They are, however, cognizant
of an historic opportunity that neither can afford to miss. They must
demonstrate a greater capacity for appreciation and understanding of each
other's dilemmas and begin to support each other by agreeing on small
constructive but irreversible steps, on which to build a structure for peace
strong enough to withstand the test of the day-to-day uncertainties.
Alon Ben-Meir is professor of international relations at the Center for
Global Affairs and is the Middle East Project Director at the World Policy
Institute, New York.
from the November 2005 Edition of the Jewish Magazine