The tragic conflagration between Israel and the Palestinians has led not only to the loss of nearly 400 lives, but, more tragically and ominously, it has shattered the basic premise of mutual trust, security and reconciliation that both sides have attempted to establish since the 1993 Oslo accord and on which peace must be based. Prime Minister Barak, Palestinian Chairman Arafat and President Clinton, pressured by the internal political dynamics of Israel and the Palestinians, contributed directly to the outburst of violence. It is hard to assess the ultimate price Israel and the Palestinians will pay for the disastrous events of the past few months. One thing, however, can be said with certainty: the next generation of Israeli-Palestinian relations will be haunted by a deep sense of distrust, anxiety and fear, regardless of any future agreement.
It is convenient and rather simplistic to blame the Palestinian rioting and violence on Likud leader Ariel Sharon’s visit to the Temple Mount/Noble Sanctuary. Even though the visit may have been ill timed, the accidental killing of a Palestinian youth by an Israeli soldier or the injury of another by a reckless Israeli driver could have triggered the same violent reaction. The Palestinian authorities were unwilling and, as the conflict assumed a life of its own, unable to quell the violence. The fact that Palestinian security personnel used their firearms against the Israelis, resulting in Israeli retaliation against Palestinian government buildings, their symbols of authority, underlines how fragile the relationship between the two parties is and how dangerously it has eroded.
A number of factors might explain the Palestinian mindset that led to this violent explosion:
First, an abundance of evidence suggests that there is a strong Palestinian constituency, consisting mostly of members of the Palestinian Resistance Movement (Hamas) and the largest and best-organized Fatah movement (founded and still led by Arafat), that has been preparing for an uprising against the Israelis. The Palestinian outburst was far from spontaneous. These groups were waiting for an opportunity to violently confront the Israelis in order to achieve what negotiations cannot – a “war of independence.” They want to create a Palestinian state not through negotiation with Israel, but through acts of defiance, blood and martyrdom.
The Palestinian determination to throw off the Israeli yoke and end the occupation was inspired, not in a small way, by Hizballah’s claim that only through continuing violent resistance was Israel forced out of southern Lebanon. Moreover, since the protracted negotiating process has not produced immediate and tangible dividends, the Palestinians in the street resorted to an uprising, knowing full well that the first intifadah (1987-1993) led to the Oslo accord. Hence, notwithstanding an agreement to end the violence that was reached first at Sharm al-Shaykh between President Clinton, Prime Minister Barak, Egypt’s President Mubarak and Chairman Arafat, and then between former Prime Minister Peres and Arafat, violence continued unabated. Concurrently, persistent calls to Arafat by Palestinians of diverse political leanings, including members of his own government, urging him to declare a Palestinian state before the guns fall silent, are being heard more and more.
Second, Prime Minister Barak, who came to power with a mandate to make peace, has failed largely because of his own actions. He established arbitrary deadlines by which to achieve an agreement with the Palestinians that he could not meet, given the intricacies of the issues involved. As a result, Barak falsely raised both Israeli and Palestinian expectations only to leave them dashed. By what logic, one might ask, could Barak have assumed that he could finalize an agreement on the status of Jerusalem, the Palestinian refugees and the future of the settlements by September 13, 2000, a deadline that he initially established? Issues of less magnitude, such as partial surrender of territories to Palestinian control, took seven years to accomplish.
What has further aggravated the situation is Barak’s inability to generate consensus about any dramatic change in the final status of the Israeli settlements in the West Bank and especially Jerusalem, not only from the Israeli public but also from his own coalition government. In fact, on the eve of Barak’s departure to the summit at Camp David in July, three parties in his coalition government, Shas, the National Religious party and Israel B’aliya, feeling that they were left in the dark, defected. Barak acted as a lone ranger, believing in his own supreme intellect and powers of persuasion. At Camp David he placed on the table all the cards he held so closely to his chest, especially about the future of Jerusalem and the fate of the settlements, without consulting with his coalition partners and without leaving himself much room for further concessions. Every negotiation he conducted failed, be it with the Palestinians, the Syrians or his own coalition partners. His only success without negotiations was the unilateral withdrawal from Lebanon. But that too blew up in his face with the abduction of three Israelis by Hizballah. Instead of focusing on turning over more land to Palestinian control, reducing the Israeli military presence, beginning the process of dismantling isolated outposts in the West Bank and increasing economic development to benefit ordinary Palestinians, Barak abandoned the Oslo process to pursue an uncharted course of negotiations. His actions thus far have raised serious doubts about his intentions and, more important, his political acumen and his grasp of the political reality in Israel and the conditions under which peace can be forged. Being the most decorated soldier provided no guarantees of political successes. Barak’s propensity for unilateral declarations and change in his public positions without careful review and without much consultation raises further questions about his understanding of the Palestinians’ mindset and how to effectively negotiate to reach an agreement.
Third, Chairman Arafat was equally guilty for misleading the Palestinian public with his repeated arbitrary deadlines for declaring a Palestinian state. He also painted himself into a corner regarding the future of the refugee problem and sovereignty over Haram al-Sharif, the Muslim holy site that is also the place of the Temple Mount, the Jew’s holiest shrine. First, he established May 1999, and then September 13, 2000, the date originally established by Barak, to finalize an agreement. Like Barak, Arafat raised expectations without producing anything tangible, thereby deepening public frustration. Moreover, Arafat’s authoritarian governing, combined with rampant corruption, the abuse of power by his lieutenants and continuing dismal economic conditions, further alienated increasing numbers of Palestinians. Arafat regularly blamed Israel for his people’s plight, a charge that was not lost on the Palestinian public. But this does not exempt Arafat from responsibility.
Arafat went to Camp David determined not to concede on any substantive issues, particularly those related to the future of the old city of Jerusalem and the complete Israeli withdrawal from all of the West Bank. Once he extracted from Barak all he could through negotiation, Arafat decided to leave it to the Palestinians in the street to do the rest. Although his encouragement of or, at least, acquiescence to the anti-Israeli violence was meant in part to distract Palestinian youth from their daily plight, Arafat has committed a grave miscalculation by allowing the street fighters to do his bidding. He has inadvertently unleashed extremist Palestinians from the right and the left to reassert their call for the complete destruction of Israel, dangerously undermining the prospect of an enduring peace agreement in the eyes of many Israelis who have otherwise been committed to peace.
Fourth, although President Clinton’s role in the peace negotiations was indispensable, his time framework was defined by his term in office. President Clinton insists that pushing for an Israeli-Palestinian accord was not motivated by concerns for his legacy as a peace maker, but by a desire to force each side to come to terms with the other’s prerequisites for peace. Considering, however, the dynamics between the two parties, American pressure on both sides to produce concessions before, during and after the Camp David summit was incompatible with the political reality on the ground and with the pace at which the Israelis and the Palestinians could move. The United States should have known that Arafat had no mandate to make major concessions on the final status of Jerusalem and that the fate of the Muslim shrines in that city touches a sensitive chord throughout the Arab and Islamic worlds. Very little, if anything, was done prior to the Camp David summit to reach out to other Arab states, especially Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan, to garner support for some compromises on Jerusalem’s final status that would be acceptable to Israel. American pressure to produce concessions, though well intended, did not lead to a breakthrough. Instead, it created the atmosphere for yet another failure. President Clinton’s dogged efforts to reach an agreement in the waning days of his presidency produced no tangible results. Finally, he conceded in a farewell address to an American Jewish group in New York City that a final settlement was highly unlikely on his watch.
The fallout from the tragic events of the past several months is difficult to measure. Before one can suggest a way out of the current morass, it is necessary to assess the psychological disposition all around as well as the new political landscape that has been shaped by these events.
The mutual trust that both sides have been attempting to develop since the 1993 Oslo accord has, for all intents and purposes, been shattered. I suspect that the loss of this initial trust is more detrimental to Israeli-Palestinian relations than even the lives and the property that have been destroyed. The atrocities – the lynching of two Israeli soldiers by a Palestinian mob; the murder of an Israeli policeman by his own Palestinian partner; the destruction of Joseph’s Tomb, which was entrusted to Palestinian security; Israeli demolition of Palestinian homes in order to build an access road for a settlement in Gaza or in retaliation for the killing of an Israeli soldier by a Palestinian sniper; the stabbing of elderly Palestinians by an Israeli settler; the assassination of Fatah leaders by the IDF; and the unending violent and often vicious tit-for-tat – all have poisoned Israeli-Palestinian relations to the point of despair. These incidents created gruesome images that have left an indelible mark on the psyches of both sides. No number of conciliatory gestures can remedy that except time and more time, perhaps years of peaceful coexistence with no violence and no overt acts of hatred. Future negotiated agreements will be conducted under a cloud of distrust and will be framed with such contingencies in mind.
The second piece of fallout is the galvanization of the Palestinian extreme right and left. Together they reassert their call for the destruction of Israel, intensifying terrorist activities against Israeli targets to further destabilize the situation and make any renewed efforts for an agreement more difficult. In Israel, the political landscape has also changed dramatically. Recent polls indicate that a clear majority of Israelis have moved to the right of center, and if Barak remains the candidate of the One Israel party, a coalition of right-wing parties could win an absolute majority in the Israeli parliament. The mere mention of a complete separation between Israel and the Palestinians, recently floated by Barak, would have been unheard of a few months ago. It sent shivers up the spines of many on both sides who see their futures inextricably linked. More disheartening is the fact that even the Peace Now movement feels dismayed and discouraged. The zeal with which the movement pursued peace in the past is gone; the Palestinians have lost their best advocate for further concessions by Israel.
The third piece of fallout is the alienation of the Israeli Palestinians and their demonstration of sympathy for and solidarity with their Palestinian brethren in the West Bank and Gaza. The outburst of violence has provided a bitter awakening to most Israelis. They were astonished to realize that 50 years of Palestinian Israeli citizenship produced, as they put it, no loyalty and no allegiance to their country. How will the Israelis deal with this minority, which feels disenfranchised and is willing to violently confront Israeli soldiers and die to make its case? Were the Israelis engaged in self-delusion about how the Israeli Palestinians really felt? And what political, economic and social remedies should this or any future Israeli government adopt to prevent Israel’s own Palestinians from becoming a fifth column in future confrontations with the Palestinians or the Arab states?
The only remaining consolation in the current Israeli-Palestinian maelstrom is the fact that most Israelis and Palestinians know deep inside that there is no viable alternative to peaceful coexistence. Resorting to more violence, more death and more destruction will only lead to the precipice of a disaster of incredible proportions. In the end, they must still face one another, come to grips with each other’s reality and engage in a more somber discussion about their inevitable joint future. Barak’s resignation on December 9, 2000, has prompted a new Israeli election for prime minister within 60 days, scheduled for February 6. Whoever wins the premiership, be it Barak, or Likud leader Ariel Sharon, the prime minister will have to form a new coalition government from the existing political parties. This will make it extremely difficult, if not impossible, to generate a consensus about a peace agreement that will reflect the will of the Israeli public and yet be acceptable to the Palestinians. Unlike the previous government, which collapsed over the peace negotiations, the new coalition government must be formed with a clear understanding of the requirements for peace, particularly in connection with the future of Jerusalem, a solution to the refugee problem and the disposition of the settlements. The more likely scenario is that the new prime minister might have to maintain damage control in relation to the Palestinians for several months until a new general election is held for parliament and for prime minister. The hope is that a general election will produce a new political alignment, providing the candidate for prime minister from either the One Israel party (formally Labor) or Likud a clear mandate to pursue peace. Either party must produce a framework for peace that has a reasonable chance of acceptance by a majority of Israelis and Palestinians.
The newly elected prime minister must continue to focus on cessation of hostilities; indeed, the Israelis might have to brace themselves for continuing violence beyond election day, as well as the prospect of a unilateral declaration of a Palestinian state. The new prime minister should develop a long-term contingency plan to deal with such an eventuality without further aggravating the situation.
Second, the new prime minister must make the evacuation of many of the settlements central to his re-election platform. No prime minister can continue to treat the problem of the settlements as a monolithic political obstacle to territorial concessions. He must prepare the Israeli public for the inevitable and make the settlers part of the solution instead of giving them the kind of false hope that led gradually and inevitably to the present disaster. To be sure, the settlements that were built to enhance Israel’s security in the West Bank and Gaza have now become an albatross. Any solution to the problem of the settlements also has to be viewed in the context of the soon-to-be established Palestinian state, which will, of necessity, require contiguous territory. Otherwise, the current security nightmare will be worsened for the Israelis.
Lack of a solution to the settlement issue will force the new prime minister to evacuate the settlements under intensified Palestinian violence. This is not to suggest that Israel will be defeated in a military sense. It will be defeated psychologically, however. The Palestinians can inflict such a heavy death-toll that they will cross the threshold deemed tolerable by Israel as a democracy. Israeli withdrawal from southern Lebanon should offer a very compelling lesson. That debacle further diminished Israel’s military credibility, a risk Israel cannot afford to repeat.
Third, the final status of Jerusalem must also be addressed head on. Any future solution must fully reflect the reality of the united city. Unlike any other place in Israel and the territories, Jerusalem has the largest interdispersed population – nearly 450,000 Jews and 190,000 Arabs. More than one third of Jerusalem’s Jewish population lives in the east side. This mixing of Israeli and Palestinian populations has made a redivision of the city inconceivable. No Israeli government could remove even a few Jews from east Jerusalem and stay in power, and no Palestinian authority will accept Israeli sovereignty over the Muslim holy shrines. East and west Jerusalem have now been fully integrated in all aspects of day-to-day life, with the social integrity of the city’s separate ethnic quarters intact.
Israel and the Palestinians should institutionalize what has already been functioning on the ground. Both sides should continue to administer their holy places as they have since Israel captured the old city in 1967. The Palestinians have been exercising de-facto sovereignty over their shrines and educational institutions. Israel should now formalize this arrangement by extending extraterritoriality to the Palestinians over the entire area called Haram al-Sharif, including much of the old city, where a majority of Palestinians reside. This solution, fashioned after the Vatican in Rome, could satisfy Muslim needs without compromising the integrity of a united city. Free access to all religious and cultural institutions must be maintained along with the free movement of people and goods between east and west at all times.
Fourth, the new prime minister must establish a commission consisting of highly respected citizens – Israeli Jews and Palestinian Arabs – to study the Israeli Palestinian grievances. An ongoing dialogue should ensue between the two sides, and appropriate economic and political steps should be taken to prevent future outbursts. Mr. Arafat, too, must come to terms with the kind of coexistence he will have to accept. He must first do everything in his power to stop the violence that has shattered the mutual trust at the heart of peaceful coexistence. Arafat must understand and accept one basic reality: Notwithstanding the Palestinians’ heavy losses, Israeli forces are responding to Palestinian provocation. Whether or not Israel’s response is proportionate remains debatable. Israeli generals insist that they are exercising maximum restraint, otherwise the loss of Palestinian lives would have been in the thousands. The continuation of violence has done the exact opposite of what many Palestinians might have contemplated. Although Arafat might have initially exacted greater concessions from Barak, the violence has stiffened the Israeli position and galvanized the right of center against any further major concessions.
Instead of flying all over the world to generate sympathy for the Palestinian cause, Arafat needs to find a way out of this vicious circle, which can only damage the Palestinians’ long-term interest. Neither the United Nations nor the European community, including Russia, nor the Arab states can bring any meaningful pressure to bear on Israel as long as Israel views this confrontation as a matter of the utmost national security.
Second, the Palestinians must understand and accept the fact that Israel cannot and will not acknowledge the right of return of the Palestinian refugees. Repatriation of Palestinians will effectively obliterate Israel as a Jewish state, a state that was created as the final refuge for the Jews. No Israeli government, whether led by Likud or Labor, will ever accept the right of return. What Israel will probably accept is the return of some 50,000-75,000 refugees in the context of family reunification and also take part in an international effort to compensate the rest. It should be up to the Palestinian Authority to establish its own guidelines about the absorption of Palestinian refugees into the soon-to-be established Palestinian state. The sooner the Palestinian Authority accepts this requirement, the quicker a final solution will be forged.
Third, Arafat should know that a unilateral declaration of a Palestinian state is not a trump card he can use against the Israelis. They have already accepted this eventuality. However, cooperating with Israel on this vital issue can only strengthen the economic security and political foundation on which the new state will stand. Finally, Arafat should demonstrate a greater appreciation of Israel’s national mindset. His intentions remain suspect, and it is up to him to try to win over anew the Peace Now movement, which is currently on the defensive. Arafat should moderate his belligerent tone against the Israelis and order his security forces to quell further anti-Israeli violence if he wants to remain a partner for peace. He should remember that Arab solidarity is fleeting, and that in the end, he still has to deal face-to-face with the Israelis.
The Bush administration must continue to focus on an end to the bloodshed and the quick return of the three Israeli soldiers from Lebanon in order to defuse the crisis and prevent the violence from spreading further. President Bush must make clear to the Palestinian and Israeli leadership that the path to peace begins by sitting across the table from each other. Furthermore, the United States would oppose any efforts on the Palestinian part to use the United Nations Security Council to censure Israel or to pass resolutions unacceptable to Israel. Only a firm U.S. position can help disabuse Arafat of the notion that he can extract concessions from Israel by other means. Although anti-American sentiment in the Middle East is high, the new administration may stand a better chance of persuading its Arab allies, especially Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan, to support a more flexible stance by Arafat. From statements made on the campaign trail in connection with Israel by the newly elected President Bush, Arafat should conclude that not much will change in American policy in the Middle East.
Finally, achieving Israeli-Palestinian peace need not be punctuated by death every step of the way. The last few months of violent clashes offer a glimpse of how calamitous the situation could become if the leaders do not quickly pull back, away from the precipice of war.