Thank you Speech of Dr. Gershon Baskin on Behalf of himself and Dr. Zakaria al Qaq at the Prize Ceremony for the Ihasn Dogramaci Peace Prize.

 

April 2, 2004  Billkent University

 

 

Our Dear Prof. Dr. Ihsan Dogramaci, Prof. Tashan, Your Excellencies, Honored Guest, the Executive Board of Bilkent University, friends and colleagues,

 

We are greatly honored by the decision of the Executive Board of Bilkent University to bestow upon us and upon IPCRI – the Israel Palestine Center for Research and Information this year’s Turkish Foreign Policy Institute’s International Relations Prize for Peace honoring Ihsan Dogramaci the founder of this great university.

 

It is a great honor for us to once again be in Turkey. During the past year, 2003, our Institute – IPCRI conducted some 25 weekend meetings of Israelis and Palestinians in Turkey. Those meetings included hundreds of Israelis and Palestinians meeting to discuss a broad range of subjects including security, economic development, water, the Road Map for peace, education for peace and the future of Jerusalem.

 

Allow us also to send our sincerest thanks to Dr. Huseyin Avni Bicakli the Consul General of Turkey in Jerusalem who has helped us tremendously in being able to bring together so many groups of Israelis and Palestinians.

 

The close proximity of Turkey to Israel and Palestine is only one of the reasons for us choosing Turkey as an ideal venue for our joint talks. Turkey with it strategic relationship with Israel in the areas of security, business and water has successfully gained the trust of the Israeli government. A large majority of Israeli citizens have visited Turkey as tourists over the past years, even several times.  They have found a beautiful country with extremely welcoming hospitality, modern facilities and the right prices. Palestinians too have found Turkey to strongly back and support Palestinian positions recognizing their legitimate political, national and religious rights for a state of their own in Palestine. The shared Islamic heritage and history also creates linkages between Turks and Palestinians. Turkey’s decision to stay out of the war in Iraq in direct defiance of President Bush inspired many Palestinians with a wish that their leaders would also stand firm and proud in the face of pressures that they perceive are against their national interests.

 

I believe that Turkey can play a positive role in out dispute. Let me suggest how after giving a brief overview of the state of affairs in Israel and Palestine.

 

The current reality, called the Al-Aqsa intifada after Ariel Sharon’s not-so-innocent visit to the Haram al-Sharif on September 28, 2000 now in its 42nd month, has left behind 3,045 Palestinians killed and some 38,000 Palestinians wounded and 942 Israelis killed and 6,286 wounded.  In addition to the blood count on both sides, the biggest casualties of the past 42 months of violence are hope and trust. The Israeli and Palestinian peoples have less hope for peace now than in the past decades.  There is less trust between Palestinians and Israelis than at anytime since immediately after the first Israeli-Arab war in 1948.

 

The Oslo peace process officially born in September 1993 officially died in September 2000 after seven years of failed peace making debilitated by a mutuality of non-implementation, non-compliance and consistent breaches of agreements negotiated laboriously with an amazing lack of goodwill and good intentions.  Peace processes, as common sense would hold, are supposed to build trust, improve people’s lives, to produce fruits in economic terms, decrease violence and increase people’s security. The Oslo peace process achieved none of the above.  In fact, quite the opposite is what happened. There is less trust now than at the beginning of the peace process. Israelis and Palestinians alike are less well off economically and they all share a great loss of personal security. It is no wonder that both Israelis and Palestinians feel great distain towards those who initiated and advanced the process. The great irony is that the initiators of the Oslo peace process are not the one’s responsible for the failure of the process. Those who opposed the process from the very beginning are those who systematically led to its demise and failure and now place the blame at the door steps of others. Those who opposed Oslo from the beginning are now in power in Israel, having contributed to the destruction of the peace process; they inherited the political power in order to lead the war against the Palestinians. It is also no wonder that with such very high expectations and hopes for peace following all of the international attention and peace festivals around Oslo, including Nobel Peace Prizes, the public disappointment on both sides from the failures has led to such a high level of despair, anger, fear, loss of hope and even hatred between Israelis and Palestinians. And now, a new generation of young Israelis and Palestinians is living another chapter in the narrative of conflict adding new scars and wounds to those of the past generations.

 

In the attempts to reinvent a peace process and to end the violence, the international community put its name (and very little weight) behind a series of plans and proposals beginning with the Sharm Sheikh summit in October 2000, followed by the Mitchell Report in April 2001, the Tenet Work Plan in June 2001, President Bush’s presentation of his vision for a two-state solution in June 2002 and finally the Road Map for Peace in April 2003[1]. At the time of this writing, it seems that the Road Map is just one of many Middle East peace plans that have been placed to rest in the refuse heap of history. Curiously, almost all officials – Israelis, Palestinians, Americans, Europeans and others refuse to officially bury the Road Map. So for the sake of prudence it might be more appropriate to say that the Road Map is in a state of coma and that the doctors are on holiday.

 

In the absence of any real international peace making efforts and in attempt to draw away attention from the failures of Prime Minister Sharon’s election promises for security and peace, and of course, from the latest accumulation of evidence of corruption by Sharon and his sons, a new Middle East miracle plan for ending the violence and creating stability has been born - unilateral disengagement. The thinking is based on the following: there is no Palestinian partner for negotiating an agreement; the Palestinians are not fighting against terror; the Gaza strip is a closed and confined area suffering a population explosion, an economic disaster, and rising Islamic fundamentalism; Israel has never had any real intention to annex Gaza (unlike the West Bank); continuing to occupy Gaza is unpopular, costly and without a future; so….. the best option is to cut one’s losses and withdraw, disengage, close the border and redeploy behind the fence.  The main problem with this plan is that no one has any idea what will develop after Israel ends its 37 year occupation of Gaza.

 

Will chaos emerge? Will Hamas take over? Will the Palestinian Authority govern? Will violence against Israel emanating from Gaza cease? Will Gaza be able to feed itself? Will Gaza’s borders with Israel and Egypt remain open or closed? Will the Palestinians be able to reopen their international airport? Will they be able to complete the construction of their seaport? Will there be international observers or peacekeepers? Along with the equally elusive question: Is Sharon serious? Will he actually withdraw from Gaza and remove all of the 21 Jewish settlements where more than 5,000 Jews live among 1.3 million Palestinians?

 

This is what is known at the present – Sharon seems completely determined to implement his disengagement plan. Israel is negotiating on the implementation of the plan, but with the US Government and not with the Palestinians. Sharon is desperately trying to gain political assets behind the plan in order to ward off revolt against him and his plan from within his own camp – the Israeli right wing.  He has asked the US to support future Israeli annexation of settlement blocks in the West Bank. The US will never agree to this (and Sharon knows it well). Sharon is also trying to extract from President Bush an explicit US commitment against any future Palestinian refugee return to Israel proper. The US President could make mention of his own belief without steering away from his June 2002 vision that any future return by Palestinian refugees should be only to the future Palestinian state and not to Israel. That would fall short of a US Government commitment but nevertheless could sell well in Sharon’s propaganda campaign in favor of withdrawal and disengagement. 

 

The unknowns and unpredictables on the immediate horizon include questions such as: will Sharon survive the criminal investigations against himself and his children?[2] If Sharon is indicted, will he resign or stay glued to his seat in the Prime Minister’s office – the Israeli law is a bit obscure on this point.  Politically it is hard to imagine that he would remain, legally he is, apparently not bound to resign. What would happen if Sharon is indicted? He could resign, although he has said that he won’t. He could suspend himself for up to 100 days and demand a speedy trial during which time his deputy Minister of Trade, Industry, Employment and Communication, Ehud Olmert would take over.  Olmert is Sharon’s strongest ally on the disengagement plan; however it is doubtful that Olmert would be capable of gaining as much support for the plan within the Likud party that Sharon might be able to gain.  If Sharon did resign, the President of Israel would ask Sharon’s successor within the Likud to form a government within 4 days. Sharon’s successor in the party could be chosen in a primary of all Likud members or in the 7,500 member Central Committee.  In either case, Finance Minister and former Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu is most likely to win. Netanyahu is considered a hardliner even in comparison to Sharon and he is likely to scrap the disengagement plan.

 

Other immediate unknowns and unpredictables include the dimensions of Palestinian revenge for the Sheikh Yassin assassination.  All experts agree that revenge will come; however no one can predict its scale, when it will come, where it will hit and when it will be “enough”.  If Hamas and its allies succeed in committing a “mega terror attack” against an Israeli strategic target or of a scale that kills many tens and perhaps hundreds of Israelis, Israeli revenge attacks would most likely include direct action against Yasser Arafat, including the possibility of his assassination.  The general lack of continued Palestinian popular mass demonstrations and unrest following the assassination of Yassin coupled with a rather limited international reaction could in fact lead the heads of Israeli security personnel and the Israeli Security Cabinet to support the assassination of Arafat, thinking that Palestinian and international reaction would be must less aggressive than originally predicted.

 

Less immediate unknowns and unpredictable variables that weigh heavily on the Israeli-Palestinian agenda include the future of President Bush. The US bogged down in Iraq is creating serious difficulties for Bush’s campaign. A victory for Senator Kerry in the US elections in November would put the Middle East agenda on hold at least until March 2005 (according to the Road Map the final stage three is supposed to be implemented by June 2005). Kerry has stated that he will appoint a special US envoy for the Middle East peace process – “someone like President Clinton”. That would certainly be a change of direction from the very low level of Bush’s engagement. Of course a Bush victory would probably mean more of the same – continued general support for Israel and its policies, continued US animosity and boycott of Yasser Arafat and a general low level of involvement and a lack of peace initiatives.

 

Another unknown and unpredictable concerns Arafat himself. Someday the man is no longer going to be in power – either because of illness or death – natural or by other means. The complete monopolization of Palestinian power politics by Arafat since 1968 is a well known phenomenon, albeit very difficult to comprehend. The sudden absence of Arafat from the Palestinian stage will create so many unknowns and unpredictables that even the top policy analysts and Middle East experts can only imagine what might develop. One thing is for sure, no single Palestinian leader will hold all of the titles and authorities that are in the hands of Arafat today. Most analysts today suggest that the vacuum created by Arafat’s absence will be so large that chaos will ensue and power struggles will emerge between various “war lords”, militia and political forces throughout the Palestinian territories. This may or may not happen along with a large variety of other possibilities. There are no clear and sure answers for what will happen and therefore every possible analysis is equally probable with the same low level of certainty.

 

In conclusion, at the beginning of the spring 2004 the Israeli-Palestinian conflict remains in a state of cycles of violence with no end in sight.  The Israeli and Palestinian publics demonstrate very little determination to force their governments to come to terms with each other. Both sides seem committed to wish more suffering upon the other side. Long term initiatives like the Geneva Accords seem little more than virtual dreams against the harsh realities of daily life. There seem to be no real incentives to create official re-engagement.

 

The Palestinian political and economic reforms launched in accordance with the Road Map did not produce an independent Palestinian Prime Minister and a unified Palestinian security regime under the political authority of the Prime Minister.  Chairman Arafat is still in control of Palestinian affairs although the control of the Palestinian streets and society is far from the control of any political leader. Israel and the United States refuse to engage and recognize Arafat as the only Palestinian leader who might be possible of waging peace.  They simply believe that he will not and they assert that the evidence all points to Arafat’s direct involvement in spreading and using terrorism.  Israel continues to respond by assassinations and by constructing the separation barriers around Palestinian territories. Rapidly a mesh of separate Israeli and Palestinian ghettos are being formed. It is questionable whether or not Israeli society will be capable of sustaining the human and economic resources necessary to secure more than 700 kilometers of walls and fences. And Palestinian determination for freedom and liberation will not diminish in the face of increased human suffering, personal and national humiliation.  In conjunction with this very bleak outlook there doesn’t seem to be any new peace minded leaders or leadership on the Israeli or Palestinian horizons.

 

With all of this in mind, we come to the question asked at the beginning – can there be a role for Turkey?  We believe that Turkey, along with other trusted and respected parties could play a positive role – particularly if and when the plans for Israeli disengagement from Gaza emerge and become real. This is a question that perhaps the Turkish Foreign Policy Institute would like to pursue in greater depth together with our center – we warmly invite your collaboration on a such a joint policy study.

 

Once again, thank you very much for the prize that we have decided to dedicate towards peace education between young Israelis and Palestinians.

 


 

[1] The Road Map was actually completed more than six months prior to the date on which it was issued, however the US government held back its introduction as part of its own negotiations with the other so-called Quartet partners (the EU, the UN and Russia).

[2] The State Prosecutor has drafted an indictment for corruption against Sharon and the Attorney General must now decide whether or not to proceed with the indictment.