The Nightmare Must End 

Gershon Baskin

 

Another ten Israelis and ten Palestinians have lost their lives over the past two days because their leaders continue to act irresponsibly. The scandalous behavior of the leaders of Israel and Palestine continues to promise more violence, destruction and death to both peoples.  Empty talk of security, peace, ending terror, jihad, and victory remain slogans who's sole purpose is intoxicate the listeners and to freeze the ability to think of many who are beginning to wake up and become conscious in the midst of this nightmare.

The two sides are working on the basis of a kind of logic that when detached from other considerations, could seem reasonable. The Israelis view the situation as a war against terrorism.  Strengthened by the terror of Bin Laden, Israel views itself as part of the international coalition fighting terrorism on the front line.  For Israeli policy makers, the Palestinian's war against Israel has no real political basis. Israeli leaders see the Palestinian battle against Israel as an existential war.  In their minds, the Palestinians are determined to destroy Israel. From their view, Israel offered the Palestinians almost 100% of what they demanded, the Palestinians rejected the "generous" Israeli offers, didn't make their own offers in negotiations, launched the intifada, and therefore, it is clear to them (the Israelis) that they (the Palestinians) are committed to the total destruction of Israel.  Israeli leaders contend that the Palestinians are powered by what they (the Palestinians) believe to be a military success against Israel in South Lebanon and have now adopted the strategies and tactics of Hizballah and are aiming to push Israel into the sea.   

On the basis of this analysis, Israeli policy makers have come up with the following strategy:

  • No negotiations under fire
  • No concessions as a result of violence
  • Targeting the Palestinian Authority first and terrorists second
  • Applying pressure on the Palestinian population so that they will apply pressure on their leaders
  • Placing a siege on Arafat directly in order to weaken his authority and prestige
  • Targeted killings against those who are either directly involved in attacks against Israel or against those who inspire others to attack Israel
  • And now after the recent Palestinian “successes” further military escalation.

The Palestinian thinking is based on the idea that Israel only understands the logic of power and not the power of logic. From their perspective, the Palestinian demands in negotiations were completely reasonable and should have been understood by Israel from the beginning of the peace process.  The basic Palestinian position did not change from September 13, 1993 until today: the total evacuation by Israel of the territories conquered by Israel in 1967 – the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip. From the EU document of Ambassador Morotinos summarizing the Taba talks, we know that the Palestinians were willing to compromise on their claimed sovereignty over Israeli neighborhoods/settlements in East Jerusalem within the municipal boundaries. The Palestinians were willing to make some territorial compromises and were willing to engage in territorial exchanges on an equitable basis.  There were in principle agreements on security arrangements and even on the refugee issue there was Palestinian willingness to find a solution that would be acceptable to Israel. In their view, they acted responsibility and engaged in real negotiations. 

From the Palestinian point of view, the demonstrations after the Sharon visit to Haram al Sharif in September 2000 were faced with unreasonable brutality by Israel. According to Palestinians, Israeli snipers killed demonstrators indiscriminately bringing the death toll to disproportionate dimensions. Palestinian anger fueled the intifada and violence met violence.  As the Palestinian death toll rose, and as the economic pressures came to their full force on the Palestinian public, the heroes of Palestine became those who were successful in extracting similar pain on Israelis.  The blood count of “body for body” became a modus vivendi of it own. Palestinian policy makers built their strategy on gaining international support against Israeli brutality.  They did not expect, however, that September 11 would change all international equations and totally undermine their strategy.  Frustrated by a lack of success in gaining international support, the strategy on the ground turned to focusing on suicide bombers aimed at hurting Israel as much as possible, creating panic and grounding the Israeli economy to a halt as a result of Israel having to focus its total attention on its security situation.

The Palestinian leadership continues to condemn suicide terrorists who are killing innocent Israelis. Palestinian Authority police have been given orders to arrest Hamas and Jihad terrorists, but continued Israeli attacks and in particular the targeted killings have created a total lack of legitimacy on the Palestinian street for arresting those who fight against Israel. The Palestinian Authority, with a few exceptions, has not gone after the main leaders of the terrorists organizations, choosing to go after the "smaller fish", but even these are not brought to trial. 

Over the past two weeks it seems that the Palestinian organizations have created a united front and have decided to focus their struggle mainly against Israeli soldiers and Israeli settlers in the West Bank and Gaza. This seems to be a kind of victory for the "national" forces (as opposed to the Islamic forces).  The "national forces" led by Fatah have believed for some time that the tactics and strategy of the intifada must be directed against the occupation and not against Israeli civilians inside of Israel.  From this logic, by extracting a high price by killing soldiers, Israeli public support for evacuation of the West Bank and Gaza will grow, as it did on South Lebanon. By attacking settlers, many settlers, the believe, will leave the settlements and return to Israel proper. Those who decide to stay will grow increasingly unpopular in Israel as the wider Israeli public begins to view the settlements as an unnecessary security burden taking great financial and human resources.

Alongside of the intifada strategy, the Palestinian leadership has apparently decided to once again reach out to the Israel public aimed at regaining Israeli public support for a peace process based on the June 4, 1967 lines. Palestinians have re-launched their contacts with Israeli at many levels and there has been a huge wave of activities taking place over the past two months. (I wrote about this about 2 months ago in a piece called "Winds of Change" – see IPCRI web page: www.ipcri.org).

  • It seems that the Palestinian strategy can be seen as the following:
  • De-legitimizing the Israeli occupation in all arenas
  • Forcing Israelis to view the settlements as the main enemy of peace
  • Declaring support for the international war on terrorism while disassociating the Palestinian struggle from definitions of terrorism
  • Supporting attacks against soldiers and settlers who are view as armed militia as a legitimate struggle against occupation as opposed to terrorism which is not legitimate
  • Appealing to the international community to intervene and to force Israel to accept international observers and the implementation of international security Council resolutions.

The internal logic of the positions of both sides when detached from each other might make sense. When combined, the internal logic of both sides creates a total deadlock who's end result can only be what we have today – a continuation of the bloodshed and violence with absolutely no exit strategy in the makings. The pattern of action and reaction, escalation and cooling off period and then further escalation cannot be broken through the internal logic and the strategies of both sides. What we have today, more than 20 deaths in two days, is what we will continue to have – until there is a change of leadership or until the publics feel that we have reached rock bottom.  We have not yet reached rock bottom and the death toll will continue to rise.

With the deadlock between the sides there has been a fury of international and local attempts to develop plans aimed at rescuing the sides from themselves.  Let's have a look at what's out there:

The Mitchell report and the Tenant plan for implementation.  The basis of this plan is after a 7 day total cease fire, there will be a six week cooling off period during which time the situation on the ground will return to what it was prior to September 28, 2000. Then a period of confidence building measures including a freeze of Israeli settlement building and then a return to negotiations.  The main advantage of this plan is that it is supported by the US government, the EU and the UN Secretary-General. It has been called “the only game in town”.   The Palestinians officially accepted it and while there is no Israeli government decision accepting the Mitchell report, Sharon did state in the Knesset that he accepts it.  The main disadvantage of the plan is that it lacks any real political incentives for the Palestinians.  The freezing of settlements and a Sharon statement that he is willing to grant the Palestinian sovereignty over 42% of the West Bank is hardly the kind of incentives that would enable them to explain to the Palestinian people that they have paid such a dear price for so little. Additionally, each time that the Palestinian leadership makes real efforts to achieve seven days of total quiet, this is upset by another targeted killing by Israel which instantaneously brings about a new round of violence.

The Peres-Abu A'la plan – this is a plan for the establishment of a Palestinian state immediately in the territories controlled by the Palestinians (apparently referring to areas "a" and "b"), ending the intifada and beginning a new round of final status negotiations that would conclude within one year with the possibility of leaving Jerusalem and the refugees issue for a later time. According to Abu A'la the final status negotiations would be based on the June 4, 1967 borders and according to Peres on UN Security Council Resolution 242.  The main advantage of this formula is that it would bring about an immediate change in the status quo.  It would probably bring about an immediately end to the intifada.  It would lead to new elections in Palestine which would be recognized as a sovereign state and gain full membership in the United Nations.  With this plan, the rules of the game change.  A sovereign Palestinian state places responsibilities of statehood on its leaders and limits the kinds of unilateral steps that Israel could take against the Palestinian state. The main disadvantage of this plan is first that it seems to have been rejected by the "peace camps" on both sides.  It does not seem to have a following and the personal reputations on both Abu A'la and Peres as tarnished in the eyes of both publics for having been behind the Oslo agreements themselves. Furthermore, the delay in dealing with Jerusalem and Refugees means that there will not be an “end of conflict” agreement resulting from the process leaving open the possibilities of future armed disputes.

The French Plan – the Foreign Minister of France with the support of most of the EU countries has put forth a plan which is based on the immediate elections for a new government in the Palestinian state and negotiations on final status between the governments of Israel and Palestine which would lead to the establishment of a Palestinian state, without an immediate territorial definition, recognition by Israel and the international community of the state of Palestine. It seems that within the French plan the Palestinian state would be declared within the June 4, 1967 borders but the negotiations on this would have to be concluded between the two states. This plan is essentially a further elaboration of the Peres-Abu A'la plan. The main advantages of this plan are that it immediately changes the status quo.  It enables the Palestinian people to express itself at the polls.  It hopes to encourage Palestinians leaders to put forth a peace platform in the elections and it hopes that the advocates of peace will be elected. The main disadvantages of the plan are that the UK and the US have rejected it. The results of Palestinian elections without a promise of real peace may actually bring about the election of the fundamentalists who would then be empowered to govern Palestine and to negotiate with the government of Israel – not a very promising negotiation.

The Israeli government plan – there is none.  Sharon is interested in a long-term interim agreement.  Ben Eliezer claims that he is working on his own plan – but no one has a clue as to what that could be.

The Palestinian Authority Plan – return to negotiations immediately from the point that they ended. ‘

 

What seem to be the immediate interests of the sides?

The Israelis state that their primary interest is in bringing security back to the people of Israel. This is being done by targeting the Palestinian Authority through the siege placed on Chairman Arafat, the bombing of Palestinian Authority military installations, the policy of a “light finger on the trigger”, the invasion of PA controlled areas, the weakening of PA institutions through targeting them as well for military attacks, ransacking Palestinian Authority offices, confiscating computers, data, equipment in those offices. The Israeli government’s policies also aim at putting pressure on the Palestinian public by closures, check points, severe limitations on movement, limitations on the movement of goods and capital, etc.  

The Israeli army is fully entrenched throughout the territories facing the need to protect settlements and settlers and now facing the reality that they must deploy many more troops to protect the troops that are already there.  The IDF makes wide use of secret and undercover units and relies heavily on it intelligence gathering mechanisms – mainly the Shin Bet (the GSS) who must also depend on massive deployment of troops to facilitate their work. Lately the IDF has widened its policy of arrests and imprisonment to massive levels. Almost weekly, government spokespeople in Israel speak about new tactics and strategies that will put an end to terrorism. With the growing escalation and the increase in casualties, there are more and more calls in Israel from the left and the right for Prime Minister Sharon to recognize that his tactics and strategies are not working.

The primary Palestinian interest is to end the Israeli occupation and to end what they call the strangulation of the Israeli army on Palestinian life. The Palestinians seem incapable of implementing a coherent strategy directed from the top-down.  There has been a significant weakening of the Palestinian Authority’s ability to function.  The siege on Arafat rather than weakening him and raising the possibility for an internal Palestinian demand to replace him, has brought about the exact opposite result: Arafat is more popular today and enjoys more public support than at any time in the past years.  The weakening of the Palestinian Authority and its security organs has led to a decentralized chaotic situation where the central authority has little ability to impose its will. Speeches made by Arafat seem to be interpreted by various players throughout the territories as having messages behind them for specific actions that are being encouraged by the central authority.  At the same time, confusing messages are being given by an explicit green light to re-engage Israelis in dialogue  and more importantly by high level meetings between Palestinian Authority officials and the most senior Israeli officials, including the Prime Minister himself. Alongside of that and as a result of several recent military “successes” by Palestinian fighters, its seems obvious that Palestinian resistance groups will escalate their attacks against soldiers and settlers and virtually no one on the Palestinian side can take opposition to that.

In the absence of one plan or initiative that is acceptable to both sides and in the absence of a strong American political will to intervene, there seems to be little real hope for a change on the ground. The internal political situation in Israel keeps Sharon’s highest priority on keeping the National Unity Government in place.  This is because of Netanyahu breathing down Sharon’s neck from the right and an awakening peace camp in Israel from the left.  Sharon seems to maneuver in this situation by his military policies and making no compromises on the “no negotiations under fire” line while at the same time allowing and even encouraging Shimon Peres to hold “peace talks” with people like Abu A’la. This won’t last forever, because of growing dissent within the Likud and Netanyahu’s aggressive mobilization of support in the Likud and the far right wing – mainly amongst the settlers. When primaries are held in the Likud, it seems that Sharon will lose against Netanyahu and therefore, Sharon’s main strategic goal is his political survival for as long as possible within the National Unity Government.  The recent increase in Israeli casualties without any real solution to limit or prevent them will place increasing pressure on Sharon.

The inability of the Labour Party to revive itself after the huge defeat of Barak last year means that there is no significant organized opposition in Israel to the National Unity Government and therefore, the Labour party, led now by Ben Eliezer also seems intent on staying in the partnership with Sharon as long as possible.

If Netanyahu defeats Sharon in the Likud, there is a very likely chance that in the next Israeli elections we will see a new “centralist” party in Israel headed jointly by Sharon and Ben Eliezer that will run against Netanyahu and the Likud on the right and Meretz and the Arab parties on the left.

 

So where to from here?

Increased Israeli casualties will increase the support of the call in Israel to leave the territories and to remove the settlers.  This, however, will remain quite limited and even marginal in terms of effecting Israeli policy, unless it is coupled with a new Palestinian peace initiative.  Given the increased pressure that Israel is likely to put on the Palestinian public and the Authority, this is very unlikely. 

The Israeli army is likely to begin a new move to “sweep” throughout the territories confiscating weapons, further destroying Palestinian Authority installations, and arresting tens of thousands of Palestinians. Israel is also likely to severely further limit Palestinian movement within the territories by declaring more and more roads as being off-limits to Palestinian vehicles. Irrespective of all of these steps, Palestinian fighters will continue to achieve “successes” in hitting Israeli targets.

 

What should supporters of Peace do? 

It seems clear to me that we must bring about a change to the status quo.  This can be done by rallying around any one of the peace proposals being put forth. The details are much less important than the urgent need to break the cycle of violence.  We must call much more aggressively for international involvement mainly by the United States.  The upcoming visit of Vice President Cheney should be used as a starting date for launching an Israeli-Palestinian joint effort to get the Americans to put their weight and support behind a peace plan that must state explicitly that the end goal is an end of conflict agreement based on the establishment of a Palestinian State next to Israel, the end of the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza and the resolution of the issues of Jerusalem and the refugees problem based on the Clinton Principles. An American Presidential initiative is necessary with the backing of the European Union and the United Nations to force the sides to implement an immediate cease fire.  Only with the kind of incentives that this type of initiative could bring would the implementation of the Mitchell Report and the Tenant plan be possible.  Since this is the only agreed upon plan at the present, and the US produced those plans, the American initiative should begin with that but go beyond that with a more explicit expected final outcome. This effort of the Israeli and Palestinian supporters of peace much be coordinated and orchestrated with allies in the United States and in Europe.

In light of the probability that no positive action will come from the side of government in Israel and Palestine, the actions and plans of the peace camp must be unified, articulate and forceful and it must include and focus on direct and immediate US Presidential involvement.