It’s either negotiations or violence – there is no third way

Gershon Baskin*

 

Friday, March 24, 2006

 

 

The main challenge facing the next government of Israel will remain the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. There have never been magic formulas to resolve the conflict and even in the era of unilateralism, there are no magic wands that Israeli politicians can wave in the air and make the conflict go away.

 

Unilateralism developed in an atmosphere created by Israeli so-called “security experts” who manipulated politicians with imbedded anti-Palestinian sentiments that there is no partner for peace on the Palestinian side. The notion that Yasser Arafat planned and launched the intifada as a political strategy cannot be proven by any real intelligence information. Israeli security officials distorted intelligence assessments that clearly pointed that Arafat went to Camp David and came back from Camp David committed to reaching a negotiated agreement. After the breakdown of negotiations and the Israeli-US attempt to place 100% of the blame for failure on Arafat, he allowed to intifada to carry on without taking decisive steps to rein it in as a tactical move. Arafat’s bad choice was faced with a disproportionate Israeli aggressive military response and a huge amount of civilian casualties in the first weeks of the intifada. Arafat could not contain the Palestinian public’s anger which was too strong to reel in without a full Israeli ceasefire. Israel refused to order a ceasefire until Arafat took full control of the violence.  The “catch 22” cycle of violence led to Barak’s downfall – even though he continued to negotiate while the violence continued.  Once Barak lost the elections and Sharon allowed battalion commanders to have a free hand, invading Palestinian controlled areas and taking the battle to fight against the Palestinian police and security forces that were not part of the fighting, the wave of suicide bombers was released that led to real Israeli casualties and produced the Israeli demand of seven days of quiet before any talks would take place.

 

Even when Abu Mazen succeeded as Prime Minister to bring about a hudna and there were several months of calm which ended with the mistaken decision to kill Fatah leader Raed Carmi, Sharon refused to recognize Arafat or Abu Mazen as a partner and then came the unilateral disengagement from Gaza. Against all advice from experts on Palestinian affairs, Sharon refused to engage Abu Mazen after the death of Arafat.  The great hopes from the Sharm el Sheikh Summit never emerged and Abu Mazen and the Palestinian Authority remained persona non-grata even after Abu Mazen, as President of the Palestinian Authority, delivered a speech that could have been written by Sharon’s speech writers. Instead of delivering Gaza to Abu Mazen and to the ideology of diplomacy and negotiations, Gaza was delivered to Hamas.

 

The Hamas election victory resulted from the perceived and real corruption of the Palestinian Authority and the chaos in Fatah fostered by a weakened Abu Mazen and by Israeli unilateralism.  The grave mistake of ignoring Abu Mazen and strengthening his weakness now presents Israel with a Hamas Palestinian government. Israelis can now feel very justified by devising the notion of no-partner and the next government of Israel will continue to plow forward with more unilateral moves that will not strengthen Israel’s strategic position.

 

People like Haim Ramon, one of the biggest advocates of unilateralism, state that he views the continuation of Israeli presence in the West Bank as a liability and not as an asset and as such, he is convinced that the only way forward is for Israel to unilaterally withdrawal behind the security barrier. Ramon and his Kadima colleagues refuse to see any Palestinians as a potential partner and refuses to admit that Israel played a large role in the creation of the “no-partner” status of Abu Mazen.

 

The presence of a Hamas government in Ramallah and Gaza presents real problems for Israel and for Abu Mazen.  The Palestinian President has announced continually since the elections that he will continue to be the address for negotiations with Israel and that he is committed to reaching a negotiated peace agreement with the Government of Israel, in spite of Hamas and in direct challenge to the Hamas leaders. If Israel continues to ignore and to belittle Abu Mazen, the perpetual threats of Abu Mazen to resign will be implemented. Israel may face a situation with Abu Mazen’s resignation, that the Palestinian Authority will cease to exist and despite Israeli withdrawals of settlements, Israel will be forced to increase its military control of the West Bank. 

 

It will take at least a year before Olmert begins to implement his “convergence policy” unilaterally. Even before Israel removes a single settlement from the West Bank, the Palestinian territories will boil over with anger from continued and increased suffering at the hands of Israeli policies of cantonization and extreme limitations on movement of people and goods.  Israel’s current policy of detaching the West Bank from Gaza and closing Israel’s borders to the Palestinian economy will increase Palestinian solidarity against Israel and in favor of Hamas. The policy directives of Hamas of no recognition, no negotiations and no compromises will be adopted by the majority of Palestinians (which is not the case today) and Hamas’ control over the Palestinian national movement will increase. Hamas will target the PLO and the Presidency as its next political goal and in the face of Israeli unilateralism and collective punishment, Hamas will be victorious. 

 

Hamas has two main strategic agendas, one Islamic and one national.  The main emphasis of Hamas in the coming years will be its national agenda.  The primary aim of the national agenda will be to withdraw from concessions that have been part of the Fatah strategy vis-à-vis Israel until now – mutual recognition as a pre-condition to negotiations, territorial compromises in Jerusalem, recognition of settlement blocs and territorial exchanges and even compromises on the implementation of the “right of return” voiced by most Fatah leaders.  Hamas is likely to exert social pressure through education, the mosques, and the media on its Islamic agenda, but not through legislation.

 

Israeli and Palestinian positions on the conflict and on negotiations have always been shaped through the interactions between the parties. The absurdity of the current situation is that according to public opinion polls, both publics clearly prefer going back to negotiations.  Positions on the key issues are closer than ever to creating possibilities for agreements.  The large majority of both publics continue to support the two-state solution including recognizing Jerusalem as the capitals of both governments. Abu Mazen has stated that it is possible to reach an agreement within one year. Despite the convergence of Israeli and Palestinian public opinion, the chances of negotiations have never been more remote. Without engagement, Israel and Palestine are like two trains on the same rails on a collision course that everyone can see in advance and no one is doing anything to prevent it.

 

I don’t know if Israel and Palestine could reach an agreement in less than one year.  I don’t know if Hamas would allow Abu Mazen to negotiate with Israel on a permanent status agreement. I am 100% convinced that there will be no peace without a negotiated agreement and that policies based solely on unilateralism will end up with heightened violence. Even if Olmert will remove all of the settlements east of the separation barrier, Israel will continue to fully control the lives and welfare of the Palestinians. The Israeli civilian population in the West Bank will be on the west side of the fence, but the Israeli occupation of the West Bank will not be lessened. The removal of settlers from the heartland of the West Bank will lead to strengthening the settlement blocs, the Jordan Valley will be detached from Palestinian rights in the West Bank and in the area of Jerusalem Israel will continue to strangle Palestinian development. The Palestinians will feel more and more strangled by the continued building and expansion of settlements beyond the green line west of the separation barrier, further limiting the possibilities of compromise in the future.

 

These are the challenges that must be faced.  There are various things that both Abu Mazen and Olmert could do to prevent disaster. The one issue, more than anything else that has the power to create Israeli public pressure on the government to return to the table, is the refugee issue.  It is unlikely that Abu Mazen could take bold steps on this issue, but if he could, it would have the power to change Israeli public opinion significant enough to lead to negotiations. If Abu Mazen could adopt the formula stated in the Ayalon-Nusseibeh principles, the Israeli public could not turn away from a possible deal that would indicate a clear Palestinian willingness to really bring about the end of the conflict.  The Ayalon-Nusseibeh formula states:

 

Right of returnRecognizing the suffering and the plight of the Palestinian refugees, the international community, Israel, and the Palestinian State will initiate and contribute to an international fund to compensate them.

 

·        Palestinian refugees will return only to the State of Palestine; Jews will return only to the State of Israel.

 

·        The international community will offer to compensate toward bettering the lot of those refugees willing to remain in their present country of residence, or who wish to immigrate to third-party countries.

 

Abu Mazen probably cannot and will not issue such a declaration, even though he should. Abu Mazen will continue to speak about the need to return to the negotiating table, but without such a bold Palestinian move there will be no positive response on the Israeli side. The Government of Israel would be wise not to reject Abu Mazen’s calls and the best way forward would be to agree to enter into secret back channel talks supported by a member state of the international community. 

 

Both sides would also be very wise to increase the engagement of Egypt and Jordan in everyway possible. Both Egypt and Jordan have very strong interests in not allowing the situation to deteriorate into another round of acute violence and both sides can be trusted to help mediate and mitigate disputes.

 

The Government of Israel should also search out “cracks” in the Hamas wall of non-engagement, even without formal declarations on the main Israeli demands. It has been reported that at least one Hamas Minister has stated a willingness to talk to the Israelis. Secret talks with Hamas leaders should be advanced as well without any pre-conditions. If Israel is concerned about appearing to break the international boycott against Hamas which it is advancing by talking to Hamas, the Government of Israel should advance, even by the wink of the eye – allowing for deniability - the engagement of Hamas leaders by non-officials with the aim of advancing possible Hamas moderation.

 

Both sides, with the full support of the international community, must continue to verbalize the belief in negotiations and engagement. Unilateralism should not be accepted as the “end all and by all” of Israeli-Palestinian relations. Both sides, with the full support of the international community, must encourage, advance and enable engagement at every level possible. If operational contacts can be advanced by security people, if on-the-ground cooperation can be fostered by municipalities, if dialogue activities can be forwarded by civil society organizations – all of these must become policy directives.

 

The two state solution remains the supreme national security interest of both Israel and Palestine. The two state solution can only emerge from a negotiated process.  The viability of that solution will not last forever and the clock is rapidly ticking on its legitimacy and feasibility. The thrills with unilateralism in Israel have created a fantasy that it will resolve the conflict. The notion of no-partner (on both sides) has distorted the reality that there is a potential partner, however, if the message of no-partner is constantly repeated, reinforced by unilateralism, there will, in fact, be no partner.

 

It took too many years for the majority of Palestinians to recognize Israel’s right to exist and the amount of territory that can become a Palestinian state has withered with the passing years. It also took Israel too many years for Israel to recognize that it is in the national interest of Israel for there to be a Palestinian state. Had that been recognized at the outset of the Oslo process and had the sides worked together to fulfill that goal, we would not be where we are today.

 

Israeli politicians may think that they are being bold by advancing unilateral withdrawals from the West Bank. They may think that they are advancing the national interests of the State of Israel and the Jewish people. Israel should continue to withdrawal from the West Bank and it should continue to remove settlements that have always been an obstacle to peace. But before it is too late, Israel must recognize that without engagement and negotiations, Israel’s strategic position will not be strengthened. The Government of Israel and the Palestinian President can together create a partnership of the people of Israel and the people of Palestine who believe in peace and want to achieve it.  Leaders shape public opinion – if they are real leaders.

 

It is not popular to speak about peace today.  It has been completely absent from the election campaigns in Israel. It is also a “four letter” word in Palestinian public discourse.  Peace and peacemakers have been given a bad name by those who have failed to be sincere in peacemaking efforts.  Oslo was designed by real peacemakers and destroyed by those who opposed its very premises of mutual recognition and real cooperation. Oslo was a “win-win” deal that was treated as a “win-lose” deal by those who implemented it. In the end it became a classic “lose-lose” deal. In the future of the Israel-Palestine relations – those of the two choices before us:  it is either “win-win” or “lose-lose” – there is no middle ground. Leaders who lead us to the “lose-lose” deal are irresponsible and perhaps even criminal. Another four years of non-engagement will not advance chances of peace.  No one has the right to stand by and be silent on this issue.