IT TAKES TWO TO TANGO

IS IT POSSIBLE TO BREAK THROUGH THE PRESENT ISRAELI-PALESTINIAN VICIOUS CYCLE?

 

November 05, 2005 

Dr. Yossi Ben Ari*

 

Two months have gone by since the completion of the Israeli disengagement from the Gaza Strip. While the anticipation for change following this historic event sky rocketed, in effect – nothing happened. Both sides have resumed their traditional relationship patterns of the days prior to the disengagement. This relationship is characterized by a repeated vicious cycle of actions (targeted killings of senior members of terrorist organizations) and retaliation ("Qassam" missiles firing from Gaza). These actions are followed by counter retaliation (increased military activity within the occupied territories and imposed closure, halting all movement of people and goods) and then counter-counter retaliation (suicide bombing within the "green line"). After this comes the need to calm the area and to attempt returning to a more normalized environment (either the result of military pressure whose intensity outweighs the terrorist organizations' capabilities, or of international pressure on both sides, or perhaps even the result of internal Israeli political interests). All of this lasts until the next event, which then restarts the same vicious cycle, causing more bloodshed on both sides and leaving little hope for actual change.

 

Underneath a lingering cloud of gunpowder, leaders of both sides seem like a pair of "Sumo" wrestlers, each attempting to throw the other out of the ring, remaining the sole survivor on the floor. A closer inspection reveals a pair of well trained dancers who would, were they capable of it, swirl on the dance floor with a more intimate and excitable "Salsa". Alas, unfortunately for them (and for us), each dancer's "orchestra" doesn't allow for much legroom, and therefore, they must settle for the more measured "slow" dance, or, at most, a cautious "Tango", where each side is well aware that a single step forward, calls for two steps back. So what’s going on there, behind the scenes in the "orchestra” that shackles the legs of our able dancers? 

 

Israel's internal political arena chains the legs of Israeli Prime Minister allowing him very limited maneuvering space. Strange as it may sound, Sharon was harmed by his triumph over Netanyahu regarding the timing of the Likud Party primaries. Losing the vote would have brought about his resignation that would have created a new venue for re-election, with a new political party under his wings. Now, despite previous declarations, the Likud Party's rebel group does not accept Sharon's authority, giving him a hard time even on relatively "banal" issues, such as approving the ministerial appointments of Olmert, Boim and Bar-On. The relative short tranquility that the Prime Minister enjoyed until the Knesset reconvened this week disappeared as soon as Sharon faced the plenary. Sharon has yet to face his real trial – the Knesset's approval of the 2006 budget.

 

The same goes for the external political arena – in a reality where Sharon enjoys the support of the majority of the Israeli public, there is a a clear expectation that he will continue to make political efforts vis-à-vis the Palestinians. While Sharon receives international support almost unlike any Israeli prime minister before him, it is doubtful whether Sharon is capable of promoting further developments, even the slightest ones, with the Palestinian authorities. There in an open debate whether Sharon is even interested in taking further steps towards an agreement with Abu Mazen. But even if he were both willing and able to do so, as declared in his speech at the launching of the Knesset session on October 31 (“Israel wants to return to the Road Map format – including the 14 disagreements – this is the plan and there is "none other"’), it is doubtful that the internal Israeli political system will grant him the necessary freedom of action.

 

Second, the disengagement did not deliver the promised "goods", at least regarding calming the region and ending terrorism. It is true that the pullout of Israeli citizens and military from Gaza reduced statistically the number of terrorist acts. Nevertheless, this is not the real test. This positive outcome was known in advance, in view of the reduction in potential targets for terrorist acts following the exit of the civil population and the military redeployment together with the sophisticated security fence surrounding the Gaza Strip. The challenge was, and this was the expectation of the Israeli public (although never promised by the Prime Minister), that the strategic act of disengagement will be followed by a dramatic decrease in terror in other arenas as well and will lead to overall calm. The expectation was that the Government would then be able to pay attention to other issues, in particular to the internal social-economic ones. In effect, the Islamic Jihad's refusal to implement the "Tahadia” was sufficient for the ongoing commotion to necessitate that Sharon, as the "State CEO", keeps Palestinian terror on top of his agenda.

 

Additionally, the Israeli public, so supportive of the disengagement, demands its PM not to accept the continuation of missile firing on Sderot and the western Negev. The Israeli public is even more adamant regarding the possibility of facing more suicide bombings in Israeli cities, like the one in Hadera. From Sharon's standpoint, this is more than another "important task to handle". For the public, the burden of proof is upon him to demonstrate that the disengagement did dramatically reduce terror and the threat to the safety of Israel's citizens is indeed smaller. Sharon is forced, more than ever before, to attend to any and every development in the overall security situation. Being so fully engaged in this lessens whatever attention he might have set aside for other issues, and certainly reduces his freedom to engage in creative political efforts towards the Palestinians.

 

Third, it seems once again, that both the amount and nature of the input by the heads of Israel's security apparatuses do little to ease any intention that Sharon might have to advance the political process. On the one hand, it is easy to identify with those who are doing their best, within their professional capacity, to prevent even a single Israeli citizen from coming to harm. It is their responsibility and their successes provide the residents of Israel an improved "security blanket". On the other hand, we must ask whether hardening the policies for dealing with terror, compared with the pre-disengagement ones (such as – operating fighter planes, or firing artillery, for the first time since the break of Intifada, having since then become the norm) is the right answer. These steps have included the unwillingness to resist from capturing or eliminating every suspected terrorist, as if the success of the chase will actually prevent the rise of an alternative leader - militant activist – wanted terrorist. Is it indeed wise to advance these policies at a time when both peoples are looking forward to a period of calm and an attempt to rebuild trust? Just these past few days – mere hours after the Jihad organization had announced its readiness to cease the firing of missiles if Israel will cease killing its' men, three Jihad terrorist were killed by Israel in Kabatiya.  Or the case of the elimination of high ranking members of "Hamas" and "Fatah" in Jabaliya, which threatened to send both organizations straight back to activating terrorist attacks, having stayed away from such acts for a relatively long period. Do these achievements really justify the future tragedies they might produce?

 

I do not think that PM Sharon, one of Israel's top security experts of all times, a man who never shied away from activating full-force when he thought the situation called for it, is being "led by the nose" by his own heads of security apparatuses, whose ultimate test is their ability to prevent terror. PM Sharon was obviously the one who laid out the current guidelines, the ones used by Mofaz, Halutz, Diskin, Karadi and Dagan. Still, it seems that the culture of the security discourse; the special atmosphere in those closed cabinet rooms; and the tradition developed in this exclusive group, at least during the last five years of the Intifada, have their impact.  Even should the Prime Minister decide, all of a sudden, to exercise restraint and to a certain extent even generosity towards the other side, he might run into difficulty in trying to do so. The military spirit and the peer pressure certainly will not ease Sharon's task, even considering the Prime Minister's intense tendency for authoritativeness over his subordinates.

 

Returning to our "Tango", PM Sharon is still the leading dancer, with Abbas trailing behind him. It is virtually impossible to envy Abbas, who is having great difficulty “dancing” while being chained to the floor by so many constraints. Let us view them briefly, from the outside in. First, it seems the tolerance of the international community is wearing thin. The Palestinian President is expected to act against terror organizations and in particular - to collect illegal arms. It seems that the suicide bombing in Hadera has sharpened this expectation and has underlined the intensity of Abbas’ "weakness". The opinion in the West that is on the rise is that Abbas is capable of acting against terrorist organizations and that the time has come for him to actually do so. Abbas must be aware that carrying on with the policy of "holding still" might hurt his international political support and possibly the financial support, which is critical to the PA.

 

Second, from the Abbas’ standpoint, there is no doubt that Israeli policies prove to be a huge constraint – the IDF's activity and presence, both constant and temporary, in the Palestinian territories and the unyielding demand to fight terror and its foundations, expose him as incapable of doing what should be done. The statement by Minister of Defense Mofaz that there is no one to talk with among Palestinian leadership, and therefore an interim agreement is the most that will be achieved until such a time as the next generation of leaders will manifest, certainly does not strengthen Abbas’ status. To this, one should add the nearly total economic dependence on Israel, both directly (electricity, water, media, etc) and indirectly (freedom of movement for both people and goods). This dependence makes it even harder for Abbas to approach his people with indications of progress and success.

 

Third, the internal arena provides the most difficult and complex challenge for him. The strengthening of "Hamas", which threatens to take over the leadership of the Palestinian people; and at the same time – the ongoing internal power struggles within Fatah significantly, harms the principle potential body of support that Abbas has enjoyed in the past.  Also noteworthy is the Islamic Jihad’s refusal to commit to a "Tahadia" with Israel, and its implications for the Palestinian people. There is also the weakness demonstrated by Palestinian security forces and their unwillingness to deal with social disorder, illegal acts and undermining of the sovereign regime of the Palestinian Authority (while at the same time, they are likely to enter into confrontation with Palestinian officials). There is the reality of an almost nonfunctioning corrupt government whose ministers are deemed unworthy in the public eye; and also, the limited leadership abilities on the part of Abbas. This complex reality does not help the President who intended to lead the people and to address those huge challenges.

 

Taking an overview of this scene, optimism is hard to come by. The prospect of a breakthrough that will bring about actual transformation on the "dance floor” does not seem likely to happen at any time in the coming months. It is unlikely that elections to the Palestinian Parliament - even should "Hamas" participate in them and afterwards integrate into the Palestinian establishment - will allow Abbas to take meaningful steps towards collecting illegal arms. The prospects of the Israeli side likewise, leave little room for optimism. Even should the current political reality in Jerusalem continue as is into the spring, leading to political primaries within the Likud party, and even should Sharon win them yet again, he will emerge from them so beaten and tied down by internal political chains, that he will be powerless to truly resume any political discussions with the Palestinians towards an agreement of any sort, at least until the General Elections, a year from today.

 

Salvation should not be expected from the world at large either. It is hard to imagine the White House changing its attitude and pressuring Israel back into the "Road Map", even if the Palestinians would implement their commitments first. Washington is also likely to hesitate bulldozing Abbas into implementing his security obligations, although it might prove a little more assertive following the Palestinian Parliament elections. It is safe to say that the other members of the Quartet will not play a decisive part towards creating change.

 

Neither side should rely on unexpected out-of-the-ordinary events. It is highly unlikely that Sharon will be moved yet again out of another sparkle of "historical revelation" or that he will be pushed towards a new unilateral or bilateral initiative by someone of his influential advisors. Even dramatic out of the ordinary events (such as a worsening of the chaos within Palestinian society; a spectacular multi casualties terrorist attack; or the disappearance of leader/s), cannot but add further trouble to the already harsh situation.  

 

The continuous military pressure imposed by Israel before "Eid el Fitr" can only further agitate the deterioration. In face of the already charged state of affairs and the danger of a wide ranging outburst of violence leading to even more destruction, what can be done to change the picture?

 

It seems the "simplest" development could be a personal decision by the Prime Minister to hand the Israeli President his resignation. Such a move would obviously lead to elections within a short period of time, and allow Sharon, who is likely to be elected again, to use 2006 for political initiative and action, either depending or unrelated to events occurring on the Palestinian side.  This way, Sharon would be able  to unilaterally acknowledge an independent Palestinian State based on “national consensus”, within the borders of the security-separation wall (the construction of which can be completed by next year), and thereby strengthen his personal status as well as that of Israel, within the international community. Taking such a route, will further enable Abass to perform the next relevant moves on his part.

 

Should such political developments not be on the horizon it would be wise for the Israeli government to reconsider repeating its initiative from the early days of Intifada, to cease all military-security action, for a significant period of several weeks. Such a ceasefire would strengthen the Israeli moral position and would be greatly appreciated by the international community. The ceasefire should, of course, include the direct active military action against terrorist organizations (especially – Islamic Jihad), but also include ceasing all additional actions, such as firing artillery towards areas from which missiles are launched, super-sonic booms over Gaza, arrests of wanted men, and excessive presence on the ground (new road blocks, patrols, etc.). Initiative of this kind, deriving also from gestures being made in light of Eid el Fitr holiday (lifting closures; easing Palestinian traffic; releasing detainees), while at the same time reactivating the Rafah Crossing (a political dividend lost in the surrounding sea of violence). These steps will undoubtedly create a more positive atmosphere between the two conflicting sides. Even if it neither stops the vicious circle of violence, nor brings about a new political breakthrough, it will aid in calming the current tension, which could easily lead to even worse deterioration. It will also allow for the beginning of rebuilding trust between the two sides, while waiting for better opportunities in the future.

 

Even if it will not be possible at this time to break into a "Salsa", it will be possible to move from a "Tango" to a "Waltz", and set the dance floor towards increasing the pace. Let it be.

 

*Dr. Yossi Ben Ari (Brig. General – retired) is the Co-director of IPCRI’s Strategic Affairs Unit