Viewpoints on a Post-Arafat Middle East

Posted in Israel / Palestine | 11-Dec-04 | Author: Jeremy Hurewitz

Israel and the neighbours
Israel and the neighbours
Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center. He is co-author of Yasir Arafat: A Political Biography and a columnist for The Jerusalem Post.

Shlomo Avineri is a professor of Political Science, Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Previously serving as Director-General of Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, he is the author of numerous books and articles on Middle Eastern affairs and political theory.

Omar Karmi is the managing editor of The Palestine Report and a columnist for The Jordan Times.

How does Arafat’s death affect the peace process? Specifically, how does his death affect the Gaza disengagement plan?

Rubin: It doesn’t affect it. It will go ahead anyway. If he were alive, it would be 100% certain that there would be no attempt to coordinate or set some kind of administration afterwards and now there’s that possibility. However, nearly everyone in this country believes there is no partner, 70 to 80% of the population. Why? Because this is what we have experienced. Eight years of negotiating with Arafat and the Palestinians and they didn’t meet their commitments, they rejected peace in 2000, they resorted to violence, turned to terrorism for four years, rejected cease fires—how could you not conclude there was no partner? People think that this must be some hard-line, reactionary thing. Even people to the far left think that there is no partner; then Arafat dies and people, including this government, immediately leap on it and say, okay, now let’s talk to these people. What did Dov Wiesglass say in the Haaretz interview? He said we know that there is no one we can negotiate with; there will be an interim period; in principal, we are ready to accept a Palestinian state and negotiate with it, putting settlements into blocks and trading territory which is basically what Barak said at Camp David. In the meantime, knowing that we are not going to get to a peace agreement we have to decide on other strategies. Our strategy is to withdraw from the Gaza strip because it’s not in our interest to be there and a bit in the West Bank. This will put us in the position to be able to stay until the day when it’s possible to negotiate seriously. To which people said, “withdrawing from Gaza is a trick, he wants to destroy the peace process”. That’s not what he said. What he said was a courageous thing, which put the Sharon government in line with what the Barak government said. So, does the death of Arafat affect Israeli policy? The answer is that everyone recognizes that there is possibly an opportunity here to move forward, that gestures were made immediately to show Israel’s openness to negotiating: No military operations were taken in the territories, roadblocks were reduced, offers were made to talk, and now we’ll see what happens. The Israeli government also said that if the new Palestinian leadership wants to coordinate the withdrawal from Gaza, it would certainly be willing to talk to them to try to work out a coordination.

In 2001, Sharon was elected with plenty of voters on the traditional left voting for him. Since then, he changed his policy with the withdrawal from Gaza, and he has moved towards the center. I have a friend who is a veteran Labor Party activist who said: “What is needed now is to have a big center party - Likud excluding its right and Labor excluding its left”. People want to call Sharon a right-winger but don’t want to look at his policies or his statements. Would people do this kind of thing with any other country in the world? Sharon had it made. He would have been able to stay in power without any political problems, and he brought up these issues and risked the support of his own party. Anyone else would have been called courageous for doing that.

Avineri: The problem never really was Arafat. Arafat may have symbolized the problem, but the problem has been the basic Palestinian discourse, which was put to the test at Camp David in 2000 when it appeared not yet to be ready for a compromise with Israel. It is exaggerated in the Palestinian insistence on the right of return for refugees, which is not just an abstraction or a call for justice; it is a very fundamental issue because it is what is being told to Palestinian kids in refugee camps—that they will go back to where their grandparents came from. It is like Germany telling its ethnic brothers that were kicked out of Eastern Europe that they will go back. This is a marginal position of the extreme right and even this is not being explicitly stated because it is politically unacceptable. The Palestinians need to change the way that they’ve been educating people for the last fifty years and this is not an easy thing to do. Palestinian school textbooks remained essentially unchanged after the Oslo agreement was signed. On the contrary: If you look at school textbooks published after the Oslo Agreement, there still is no Israel on the map and if there is any mention of Israel it is only as an occupying power. If there is any mention of Zionism, it is as a symbol of western imperialism. My guess is that the next Palestinian leadership, which will be made up of people who shared Arafat’s history in Tunisia and came back to Israel with him, will not be much different.

Jeremy Hurewitz
Jeremy Hurewitz
The Gaza disengagement may go ahead in a slightly less hostile atmosphere. I think there are already some indications on both the Israeli and Palestinian sides that they are ready to talk or coordinate some of the logistical issues of who is where and what happens on the ground, etc. But I don’t think that it makes much of a difference. Unilateral disengagement is at the moment the only game in town. It does not appear now that there is a discourse possible for implementing the road map—which isn’t a road map but instead is a wish list. It doesn’t say how to get from A to B. Disengagement is the one step that can bring about some stabilization, and then perhaps there can be a climate in which both sides can negotiate. If not, Israel will undertake more unilateral steps in the West Bank.

Karmi: Arafat was not looked upon as being an obstacle for peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians. His method of running things was looked upon as no longer being appropriate, as they became a hindrance. Corruption is one of the biggest reasons, if not the biggest. As far as peace is concerned, it is very simple: The obstacle to peace is the occupation. Even when we have agreed upon initiatives, such as the Oslo Accords, settlements nevertheless doubled. The Israelis have never clearly indicated to the Palestinians that they were serious - at least not serious in a way that could be acceptable to Palestinians.

I think that Sharon, regardless of whether he’s going to withdraw from Gaza or not—with the Palestinians or unilaterally—will want to disengage and will continue to push his own party to accept these political realities. I don’t see much of a change other than the fact that now at least there is the possibility that there is some chance of coordination, which is really the way it should be done. It puts it in the context of the process.

What does the death of Arafat mean for the Labor Party? Is Barak on his way back?

Rubin: There is no leadership in the Labor Party. Shimon Peres is 81. The question is who is going to lead the Labor Party and in what direction. I actually like Barak more than a lot of people. I know that he offended people and that he handled things badly, but I think he is the best person for the Labor Party. It comes back to the Palestinian leadership. Will they make a serious attempt to curb terrorism? I think they won’t. For the first time in history there is, technically speaking, a moderate leader among the Palestinians. But he is not really a leader, he doesn’t have control; he doesn’t have power. Also, a majority of the movement is still extremely hard-line. And when I say hard-line, I mean that they say openly that the only satisfactory solution is the elimination of Israel and that they are ready to continue violence for decades, no matter how many casualties.

A Palestinian fighter attacking with the so-called "Molotow cocktail"
A Palestinian fighter attacking with the so-called "Molotow cocktail"
Avineri: Sharon has a lot of opposition to the Gaza disengagement within his own Likud party, and if he proceeds with a further disengagement from the West Bank, this opposition will increase. There is no doubt that he needs the tacit, passive support of Labor in parliament. In the last few months, Labor has been giving him a parliamentary security net. This may or may not lead to Labor joining the coalition, but Labor finds itself in a position where it can reach out to Sharon and the more moderate wing in the Likud.

Barak would like to make a comeback, no doubt about it, but he has rubbed many Israelis the wrong way for the opposite reasons. Moreover, this has to do not just with Camp David, but he is after all associated with a major policy failure more than any other Israeli prime minister. Many of Israel’s prime ministers in the past were faulted for not doing certain things. For example, one could fault Golda Meir for not having reached out to Nassar. Some of this is justified and some of it is not. But Barak has been involved in a major, catastrophic policy decision: Making a very generous offer to the Palestinians and being turned down. If one is identified with such a failure, it is not easy to return. Secondly, many Israelis have been thinking: We have had enough of military men in politics. Barak came to politics almost straight out of the army. And I guess if one has been a commanding officer—and he was one of the most brilliant ones that Israel ever had—one has the mindset that one breaks through or one breaks down. Charge ahead. That’s okay if you’re the head of a commando unit, because even if you’ve been killed and your unit has been wiped out, the country is still there. But you don’t play Russian roulette with a country. The feeling is that Barak played Russian roulette with a country. This may be unfair, but this is the feeling. Therefore, Barak may have a comeback, mainly because the Labor party doesn’t have many attractive candidates. Therefore, in this sort of vacuum he can still play a role. However, I don’t think he has a good chance of winning so long as the Israeli/Palestinian conflict is in the violent phase as it is now. When headlines report about suicide bombers and Israeli retaliation, the right wing always has the better chance. So Labor has an interest in a de-escalation if not an agreement in order to change the political agenda and the discourse of the country from one of security, suicide bombings and settlements to one in which the social democratic party will have a chance.

What does the potential of anarchy or civil war in the Palestinian territories mean for Israel?

Rubin: There won’t be civil war. There will be what I call “quiet chaos”. People will go and do what they want, there will be a kidnapping here and there, some murders, a firefight, but every incident will be quieted down. It’s chaos; no one is in charge, nothing is happening; their big achievement will be to pay the payroll of their employees.

The best outcome is a moderate Palestinian leadership that wants to make peace. The worst outcome is a radical Palestinian leadership that wants to carry out a war of violence and terrorism. And there are things in the middle. I think that no one will be in charge for years.

Avineri: Chaos and violence would spill over into Israel because each of the radical groups would try to show that they are more anti-Israeli. In this respect—and this is perhaps counter-intuitive—when Israel withdraws from Gaza and Hamas shares power, it’s not the end of the world. If Hamas becomes responsible for Gaza—or takes control of Gaza—it will be interested in maintaining schools, roads, infrastructure and garbage collection. It will not be interested in having a daily Israeli incursion into an area that is under its control. So with power comes some responsibility. Israel has an interest in more stability in the Palestinian territories. Even if it doesn’t mean peace, the less violent it is inside the Palestinian territories, the less violent it will be inside Israel.

Israeli settlers demonstrating against the planned withdrawal from the Gaza strip.
Israeli settlers demonstrating against the planned withdrawal from the Gaza strip.
Karmi: For time being, things will be mostly peaceful. There will be incidents, and many of these incidents will be from power centers that owed Arafat for their position. The question becomes one of how the new president will handle these incidents. Abbas has a reputation for handling things in a very political manner, whereas Arafat would pick up the phone and speak to the guy on the street and say, “okay, relax”. Abbas will try to do things by the book—the question is whether he will succeed. Overall, I don’t think that there’s anyone one who wants chaos on the street. Between the factions, Hamas is certainly not interested. Hamas definitely does not want to be seen as the cause chaos. The biggest danger comes between power centers in Fatah. I think parliamentary elections are vital in this case because any government will have to heed the power of parliament if the parliament reflects society. But I don’t see any clear indication of what will happen yet. I also wouldn’t be surprised if there is complete chaos. It’s not just a Palestinian issue; however legitimate any Palestinian president or parliament, everything will depend on what the Israelis do. If the people see the Israelis destroying their cities, there will always be the desire for counter-actions to be taken.

Is Marwan Barghouti the best hope for a Palestinian leader that can deliver peace? Can any leader deliver peace?

Rubin: Barghouti is the main architect of the violence. He has said some very interesting things on the subject, personally, which no one else has quoted except me, even though his comments have been published in the Palestinian press. Most importantly, he’s a hard-liner; secondly, he has no compunction about an alliance with Hamas; if such an alliance was formed, we could forget about peace for the next thirty to forty years. As for the older generation of people, some are moderate, more are hard-line but they hate Hamas because they’re Fatah people. Fatah is the leading group and it cannot be challenged. Barghouti and people around him don’t look at things in this organizational sense. It would be as if the Communists and the Fascists were going to form an alliance. All the Communists are horrified by this, not because they’re moderate but because they hate the Fascists for ideological and power reasons.

Avineri: I’m not sure who is the best one. Marwan Barghouti, Mohammed Dahlan, Jibril Rajoub—these are people whose mindsets are totally different from that of Arafat and that of Abu Mazen. They have not lived the world of propaganda that has so much characterized and to a very large degree made it very difficult for a Palestinian leadership under Arafat to come to terms with Israel. Even when they appear on CNN, Arafat’s successors think they must try to convince the world. Should there ever be a Palestinian state, it will be because they have convinced the Israelis.

Karmi: Barghouti has a lot of credibility on the Palestinian street. He lived and fought under the occupation and took an active part in the first intifada. He was exiled and punished by the Israelis; came back after Oslo and when this intifada started, unlike most of the leaders in Fatah in particular, he took an active part and was always seen on the streets. He also had a very clear position towards the armed uprising—he supported it but only in so far as it targeted targets inside the occupied territories. He was never part of any attacks inside Israel. They sentenced him “for having blood on his hands”. Which doesn’t necessarily mean for attacks inside Israel; I believe it was for supporting the armed uprising in the territories. It’s also very unclear how intimately involved he was in actual operations; he was a bit too senior perhaps to actually be someone sitting around saying “okay you go there and you go there”. I doubt very much that he was intimately involved. He is very popular because he belongs here. His position is clear: End the occupation and give us the right of return.

Two Orthodox Jews protest against the Gaza withdrawal plan, in front of Israel's parliament, in Jerusalem.
Two Orthodox Jews protest against the Gaza withdrawal plan, in front of Israel's parliament, in Jerusalem.
Will any Palestinian leader that is voted into office be able to deliver on peace?

Rubin: You can’t think of it in terms of Western style politics. It’s about power. Where does power reside? Power does not reside with the PLO. Power resides with Fatah. The head of Fatah is Faruk Kadumi. Kadumi is an extreme hard-liner, he never accepted the Oslo accords; he does not accept Israel’s right to exist. Fatah is the most powerful organization. It has the security services, but there are about twelve of them and they all do what they what they want. Then there are the armed groups, Barghouti’s Al Aksa Brigades being the most important. So therefore, where does power reside? What power does Abu Mazen have? Can he give orders that people will obey?

Avineri: Probably not. What I see is a younger generation that has not been in Tunisia but was raised in Gaza and the West Bank. They have lived and suffered under Israeli occupation, fought sometimes against Israel and have spent years in Israeli jails. They have also learned Hebrew and know something about the real Israel. Not that they love Israel more than the older generation: They are just much more realistic about what can and cannot be achieved. Eventually this will be the Palestinian leadership - if there is any Palestinian leadership - that will have the guts to tell the Palestinian refugees: We are going to take care of you, we are going to rehabilitate everyone, you are citizens of a free country but you will not return to Israel proper.

Karmi: I don’t think even Arafat could have delivered it along the Camp David lines. I don’t anyone could. There were a number of things wrong with that agreement: Water rights, sovereignty for East Jerusalem and control of the borders. Jerusalem was never clearly defined. Yes, Barak went further than anyone else has gone. That’s not to say that it was far enough. Refugees for instance: Huge, probably the thorniest issue. Camp David essentially divided the West Bank in two, and this is very problematic in terms of what is purely logistical for a Palestinian state, which no one wants to talk about at all. East Jerusalem is extremely important; it’s not just a magical symbol, it’s a huge advantage to have the infrastructure that’s there, the revenue from tourism, etc. Therefore, these issues have to be resolved and have to go forward from where they were at Camp David.

So do you look for a quick move towards peace or are we going to see another long-term interim process?

Avineri: The latter one. Look, everyone makes analogies but doesn’t think about the consequences. Look at Bosnia, Cyprus, Kashmir and Kosovo. They have the same ingredients as the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. They are about conflicting narratives and national movements, history, territoriality, sovereignty—not about religion as such. In none of these conflicts has anyone come up with a reasonable way to find a solution. No one knows how to solve Kosovo. The world community thought that they had solved Cyprus with the Annan plan, everyone in the world agreed except the local population. There is a whole range of little plans. Perhaps this is the only thing we can do. Those people who think there is a quick fix for the Israeli/Palestinian conflict should look at the Kosovo situation and realize how difficult it is, and our conflict is much more complicated.