And What Do We Get?
The Israeli-Palestinian peace process is about to be the topic of an international summit and optimism is breaking out all over.
A breakthrough to comprehensive peace, however, is very unlikely. Hamas controls the Gaza Strip; the Palestinian Authority (PA)-Fatah leader, Mahmoud Abbas, is weak; Fatah is still overwhelmingly radical and has not conducted the internal debate—much less public education effort—necessary for a change of policy.
At the same time, however, a situation breeding persistent crisis and violence won’t go away. It is important to try to prevent the conflict from growing worse, including a possible Hamas takeover on the West Bank or full-scale war. If this is a long-term stalemate it need be structured in a way as conducive as possible to greater stability. And if it is feasible to move even a bit toward building an eventual peace that is a good thing.
So the immediate question is whether intensive Israel-PA talks and the summit meeting can keep the mess from getting worse or even help bring some modest improvement.
In explaining his participation in this effort, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert stated, "We must give negotiations a chance. Israel has excellent excuses to justify stagnation in the talks. I don't mean to look for excuses. I'm determined to give a chance to a meaningful diplomatic process….”
Or, in other words, even though we have every reason not to negotiate with an unstable regime that cannot meet commitments, we’re willing to try in hope that it could work. That makes sense, albeit with reservations expressed below.
Olmert explained, "The current Palestinian leadership is not a terrorist leadership. [Abbas] and Prime Minister Salam Fayyad are committed to all the agreements signed with Israel, and I believe that they want to move ahead together with us…."
Olmert chose his words carefully. Abbas and Fayyad want peace and would like to keep their agreements. But he would find it hard to provide any more names to that list. Most Fatah leaders don’t think that way. And even those who “want” to advance probably cannot and will not do so. They may not personally promote terrorism but do little to stop it, even failing to curb the extremism of official PA-controlled media which they could easily do.
Is it worth trying talks? Yes. Aside from showing the world Israel’s peaceful intentions there might be small successes. The level of conflict could be lowered, PA-Fatah preserved, international help obtained, Arab states brought into deeper engagement.
Yet in almost all this discussion, debate, international policymaking, and media coverage there is a missing element. There’s lots of talk about what Palestinians want, and what Israel might or should give, in negotiations. But there is virtually nothing said about what Israel should get for running these risks and making these concessions as well as the unfortunate likelihood of not getting much in return.
In other words, and with reference to Israel’s experience with the 1993-2000 peace process, one might well cite Bob Dylan's words: "Oh, no, no I've been through this movie before!”
The PA-Fatah demands are clear: An independent Palestinian state with its capital in east Jerusalem and its borders on the 1948-1967 era ceasefire lines. All Palestinian refugees and their descendants must be allowed to live in Israel; all Palestinian prisoners, no matter how many Israeli civilians they deliberately murdered, released.
We know all this already. The return idea is unacceptable and this won’t change. It is a sign of Palestinian insincerity since the goal is to wipe Israel off the map. If Palestinians want a state of their own they would insist the refugees settle there. Prisoners might be released only if it is certain they will not return to terrorism either because a Palestinian government allowed it or even encouraged them to do so.
Israel is ready to accept an independent state. There is debate about east Jerusalem and the 1967 lines but a solution could be found. For example, in 2000 Israel’s government offered most of east Jerusalem and almost all the West Bank, with territorial swaps to make up for any land annexed by Israel.
The Palestinian leadership has decided that they it would rather wait for many years without a state rather than give up a relatively small portion of territory or agree to resettle refugees on Palestine’s territory, even if that decision inflicts great suffering on their people. That is a choice it has a right to make but should not mean that others must pay for this set of priorities or that Israel should be held responsible for a continuing conflict.
But what does the Palestinian side offer Israel? That is very unclear. What does “peace” mean? A full end of the conflict? An energetic will to stop anti-Israel incitement and cross-border terrorism? And what of Hamas?
The following points are what the Palestinian side must give. None of them are too onerous, especially compared to the rewards they would get:
- The conflict would be ended. Over. Finished.
- Palestinian refugees must be resettled in Palestine.
- The PA-Fatah-PLO should be able to bring Arab states into the peace arrangement.
- Palestine would block terrorist attacks from its territory on Israel by force if needed and stop the systematic incitement of hatred, certainly on the official level, against Israel.
- No foreign troops would be permitted on Palestine’s territory.
There also would have to be serious international recognition, safeguards, and guarantees for the risks Israel is taking.
These risks are enormous yet they are largely ignored by others. After all, Israel is negotiating with people who have no control over much of the territory or people on whose behalf they speak. The Palestinian side has a bad record of not trying, and certainly not succeeding in meeting commitments. Even now, PA-Fatah makes literally no effort to stop incitement, end terrorism, or even push its own officials or members to respect past agreements.
It is also clear that any agreement would be extremely fragile. Hamas would reject any settlement and do everything possible to wreck it, including killing PA leaders and launching terrorist attacks to force Fatah to choose between guarding Israel’s borders or throwing away the arrangements.
Beyond this, if Hamas were to take over the West Bank or any Palestinian state, it would not be bound by any treaty and would immediately restart the conflict, using Israeli concessions to be more deadly.
And there’s more bad news If Abbas and Fayyad made a deal along the above lines—or ones even better for the Palestinians—not only all the supporters of Hamas and smaller radical groups but also between 50 and 80 percent of Fatah itself would denounce them as traitors and reject the agreement.
As the world tends to focus only on what Israel must give and ignore the other side of the equation that is a formula for ensuring that conflict and bloodshed continues.
Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center http://gloria.idc.ac.il and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (GLORIA) Center http://meria.idc.ac.il. His latest books are The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan) and The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley).