All Writings
July 6, 2003

The Tragedy Of Conceding Under Fire

Sharon must never resume negotiations or make any concessions under fire. The most significant achievement emerging from the Israeli-Palestinian renewed contacts under our sponsorship of the road map is that the Palestinians may have finally concluded that violence has failed not only to force Israel's hand but, as it has intensified, become a detriment to their own existence as a functioning society.

Sharon's response–however brutal it may at times have been–to the violence initiated by the Palestinians over the past 33 months, allied with his insistence never to negotiate under the gun, played a critical role in disabusing the Palestinians of their faith in it as a strategy. His policy, I believe, will in the long run be shown to have saved the lives of tens of thousands of Israelis and Palestinians and will perhaps be instrumental in saving the Palestinians' own commonwealth from utter ruin. The support of Sharon's strategy, albeit tacitly, by the Bush administration, the Arab states' inability and unwillingness to intervene, and Sharon's history of toughness, weighed heavily in producing the Palestinian self-reckoning. The danger that lies ahead is whether Sharon, under U.S. pressure, will be persuaded to continue to make further concessions, even in an environment of relatively low-level violence. Should he give in under such conditions, he risks destroying the fundamental premise on which current and future negotiations rest and may in the process possibly torpedo the prospects for ending the conflict anytime soon.

Violence as a means to undermine and eventually destroy Israel has always been central to the Palestinian strategy. Every charter of every Palestinian faction and the PLO itself calls for the destruction of Israel by any means, with an emphasis on violence through Jihad. The use of force to bring about the destruction of Israel was put into play at the moment of its creation in 1948. Only the level of violence and the tactics of employing it have changed periodically. But violence in the form of terrorism was seen consistently as indispensable to achieve Palestinian national objectives, and these were in turn based on the elimination of Israel. Although in 1988 PLO Chairman Arafat renounced terrorism, accepted Israel's right to exist, and committed himself to peaceful negotiations in exchange for Israel's recognition of the PLO as the sole representative of the Palestinians, a low level violence (the first Intifadah) was maintained for the following five years until the signing of the first Oslo Accord in 1993. From that time until the eruption of the second Intifadah in September 2000, Palestinian violence against Israel fluctuated, its levels directly related to the progress, or the lack of, in the peace negotiations and the degree of concessions made by successive Israeli governments. In fact Palestinian violence was in fact so consistent that the late prime minster Rabin finally gave up on the idea of not negotiating under the gun and in 1994 coined the phrase, "We will negotiate as if there is no terror and we will deal with terrorism as it there is no negotiation." His statement, summing up the new government policy, effectively neutralized any motivation by the Palestinians to refrain from terrorism.

For the Palestinians there was incontestable proof that Israel would concede only under fire. This proof came in the form of Prime Minister Barak's withdrawal of Israeli forces from southern Lebanon under Hizbullah's guns. The so-called security zone that Israel occupied in southern Lebanon between 1983 to 2000 to protect townships and farms in northern Israel from attack became a killing field for Israeli soldiers. Hizbullah killed over 1000 Israelis and thousands more during the 18-year Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon. Barak's decision to withdraw his forces from southern Lebanon during the cover of night in May of 2000 under Hizbullah's fire provided the Palestinians with compelling evidence of Israel's limited threshold for casualties and its disposition towards bending in dealing with persistent violence.

Successive Israeli governments over the years, having been taken in by Arafat's double- talk, repeatedly fell into the trap Palestinian violence laid for them. Each time this strengthened the Palestinians' belief that they could win more concessions only through violence. Some Israeli politicians like Yossi Bailin and Shimon Peres even articulated the existence of terror as a reason for accelerating negotiations and making greater concessions. The far more hard-line government of Benjamin Natanyahu also fell into the same trap, withdrawing Israeli troops from Hebron following the "Tunnel riots" and signing the Wye agreement, in the aftermath of the "Har Homa riots." Finally, in refusing Barak's far-reaching concessions offered at Camp David, including the establishment of a Palestinian state, a halt to settlement activity, transfer of most Israeli settlements to Palestinian control and the division of Jerusalem, Arafat chose the path of violence. With violence raging, Barak seemingly rewarded Arafat's decision, offering, as late as January 2001, more concessions at the Taba Talks, including permission for a large number of Palestinian refugees to return to Israel within the 1967 borders. To the Palestinians, his response was an object lesson on the efficacy of violence, and their understanding led to the strategy and the tragedy of the Second Intifadah.

The day he came to power, Sharon knew full well that the prospects of making peace rested on shifting the dynamic of the relationship between the two peoples. He faced the formidable task of turning the Palestinians' mindset away from the notion of the efficacy of violence, of disabusing them of the notion that Israel would concede only under fire. This is why he had to remain totally committed to the principle of no negotiations and no concessions under the gun. Sharon went further, adopting a strategy of raising the ante. He retaliated with increasingly punishing blows as violence, especially, in the form of suicide bombings, escalated. His targeted assassination of Palestinian militants, reoccupation of Palestinian territories, and systematic destruction of the Palestinian infrastructure finally forced the Palestinians to realize that violence offered a diminishing return and, if they continued in this path, every semblance of Palestinian nationhood would be destroyed.

Unfortunately, not all Palestinian factions have forsaken violence. Organizations like Hamas, Jihad, and other leftist groups, such as the Front for the Liberation of Palestine, still believe that Israel's ultimate destruction will come through armed struggle. These elements must eventually concede to Israel's reality, disarm, and join in the political process or face their own demise. On the other hand, Sharon must avoid any provocation unless acting to prevent an imminent attack. But as Israel and the Palestinians move along the path towards peace, all sides, particularly the United States, must realize that although Israel must eventually make many and in some cases, enormous– concessions to reach a final agreement, none should be made under fire of any level. Only this way will prevent the Road Map from becoming another relic of failed peacemaking.