A Legacy Of Violence And The Path To Peace
The passing of Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasir Arafat will dramatically change the political dynamic of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, providing a fresh opening for the resumption of the peace talks. The question is whether the United States, Israel, and the newly emerging Palestinian leadership can seize the opportunity, however dim the prospects for a peaceful agreement may appear. Past failures tend to discourage new initiatives, but they must not paralyze any of the three players because the stakes in resolving the conflict could not be much higher for each of them.
Many political observers of the Palestinian scene suggest that the departure of Arafat may even worsen rather than improve the possibility for meaningful dialogue with Israel. As the symbol of the Palestinian national movement, this argument goes, Arafat was able to unite most Palestinian factions and project a national purpose around which most Palestinians coalesced. Without him the Palestinian community will further disintegrate as it is already plagued by factionalism, internal infighting, and discord while suffering from divided loyalties, lawlessness, and the blind, often violent rivalry for power. To make matters worse, Hamas and Islamic Jihad, which are committed to Israel's destruction, will continue their violent attacks against Israel and frustrate any attempts by Palestinian moderates to reach agreement with Israel. In any event, many Israelis contend that the Palestinians do want to destroy, not coexist with Israel, citing as proof Arafat's refusal to accept the Clinton-Barak peace plan which would have established a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza. For these reasons, even with the best of intentions, the Palestinians will miss yet another opportunity as they have so many times in the past.
Although this argument has some validity, it overlooks important developments, not the least of which is the second Intifadah and its disastrous consequences. After four years of violent conflict with Israel, the Palestinian economy is in utter ruins, much of its institutions and infrastructure are destroyed, poverty and unemployment have reached new highs, and despair is pervasive. Surveys conducted by the Palestinian pollster, Shishaki, indicate that a majority of Palestinians want peace with Israel; they recognize how corrupt the Palestinian Authority under Arafat has been, and they want a real change in direction, away from the path that led them to such a dead-end. The emerging leaders, the former Prime Minister, Mahmoud Abbas, and the current one, Ahmed Qurei, are moderates. Abbas, the number two figure in the Palestinian Liberation Organization, is known for his opposition to terrorism and was one of the first to admit that the second Intifadah has been a disaster for the Palestinian people and cause. Although neither he nor Qurei enjoy popular support, they are seasoned politicians and respected in Israel. Abbas, the likely successor, is certainly acceptable to the United States (he's the only Palestinian leader ever invited to the Bush White House), even though he might have to share power with Qurei and others. Two other top contenders for key positions are Mahammad Dahlan in Gaza, and Jibril Rajoub in the West Bank; both are moderates and they effectively control the security forces in their respective areas. Given the authority, they can be ruthless in dealing with any group that opposes them, including Hamas. Interestingly, however, Hamas' leaders are also seeking to join a future Palestinian Authority, even though they realize that the price for being allowed in may be to stop the violent attacks against Israel once peace talks resume. These moderate leaders, like several others, including Marwan Bargouti, believe in a two-states solution. In any event, whoever rises to power during the transitional period will have to be elected by popular vote in order to gain legitimacy and thus receive a mandate to govern. For its part, Israel will have to make it possible logistically and militarily for Palestinians to conduct the free and democratic elections that would be essential to bestow the authority on the leaders who emerge for them to be able to engage in substantive negotiations.
On the Israeli side, there are those who argue that although Prime Minister Sharon is committed to withdrawal from all of Gaza and small part of the West Bank, he will resist any further concessions on this front. They believe this not only because Sharon faces intense opposition from a large segment of his own Likud Party but because he is personally unwilling to relinquish large parcels of the West Bank, a fact that will effectively end any prospects for an agreement acceptable to the Palestinians. That said, Sharon is pragmatic and may surprise many with additional withdrawals just as he surprised everyone when he announced his Gaza plans. Moreover, if the new Palestinian leadership persuades or forces Hamas and Jihad to suspend violent attacks against Israel, Sharon will be hard pressed not to respond in kind and engage the Palestinians seriously, especially since this was his own condition for the resumption of talks. Finally, he understands that this may be his last chance to establish his legacy as a peace maker, and the Israeli people will also press hard for a peaceful solution if the new Palestinian leadership commits itself to nonviolence.
More than 70 percent of Israelis seek a peaceful agreement even if that includes relinquishing most of the West Bank. The Israeli people tend to choose their leaders in response to the Palestinians' behavior; Palestinian moderation has been met with Israeli moderation and successive Israeli governments have consistently reflected the popular mood.
What about America's role? There are those who argue that although the administration's active and direct involvement in any future negotiation is of paramount importance, President Bush may not want to invest his new political capital in a dubious venture. Iraq remains essentially a quagmire, the war on terrorism is far from being won, and Iran's nuclear threat continues to preoccupy the administration; these situations require great focus, energy, and resources. Moreover, very few in the administration believe that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and Islamic militancy necessarily feed into each other, and in any event there is no desire, nor does it seem politically popular, to pressure Israel to make the major concessions necessary for peace. This thinking may have been valid a few weeks ago, but not today. President Bush perhaps now more than ever has his own legacy to worry about and may want to push for a breakthrough should the opportunity present itself. And such an opportunity is in the offing. Having won a second, and last, term, he will be emboldened to pursue aggressively his Road Map as long as a new, legitimate, and moderate Palestinian leadership is ready and able to do the hard bargaining to achieve peace. Finally, there is a growing recognition among administration officials that an Israeli-Palestinian peace is becoming a sin-qua-non for regional stability and the promulgation of freedom and democracy in Iraq and beyond. As long as this conflict continues, America will remain on the defensive because it is perceived by the Arab and Muslim world as Israel's ultimate defender.
In brief, the stakes for the three main players could not be higher; it remains to be seen whether Arafat's departure leaves a legacy of much of the same violence, destruction, and despair or paves the way for the peaceful solution that eluded him during his lifetime.