All Writings
January 10, 2001

Behind The Tragic Israeli-Palestinian Violence and Beyond

The tragic conflagration between Israel and the Palestinians has led not only to the loss of over 300 lives, but more tragically and ominously, has shattered the basic premise of mutual trust, security and reconciliation that both sides have attempted to establish since the 1993 Oslo Accord, and on which peace must be based. Prime Minister Barak, Palestinian Chairman Arafat and President Clinton, pressured by the internal political dynamics of Israel and the Palestinians, contributed directly to the outburst of violence. It is hard to assess the ultimate price Israel and the Palestinians will pay for the disastrous events of the past few months. One thing, however, can be said with certainty: Israeli-Palestinian relations will be scarred by a deep sense of distrust, anxiety and fear haunting the next generation regardless of any future agreement.

It is convenient and rather simplistic to blame the Palestinian rioting and violence on the Likud leader's visit to the Temple Mount or Noble Sanctuary. Even though the visit may have been ill timed, an accidental killing of a Palestinian youth by an Israeli soldier, or the injury of another by a reckless Israeli driver could have triggered the same violent reaction. The Palestinian authorities were unwilling and, as the conflict assumed a life of its own, unable to quell the violence. The fact that Palestinian security personnel used their fire-arms against the Israelis resulting in Israeli retaliation against Palestinian government buildings, their symbols of authority, underlines how fragile the relationship between the two parties is and how dangerously it has eroded.
A number of factors might explain the Palestinian mindset that set the stage for this violent explosion:

First, an abundance of evidence suggests that there is a strong Palestinian constituency, consisting mostly of members of the Palestinian Resistance Movement (Hamas) and the largest and best organized Fatah movement (founded and still led by Arafat), that has been preparing for an uprising against the Israelis. The Palestinian outburst is far from spontaneous. These groups were waiting for an opportunity to violently confront the Israelis in order to achieve what negotiations cannot – a "war of independence." They want to create a Palestinian state not through negotiation with Israel, but through acts of defiance, blood and martyrdom. The Palestinian determination to throw off the Israeli yoke and end the occupation was inspired, not in a small way, by Hizballah's claim that only through continuing violent resistance was Israel forced out of southern Lebanon. Moreover, since the long and protracted negotiating process has not produced immediate and tangible dividends, the Palestinians in the street resorted to the only thing they knew well – Intifadah – knowing full well that the first Intifadah (1987-1993) led to the Oslo Accord. Hence, notwithstanding an agreement to end the violence that was reached first at Sharam el-Shiek between President Clinton, Prime Minister Barak, Egypt's President Mubarek and Chairman Arafat, and then between former Prime Minister Peres and Arafat, violence continued unabated. Concurrently, persistent calls by Palestinians of diverse political leanings to Arafat, including members of his own government urging him to declare a Palestinian state before the guns go silent, are being heard more and more.

Second, Prime Minister Barak, who came to power with a mandate to make peace, has failed largely because of his own doings. He established arbitrary deadlines by which to achieve an agreement with the Palestinians that he then could not meet, given the intricacies of the issues involved. As a result, Barak falsely raised both Israeli and Palestinian expectations only to leave them dashed. By what logic, one might ask, could Barak have assumed that he could finalize an agreement on the status of Jerusalem, the refugee problem, and the future of the settlements by last September 13, 2000 – a deadline that he initially established? Issues of less magnitude, such as partial surrender of territories to Palestinian control, took seven years to accomplish. What has further aggravated the situation is Barak's inability to generate consensus about any dramatic change in the final status of the Israeli settlements in the West Bank and especially Jerusalem, not only from his own coalition government but also from the Israeli public. In fact, on the eve of Barak's departure to the summit at Camp David in July, three parties in his coalition government, Shas, the National Religious Party and Israel B¹aliya, feeling that they were left in the dark, defected. Barak acted as a lone ranger, believing in his own supreme intellect and powers of persuasion. At Camp David he placed on the table all the cards he held so closely to his chest, especially about the future of Jerusalem and the fate of the settlements, without consultation with his coalition partners and without leaving himself much room for further concessions. Every negotiation he conducted failed, be it with the Palestinians, the Syrians or his own coalition partners. His only success without negotiations was the unilateral withdrawal from Lebanon. But that too blew up in his face with the abduction of three Israelis by Hizballah. Instead of focusing on turning over more land to Palestinian control, reducing Israeli military presence, beginning the process of dismantling isolated outposts or increasing economic development to benefit ordinary Palestinians, Barak abandoned the Oslo process to pursue an uncharted course of negotiations. His actions thus far have raised serious doubts about his intentions and, more importantly, his grasp of the political reality in Israel and the conditions under which peace can be forged. Barak's propensity for unilateral declarations without careful review and without much consultation raises further questions about his political savvy.

The second piece of fallout is the galvanization of the Palestinian extreme right and left. Together, they reassert their call for the destruction of Israel, intensifying terrorist activities against Israeli targets to further destabilize the situation and make any renewed efforts for an agreement more difficult. In Israel, the political landscape has also changed dramatically. Recent polls indicate that a clear majority of Israelis have moved to the right of center, and if a new election were to be held today, a coalition of right wing parties could win an absolute majority in the Israeli parliament. Former Prime Minister Natanyahu would beat Barak easily. The mere mention of a complete separation between Israel and the Palestinians, recently floated by Barak, would have been unheard of a few months ago. It sent shivers up the spines of many on both sides who see their futures inextricably linked. More disheartening is the fact that even the Peace Now movement feels dismayed and discouraged. The zeal with which the movement pursued peace in the past is gone; to be sure, the Palestinians lost their best advocate for further concessions by Israel to make peace.

The third piece of fallout is the alienation of the Israeli Palestinians and their demonstration of sympathy for and solidarity with their Palestinian brethren in the West Bank and Gaza. The outburst of violence has provided a bitter awakening to most Israelis. They were astonished to realize that 50 years of Palestinian Israeli citizenship produced, as they put it, no loyalty and no allegiance to their country. How will the Israelis deal with this minority who feels disenfranchised and is willing to violently confront Israeli soldiers and die to make its case? Were the Israelis engaged in self-delusion about how the Israeli Palestinians really felt? And what political, economic and social remedies should this or any future Israeli government adopt to prevent Israel's own Palestinians from becoming a fifth column in future confrontations with the Palestinians or the Arab states?

The only remaining consolation of the current Israeli-Palestinian maelstrom is the fact that most Israelis and Palestinians know deep inside that there is no viable alternative to peaceful coexistence. Resorting to more violence, more death and more destruction will only lead to the precipice of a disaster of incredible proportions. In the end, they must still face one another, come to grips with each other's reality and engage in a more somber discussion about their inevitable joint future.
Barak's resignation on December 9, 2000 will prompt a new Israeli election for prime minister within 60 days. Whoever wins the premiership, be it Barak, Likud's present leader Ariel Sharon, or former prime minister Natanyahu, (should he assume the leadership of his party in case of a new parliamentary elections), the new coalition government must face the reality of the Palestinian question once and for all. Regardless of the intensity of future hostilities, the newly elected prime minister should form a new broad-based coalition with those political parties that reflect the will of the people in support of the peace process. Unlike the previous government, which collapsed over the peace negotiations, the new coalition government must be formed with a clear understanding of the requirements for peace, particularly in connection with the future of Jerusalem and the disposition of the settlements.

Barak's reelection prospects will largely depend on what he does during the next 60 day in office as the head of a caretaker government. He must provide the Israelis with a clear picture of what he wants to do and why they should trust him to attain a breakthrough from the breakdown which he, at least in part, precipitated. He must produce a framework for peace that has a reasonable chance of acceptance by a majority of Israelis and Palestinians.

First, Barak must continue to focus on cessation of hostilities; indeed, the Israelis might have to brace themselves for continuing violence until election day and beyond, as well as the prospect of a unilateral declaration of a Palestinian state. Barak should develop a long-term contingency plan to deal with such an eventuality without further aggravating the situation.

Second, Barak, or whoever else might be elected as prime minister, must make the evacuation of many of the settlements central to his re-election platform. Barak can no longer treat the problem of the settlements as a monolithic political force opposing territorial concessions. He must prepare the Israeli public for the inevitable and make the settlers part of the solution instead of giving them the kind of false hope which led gradually and inevitably to the present disaster. To be sure, the settlements that were built to enhance Israeli security in the West Bank and Gaza have now become their albatross. Any solution to the problem of the settlements also has to be viewed in the context of the soon-to-be established Palestinian state and will, of necessity, require a territorial link. Otherwise, the current security nightmare will be worsened for the Israelis.