Israel’s momentous withdrawal from Gaza and the ceasefire agreement between Israel and the Palestinians, while substantially reducing the level of violence in the past eight months, have not produced the hoped-for momentum to propel the peace process forward. The two parties have remained stuck, unable to overcome the repercussions of the second Intifadah–which left the Israelis deeply scarred psychologically and thrust the Palestinians into an unruly situation in the territories. This explains to a large degree why since the Gaza withdrawal in mid-August, Prime Minister Sharon and President Abbas have been unable to meet because they cannot agree on an agenda that deals with their respective priorities.
If one talks to Israeli and Palestinian officials and academics and observes the political and social combustion in both societies, as I have been doing, it is impossible to escape the fact that Israelis’ and Palestinians’ misconstrued perception of each other’s positions has led them to draw incompatible conclusions about the situation. Thus, for the Israelis there is a growing sense of resignation over a Palestinian reality they cannot change—an attitude that promotes the ideas of further unilateral disengagement, while for mainstream Palestinians, there is bewilderment over the inability of Israelis to grasp the historic opportunity to peacefully and permanently end their decades-old violent conflict. These incompatible perceptions obviously aggravate the Israeli-Palestinian relationship, affecting the policies of both sides in fundamental ways and hindering any progress. Here are some of the issues that have created serious divide between the two sides:
Hamas’ participation in the national election: Israeli demands that the Palestinian Authority disarm Hamas and bar it from participating in the national elections scheduled for next January, have met with stiff resistance by the Palestinian Authority. For Israel, Hamas is a terrorist organization whose actions have resulted in hundreds of Israeli casualties through suicide bombings and mortar attacks; it follows then that it should not become part of the political process. But to the Palestinian Authority, Hamas represents a significant constituency and, although Mr. Abbas rejects the organization’s strategy of violence, he is unwilling to challenge Hamas at this juncture, partly because he is unable and partly because he prefers to co-opt it into the political process and so avoid more bloodshed. In addition, the Palestinians argue that they need more time to sort out their internal problems, insisting that decades of occupation and violent conflict, especially since the eruption of the second Intifadah five years ago, have left much of the Palestinian territories socially, politically, and structurally in ruin. And, even though, as a Palestinian official told me, “Co-opting Hamas politically may entail certain risks, because in its present form it offers an alternative to Fatah, Mr. Abbas feels strongly that only through a political process will Hamas moderate its behavior, and this is a risk worth taking.” Moreover, allowing political pluralism by letting everyone participate in the election makes it more legitimate. Then, as Mr. Abbas recently stated, “All groups will become a part of the Palestinian political fabric and thus create a new phase in the life of the Palestinians.” Whether these arguments resonate with the Israelis, the truth is that Israel cannot dictate who may or may not participate in a democratic Palestinian election.
Roadblocks and national security: Another serious point of contention is caused by the Israeli roadblocks and the consequent restriction on Palestinian mobility. The tremendous hardship, suffering, and humiliation that they produce incite even more resistance and hatred toward Israel. Although the Israeli government agrees that many roadblocks and the construction of separate roads to reduce contact between Israelis and Palestinians traveling in the West Bank do cause hardship and are not conducive to a neighborly relationship, it argues that they are necessary to the security of the Israeli people. In a conversation I had with Sharon’s spokesperson Ra’anan Gissin, he said: “Every time we ease Palestinian mobility by removing roadblocks, as we have done many times in the past and especially in recent months, a terrorist act is attempted and often succeeds. . . . As long as the Palestinian Authority cannot control the situation and prevent extremists from attacking us, we are left with no choice but to take measures, however disdained they may be.” But Mr. Abbas counters such a view, insisting that “peace and security cannot be guaranteed by the construction of walls, by the erection of checkpoints and confiscation of land, but rather by recognition of rights.” Mr. Sharon’s response to this argument is that after the trauma of pulling settlers out of Gaza, Israel cannot act to help the Palestinians unless Mr. Abbas does more to disarm Hamas and other militant groups.
Targeted killing and ceasefire: An added source of disagreement is Palestinian complaints that Israel is continuing with its policy of targeted killings, while demanding simultaneously that Palestinian violence must stop. Many Palestinians agree that no attack against any Israeli target is justified, but they add that the Israeli retaliations are disproportionate and simply inflame ordinary Palestinians and therefore perpetuate the vicious cycle of violence. Naturally, the Israelis see the situation differently: they maintain that targeting killing has ended with the ceasefire agreement, but, as another Sharon advisor explained to me, “ When we are fired upon without provocation or when we know of a plot of a suicide bombing, we have no choice but to act and stop the perpetrator. Unfortunately, the Palestinian security forces seem incapable of doing anything about it, and we end up burying our dead.” But to the Palestinians, this sort of argument only proves that the Israeli government is missing the point altogether: According to Khalil Shikaki, Director of the Ramallah-based Center for Policy and Survey Research, 77% of Palestinians strongly support the continuation of the ceasefire and, despite their attributing Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza to Hamas’ violent resistance, their support for the Palestinian Authority has increased from 44 to 47 percent between June and September, approval of Hamas actually decreased from 33 to 30 percent. The respected Palestinian pollster Nabil Kukali, Director of the Palestinian Center for Public Opinion, suggests that Israel must capitalize on this dramatic public opinion shift and provide economic support to encourage greater openness so that the withdrawal from Gaza is seen by Palestinians as a political watershed and a genuine opportunity for the economic development that they need so desperately to move forward.
The expansion of settlements: Israel’s expansion of settlements in the West Bank, is a critical point of contention which raises serious questions in the minds of the Palestinians about its ultimate intentions and the huge effect the settlements will have on a future Palestinian state. For Israel, however, the expansion of certain settlements is needed for natural growth, specifically those settlements that the Israeli government intends to incorporate into Israel proper in any final agreement, such as Ma’aleh Adomim. On the whole, of course, the settlements have been an albatross around Israel’s neck and have only aggravated the conflict with the Palestinians who view every Israeli house built on Palestinian land as a usurpation of their inherited rights to that land. The Palestinians argue against the Israeli view in this matter, insisting that any final accord must be negotiated by mutual agreement and no unilateral Israeli action can determine the final borders.
The fence: It is in the context of the land issue that the Palestinians vehemently disagree with Israel about the building of the fence, which they say encroaches on Palestinian lands, causing undue hardship, and so prevents any prospect for the development of productive and healthy relations. Israel’s response has been to point to the undisputable evidence that the fence has substantially reduced terrorist infiltrations in Israel, especially by suicide bombers, and the government has a solemn responsibility to protect its citizens at whatever cost. The fence can be removed once the Palestinians prove that they are good and peaceful neighbors.
Although both sides make cogent arguments, what lies behind each position they take are their decades-long tragic experiences culminating in the second Intifadah which shattered any semblance of mutual trust. One result is that there is very little room for good faith gestures. If trust is a means by which to manage risks, Israel seems unwilling to risk trusting its security to the Palestinian Authority, especially when Hamas and Islamic Jihad continue to profess their desire to destroy Israel. Certainly, the Israeli government is encouraged by Mr. Abbas’s commitment to a peaceful solution; however, it has not seen any strong evidence that he can deliver on his promises. Mr. Sharon also faces a rebellious party that rose up against him because of his decision to withdraw from Gaza. He needs to consolidate his position before next year’s elections and is therefore unwilling to compromise on national security as long as some Palestinian factions continue to kill Israelis.
For the Palestinians, Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza offers a momentous opportunity to rebuild an infrastructure decimated by five years of violent conflict. Mr. Abbas, who was among the very first Palestinians to confess out loud that the Intifadah brought only destruction to the Palestinians, correctly sought a ceasefire to begin a meaningful dialogue with the Israelis. Unfortunately, his success in this regard, although real, has fallen far short of Israel’s expectations. The Gaza that Israel left is now made up of a variety of militant gangs, refugee camps, and Hamulah; it is a place where the “democracy of the rifle” prevails. Mr. Abbas is banking on the upcoming Palestinian national elections to solidify his position and consolidate his security forces, but he has to show that his policy of reconciliation with Israel is paying off. For this he needs some important Israeli concessions, including release of prisoners, removal of roadblocks, the reopening of the Rafah border crossing between Egypt and Gaza, and the turning over to Palestinian control of cities in the West Bank: above all, he needs to improve the economic lot of ordinary Palestinians. For much of this to happen depends, of course, on Israeli goodwill. The present pace of change is slow and frustrating, because the violence remains prevalent and consuming and the psychological hang-ups inhibit bold initiative. Moreover, the Bush administration’s preoccupation with Iraq has prevented it from playing a decisive role and avoided pressuring either sides or both to meet each other’s urgent requirements. Instead, it has basically settled on a holding pattern hoping to avoid major eruption of renewed violence.
Although both Abbas and Sharon are committed to peace and seek to promote it, their differing assessments of the prevailing political and on-the-ground conditions, both in the territories and in Israel, prevent them from seeing eye-to-eye on how to proceed. They are, however, cognizant of an historic opportunity that neither can afford to miss. They must demonstrate a greater capacity for appreciation and understanding of each other’s dilemmas and begin to support each other by agreeing on small constructive but irreversible steps, on which to build a structure for peace strong enough to withstand the test of the day-to-day uncertainties.