All Writings
June 27, 2005

What Went Wrong?

By all accounts, the Summit meeting between Prime Minister Sharon and the President Abbas ended this past week with little progress. Afterward, the Palestinians claimed that Israel failed to fulfill its promises, including the release of more prisoners and the turnover of certain cities to Palestinian control, and in addition, remained unwilling to enter into substantive discussions about final-status agreements. Israel’s intransigence on these matters, and its continuing settlement activity, the Palestinians argued, are undermining both the peace process and Mr. Abbas’s own position. Israel countered by blaming the Palestinians for doing next to nothing to stem the violence, whose end, it considers a sine qua non to any progress. These charges and countercharges are reminiscent of past years when Arafat was the head of the Palestinian Authority. The concern today is that unless serious progress is made, the window of opportunity that opened following his death may soon close and the increasingly fragile cease-fire will be completely shattered.

If this happens, it will not be the first time that the Israelis, and especially the Palestinians, missed an historic opportunity. The issues that torpedoed previous negotiations remain to a great extent the same today. They continue to haunt the two parties because neither can totally break free of the past nor fully grasp its impact on the other party. Israelis identify seven major problems for which they hold the Palestinian responsible for much of what went wrong and which continue to impede the present negotiations, while the Palestinians counter with three of their own. The obstacles the Israelis see are:

First, using the conflict to perpetuate the political leaders’ hold on power: To this day, Israelis inside and outside the government insist that, despite the commitment of Mahmoud Abbas to a two-state solution achieved through peaceful means, many Palestinian factions, including some members of the Authority, view the conflict with Israel as a way to mobilize popular support and strengthen their own grip on power. The crux of the problem is that historically, the Palestinians along with many Arab states, perceived peace with Israel as more threatening than the continuation of the conflict, however destructive it may have been. Because of this mindset, Arafat at the last minute turned down an Israeli offer (Camp David 2000) that met most of the Palestinian demands and opted to continue the struggle by any means, including violence. Israel has, consequently, become a preoccupation that has effectively marginalized any real discourse within the Palestinian community about other critical issues such as investment, education of the youth, and the development of civil society. The political leadership has basically taken the view that nothing good can result from reconciling differences with Israel; real economic and social progress will come about only by rebelling against the existing reality, in which Israel is a dominant factor. Because of this belief, political gestures toward Israel were designed to forestall or deceive so the Palestinians could achieve a tactical advantage. This explains the mixture of political gestures and violence that made up the Palestinian posture under Arafat’s leadership. To be sure, Arafat’s refusal to end the conflict with Israel is what kept him in power. To what extent this dynamic may have changed under Mahmoud Abbas remains to be seen. An Israeli official who was present during the last round of the recent negotiations told me that “we taught the Palestinian leadership a lesson in history during the meeting in the hopes that the present leaders do not repeat the mistakes of the past.” When I asked what their reaction was, he replied: “They were wondering if we had learned ours.”

Second, treating concessions by Israel as weakness: As they have in the past, most Palestinians treat Israeli concessions not as a gesture of goodwill to promote peace but as signs of weakness. The Israeli withdrawal from southern Lebanon was viewed in that light and was then used to propel the second Intifadah to try to force Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank and Gaza. In fact, Hamas and Jihad claim credit for having “made him [Sharon] decide” on his withdrawal plan from Gaza. Seeing Israeli concessions from this perspective makes the negotiation between the two parties into a zero sum negotiation–a gain by one side is a loss to the other–rather than a collaborative effort that promotes genuine give-and-take. Portraying Israel as weak and believing that it will eventually be doomed because of God’s will or historical inevitability also provide the rationale for the bankrupt policy the leadership pursued as a political tool to manipulate public opinion. Israel as the enemy offered the leadership a way to explain its failures to deal with other urgent social and economic problems plaguing the Palestinian community. The argument goes: Since nothing to solve them can be accomplished until Palestine is liberated and since Palestine has not been liberated, then, whatever has to be done to deal with all the pressing problems must await the day of liberation. The dissemination of this view helps explain why Islamic and nationalist doctrine have had a special appeal to an angry and disenchanted people, who, repeatedly humiliated by Israel, need to understand why they are weaker and less developed than the enemy their leaders have labeled as weak. It also explains why militant Palestinian groups, Jihad in particular, continue to violate the cease-fire agreement precisely when Israel is making final preparations for its withdrawal from Gaza. In this way, they demonstrate to their people that Israel is leaving under the gun.

Third, using indiscriminate violence to galvanize militancy: From the time the PLO was created in 1964 to this day, violence has been seen by Palestinians as the method of choice to confront Israel. Thus, the 1960s and 1970s were marked by periods of indiscriminate attacks, which reached new heights during the second Intifadah that erupted in 2000. Even though this violence, especially the suicide bombings, provoked Israeli retaliations that destroyed the Palestinian cities, economy, and infrastructure, extremists continued with their brazen attacks because they offered visible evidence of their battle against Israel, affirmed the power they claimed for themselves, and could be used to seduce young Palestinians into joining their ranks. But although assassination, terrorism and guerrilla warfare failed to achieve the militant’s goal, still as a galvanizing force, violence remains indispensable to them. This explains why, as a matter of principle, neither Hamas nor Jihad are willing to renounce it and disarm, even if the Israelis meet their main requirements. We can see evidence of this stance in Lebanon, where Hizbullah retains its militant posture and arms, despite Israel’s withdrawal from Lebanese soil, which was the group’s main demand.

Fourth, falling captive to antagonistic public opinion of their own creation: The Palestinian leadership, like those of the Arab states, has deliberately portrayed Israel as their implacable enemy and the cause of their plight. The media and many intellectuals became the mouthpieces for various political leaders, working to shape public opinion by making Israel appear as an evil entity to be reviled and rejected. Many Arab intellectuals served their rulers by passionately supporting an agenda designed to perpetuate the rulers’ hold on power at the expense of their own people. Anti-Israeli propaganda was reinforced in all public and private learning institutions. Palestinian textbooks either denied Israel’s existence altogether or portrayed it as an occupying power that must be dislodged. But this mass indoctrination, while successfully spreading anti-Israeli sentiments throughout the Palestinian community, also made it impossible for Palestinian leaders to show any moderation toward Israel even when it could serve their interests. In short, the media, schools, and other institutions remained tightly controlled by the governing authority, obediently serving up the official line, and in the process, the Authority became prisoners of the public opinion they so carefully cultivated. Because for decades the destruction of Israel has been seen as the prerequisite to Palestinian salvation, despite their intensified suffering due to the continuing occupation, the people are loath to understand why they should now accept Israel.

Fifth, targeting Israel’s very existence instead of striving for coexistence: Although the Palestinians have made many peaceful overtures over the years, especially since the Oslo Accord of 1993, many of their actions, public pronouncements, and demands of Israel have suggested a determined desire to obliterate it as a Jewish state. The Palestinian strategy following the Oslo accord was to get what was possible through negotiation, press harder for more concessions through violence, and keep the demographic option as the ultimate weapon. Whereas the Palestinian Authorities, including the current one, profess to accept a two-state solution following a total Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank and Gaza, they demand, in the same breath, that all Palestinian refugees (about 3.5 to 4 million people) be repatriated to their original homes in what today is Israel. The President of al Quds University and one of the most eminent Palestinian scholars, Sari Nusseiba, recently observed: “How can we ask Israel first to surrender all of the occupied territories, which is our right, but then demand that all Palestinian refugees be repatriated to their original homes . . . This is not a question of right or wrong, but a question of demographic reality that Israel simply will not accept.” If these demands were met, Israel will no longer exist as a Jewish state, becoming, under the best of circumstances, a bi-national state with the Palestinians in a clear majority. >From the Israeli perspective, having failed so far to wipe out Israel by a military means, the Palestinians are resorting to demographic means to achieve this goal. In fact, this was one of the main demands Arafat made at Camp David in 2000 that dashed any hopes for an accord. In essence, then, the Palestinians have not yet accepted the right of Jewish self-rule in the Middle East and thus still refuse to see the state of Israel as the political expression of this right.

Sixth, a fractured Palestinian community and the lack of a consensus: The Palestinian community is now divided. On one side are those who, exhausted by the unending violence, seek accommodation with Israel; on the other, are those who insist that Israel’s destruction offers the only acceptable solution. The Palestinian Authority has not been able to produce a national consensus and continues to struggle with extreme and uncompromising elements. This situation has further complicated the negotiations and raises serious concerns in Israel about the Authority’s success in curbing these groups. In addition, several Palestinian organizations continue to operate at the behest of some Arab states such as Syria, and are often manipulated to serve the narrow agendas of the sponsoring country. Israel’s previous experiences with several of these unholy alliances have not been encouraging. Israelis have not forgotten the Arab states’ active support of the second Intifadah and their collaboration with Hamas in the wake of the collapse of the Camp David negotiations.