Mideast -- the moment to move
Overtures by a new Palestinian leader are being met in kind by Israel

Christine W. Michelmore
Sunday, February 06, 2005

It is hard not to be a little bit optimistic about the Middle East.

The elections in Iraq went better than expected. The thaw in Palestinian-Israeli relations seems genuine. In Iraq, for the immediate future, the United States can do little beyond hold on and hope that the situation improves. In the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, we can do an enormous amount to move that conflict toward a conclusion.

For the first time in more than four bloody years, both Palestinian and Israeli leaders seem able and anxious to talk. Mahmoud Abbas, the newly elected leader of the Palestinian Authority, has a long record of negotiating with Israel and opposing the violence of the current Palestinian intifada -- it hurts the Palestinian case and chances of a viable state. Since his election in early January, Abbas has moved far more quickly and forcefully than most observers expected to stop attacks against Israel, deploying Palestinian security forces in Gaza and forbidding civilians from carrying weapons. Palestinian militants, while not eschewing violence, have gone along with Abbas.

An initially skeptical Ariel Sharon has responded by halting assassinations of militant leaders, loosening some travel restrictions and halting Israeli offensive operations against Palestinians. Security officials on both sides are publicly meeting and talks between Abbas and Sharon are set for Tuesday.

For their own reasons, both sides want a respite from the current cycle of violence and counter-violence.

Sharon wants to withdraw Israeli settlers and soldiers from Gaza beginning in July. He is under increasing pressure from the settler minority not to do so. The overwhelming majority supports withdrawal, but Israelis are jittery about the security consequences. At the same time, Sharon has said that Israel won't withdraw under circumstances that give the impression that Israel is being forced out. Quiet is crucial to Sharon's plans.

For Palestinians, July is significant for possible Israeli withdrawal, but even more for long-postponed legislative elections. Abbas wants to win those elections, to get like-minded, younger Palestinians elected, and to bring in sections of the militant opposition as political allies. To do that, he has to begin to bring some order out of the chaos, corruption and crime into which the Palestinian Authority has fallen in the last four years. He has to get rid of Arafat cronies, ease rampant corruption, consolidate and gain control of the more than 12 security services that now exist. He has to get the economy moving -- providing incomes for people grown hopelessly desperate. He has to find jobs for angry young men.

He can't do any of this if Israeli military incursions, targeted assassinations and suffocating travel restrictions continue. He too needs quiet.

History indicates that these moments of possibility are tenuous. They arise from a combination of war weariness on both sides and some change in the situation. The last four years of violence have once again indicated that no level of Palestinian murder and mayhem will force Israel to do what Israel doesn't want to do.

But despite free use of overwhelming military power, Israel has again been unable to bludgeon or bulldoze Palestinians into accepting occupation. The weary despair on both sides has been palpable, but it produced no breakthrough because Israel refused to talk to the Palestinians through Yasser Arafat and the Palestinians refused to talk to the Israelis except through Arafat. His death broke the dead weight of this self-imposed roadblock, opening an avenue of opportunity.

But it didn't change much else. The minimum demands of both sides remain the same. For the Palestinians, it is a Palestinian state in Gaza and all but a sliver of the West Bank, with its capital in Jerusalem and a "just settlement" for the Palestinian refugees that recognizes the injustice they suffered when they fled or were driven from Israel in 1948 and their consequent right to return to their homes.

For the Israelis, it is an end to the violence, annexation to Israel of the Jerusalem suburbs in which most of the settlers live, maintenance of some sort of control over much of Jerusalem and a just settlement for the estimated 4 million refugees that excludes all but a token number from actually returning to Israel.

Public opinion polls suggest that perhaps a quarter of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza reject any compromise and envision the eventual destruction of Israel. A similar number of Israelis deny the possibility of a Palestinian state. But majorities on both sides, exhausted by the violence, appear willing to settle for the minimum demands. And in one way or another, the official negotiations at Taba in 2000 and the unofficial Geneva Initiative in 2003 devised possibly viable answers to these demands.

But without outside help, the two sides will not get to those solutions. Mahmoud Abbas has been very clear. He will work toward a ceasefire with militant factions -- Hamas, Islamic Jihad, al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade -- coaxing them into the political process. But he will not meet Sharon's demand to dismantle their organizations or disarm them as a prerequisite for political negotiations. They are a legitimate part of the Palestinian nation.

As the recent municipal elections in Gaza demonstrated, Hamas is popular both for the support services it offers an impoverished people and for its willingness to fight Israel. Abbas can't win elections in July if he starts a civil war he has neither the popularity nor the firepower to win.

Sharon's insistence that he will not get sucked into negotiations before Israel's maximum security needs are met, simply means there will be no negotiations. For most Palestinians, who don't really believe the Sharon government will end the occupation and usurpation of Palestinian land, this is the point. They fear that the pullout from Gaza is a ploy to keep the West Bank. This fear is reinforced by the building of the security wall inside the West Bank, by on-going new settlement construction, and by Sharon's repeated advocacy of Palestinian statelets in something like 50 percent of the West Bank. On this Abbas has also been very clear. He opposes violence; he will work to end it; but at the end of the day he will accept no less than Arafat or any other Palestinian leader.

This is where American participation is crucial. President Bush has said he wants to see an independent Palestinian state. He has made it his mission to spread liberty and freedom across the globe. His lieutenants have trumpeted that this second term will be a period of "transformational diplomacy." Palestine-Israel is the perfect place to start. Our estranged allies in the Middle East and Europe are frantic to help us. Movement toward a solution is a joint project that would help heal European bruises over Iraq. Movement toward a solution will reduce the running sore that most enflames American relations with the Muslim world. It will make cooperation on other issues -- Iraq, Iran, al-Qaida -- more possible and more productive.

But make no mistake, to be successful the United States will have to put enormous pressure on Israel. This will be very hard for this president to do. The neocons in his administration and his evangelical Christian constituency are profoundly pro-Israel. Since Ariel Sharon sharply rebuked him in 2002 for interfering in Israeli affairs, the president has kept quiet. His only foray into Middle Eastern diplomacy -- the Road Map to Peace -- was half-hearted and failed abysmally.

Mahmoud Abbas's election was a hopeful step. But it has not changed the basic power dynamic or the basic demands of the conflict. The international community, led by the United States, has to get involved quickly and forcefully. Simultaneous movement toward the minimum demands of both sides would undermine the militant minorities on both sides who prefer land to peace and whose greatest asset is the despair and fear of the majorities on both sides that peace is impossible. Only swift, clear, even-handed pressure toward the achievement of the minimums will prevent this first step from being the last.

Christina W. Michelmore is chair of the History Department at Chatham College and a specialist in modern Middle Eastern history.

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