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
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
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
PG Publishing Co., Inc.