Questions about Palestinian sincerity obstacles to Mideast peace
By Ira Sharkansky
JERUSALEM–The conflict between Israel and Palestine is one of the most prominent of the world’s unsolved problems. The casualties are small in relation to what occurs wherever the United States military is directly involved. It is the location in the land considered holy by contending faiths, and the weight of Arab onlookers in international forums, that keeps this in the headlines.
Are we at the edge of a process that will solve this conflict?
Only time will tell.
Here I will focus on the complex political map of Israel, as I see it from public opinion surveys, media reports and commentators, and 35 years of talking to people with sharply different views.
There is a substantial portion of the population, perhaps a majority, willing to make substantial territorial concessions for “real peace.” However, a substantial number of people, perhaps as many as 100,000, are living on land that the national majority would concede. Some of those settlers are willing to move elsewhere, and some would jump at an attractive financial incentive, but many remember what happened when Israel removed its settlements from Gaza, and they are unwilling to move. Moreover, there is a substantial number of Israelis, including individuals who say they are willing to make substantial concessions, who express concern or major distrust about the willingness of Palestinians to do what it takes to assure “real peace.”
These “substantials” are vague, and do not fit together into something that we can interpret with a great deal of confidence.
Somewhat influenced, but also somewhat independent of public opinion, are policymakers with long experience in dealing with Palestinians, who are less than certain about the reliability of Palestinians. These include politicians and professionals in the military and civilian ministries. The politicians concerned about Palestinian reliability are not only members of right wing and centrist parties, but also those left of center. Knesset members of Labor and Meretz speak more often and more fully about the need to give up large portions of the West Bank. But some politicians on the left also indicate their concern about the intentions of Palestinians, especially those on the Islamic fringe. And the public has not shown a great deal of support for left of center politicians . Both Meretz and Labor are at historic low points in their Knesset representation.
Americans, Europeans, and the UN Secretary General are pressing Israeli leaders to make concessions that will keep alive the prospect of reaching agreement. Some are also pressing the Palestinians to show flexibility, and not to walk away at the first sign of disappointment.
The formats are not promising. The emphasis is on meetings between the most senior politicians, in the presence of senior politicians from other countries. It is not the setting for hammering out detailed agreements about land, water, defense, temporary or permanent borders, refugees, waste disposal, environmental protection, the transfer of individuals from Israeli administration and Israeli health insurance, and the content of Palestinian education (relevant to Israeli concerns about incitement). It is also not the setting for Israelis or Palestinians ratcheting down from often proclaimed demands. Transparency is fine, but agreements may only grow in the dim light of private meetings, with participants explaining later what they have given up in order to get what they obtained.
There is no end to the scenarios that the hopeful and doom sayers describe.
Many of them begin from the widespread pessimism about the partners, onlookers and outside troublemakers, and the contrasting demands that argue against success.
Already the fighters of Gaza have stepped up their rocket launchings in hopes of doing something that will hasten the end of the peace talks. So far the IDF has not responded with anything more than pin point reprisals, but no one should rule out another round of widespread destruction.
The hopeful pessimists of Israel, i.e., those who are pessimistic about the peace talks but otherwise hopeful, see a continuation of economic progress in the West Bank, a continued refrain from violence on the part of the Fatah government, and a gradual development of Palestinian society and economy in the West Bank alongside Israel. Those goodies may come along with continued Israeli restraints with respect to the extension of settlements, but that requires an added dose of optimism.
I have not noticed anyone who is optimistic about Gaza.
There are some who are pessimistic about peace talks, and pessimistic about the continued restraint from violence of West Bank Palestinians. Settlers and their friends, and some who are not their friends but see the settlers as something to reckon with, see periodic waves of violence on the West Bank, Israeli reprisals, and continued expansion of Israeli settlements. Their scenario extends to the eventual dominance of Israeli settlers throughout the West Bank, and a one-state solution between the Jordan and the Mediterranean.
This one-state scenario differs by 180 degrees from the one-state seen by those who see Palestinian gaining dominance via a demographic advantage.
The settlers are patient, and none of the adults I know assume that they will see the end of conflict. It will take time, perhaps several waves of Palestinian violence and Israeli destruction in response, a gradual tiring of international watchers and minders, the drying up of overseas Palestinians willing to invest time and again in something that is destroyed, and the continued outmigration of Palestinians.
I would not count on such a unfolding of events that depend on so many assumptions, but neither would I dismiss it out of hand. Settlers think about something like this scenario, and mainstream Israeli politicians are sufficiently concerned about the reliability of Palestinians so that they may avoid any wholesale movement of the settlers that would nip it in the bud.
Some of my American friends might view all of this as Israeli arrogance, and a refusal to make the agreements that everyone else sees as essential. Americans can do their best in places like Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan, and then leave when it is apparent that they cannot get what they want. They can soothe their national conscience by granting citizenship to the Vietnamese, Iraqis, and Afghans who succeed in leaving their countries.
Israel’s problems are closer. We are stuck with hostile neighbors, still being taught in their schools that we have no rights here. Israelis listen to a thoughtful President and leading Europeans, a Secretary of State who sometimes screeches, and overseas Jews who think about what is best for us. But Israelis have not the option of retreating to the other side of the world if their hopes turn bad.
Sharkansky is professor emeritus of political science at Hebrew University