Throughout the on-again, mostly off-again peace process between Israel and the Palestinians for the last decade, Jerusalem has operated under certain basic assumptions.
Chief among them were:
* the primary goal of the Palestinian national movement was to establish an independent state, and to do so, it was willing to allow that state to be demilitarized;
* the establishment of the Palestinian state depended on Israel and its willingness to make compromises and concessions based on its security interests being met;
* it was in Israel’s best interest to have an independent Palestinian state so that Israel would not continue to occupy a growing and hostile population against its will, and so as not to create a demographic nightmare, where Jews would gradually be outnumbered by Palestinians; * and that getting Israel and the Palestinians to sign a formal agreement would consolidate the two-state solution and bolster the chances for its success.
But a leading Zionist think tank is now suggesting that those central points of view no longer hold and that Israel’s “positions and policies regarding the status of the Palestinian Authority and security arrangements are gradually becoming irrelevant.”
Israel has to decide between its security and its political and diplomatic status, according to a new analysis by the Re’ut Institute, a Tel Aviv-based group that offers strategic analysis to Israeli government agencies on a pro bono basis. In other words, Israel must choose between protecting its own people by keeping control over the Palestinians, or reaching a peace agreement and ending the occupation by giving up key security demands.
Despite — or because of — their violent internal conflicts, primarily between Fatah and Hamas, the Palestinians are no longer willing to advocate for a state at any price.
“The Palestinian quest to reach statehood has lost momentum,” says Gidi Grinstein, founder and president of Re’ut, “and as a result, the willingness of the Palestinians to compromise has also diminished.”
This is because Palestinian leaders, for a variety of reasons, are coming to believe that they have the upper hand and are no longer dependent on Israeli cooperation.
Some Palestinians say the Palestinian Authority (PA) under Mahmoud Abbas is so weak and ineffectual, particularly in its struggle with Hamas for dominance, that it would be best to dissolve it and force Israel to deal with the resulting economic and political chaos on the West Bank.
Some say that the Palestinians need not compromise on military issues, like allowing Israel to control the new state’s air space in any permanent peace agreement.
Other Palestinians say that Israel needs and wants a two-state solution more than they do to avoid a one-state scenario where Israel would gradually lose its Jewish majority, enabling a political rather than military takeover of the state.
Indeed, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert seems to believe that as well, having said several months ago that “if the day comes when the two-state solution collapses and we face a South African-style struggle for equal voting rights … Israel is finished.”
Grinstein believes that if and when Israel and the Palestinian Authority sign a formal peace plan, the potential for major violence would be heightened, not diminished, because the militant opponents of the agreement would unleash their forces to undermine the agreement.
He notes that Hamas, the terrorist group that controls Gaza, has a strong presence in the West Bank as well, but has shown restraint there. All of that would end, though, if the PA made a deal with Jerusalem.
“Resistance groups always mobilize better than the moderates,” says Grinstein, who fears that the U.S. is pushing Israel and the Palestinians toward “a moment of truth” at a time of “highly alarming circumstances.”
His suggestion is to seek a series of arrangements that would benefit and strengthen the PA — like less onerous checkpoints, money transfers, even diplomatic recognition — rather than pushing for a signed agreement.
This logic, then, would suggest that Washington should encourage Abbas not to negotiate now, and that Israel should applaud rather than condemn when countries like Costa Rica open diplomatic ties with the PA, as took place last month.
“It’s all a matter of how you see your interests and how you respond,” says Grinstein, adding that the Israeli government is giving out confused signals now.
On the one hand Jerusalem seems to see the main threat as legal, political and diplomatic, evidenced by Olmert’s fear of the end of a two-state solution. Yet Israel is acting in the negotiations as if the primary threat is a military one, in its insistence on security demands and a finality of claims.
“We don’t see a coherent policy coming from the Israeli leadership,” says Grinstein.
But David Makovsky, a Mideast expert who is senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, cautions against putting the brakes on the current peace talks, as frustrating and slow-moving as they appear to be. “There are risks of inaction as well as action,” he says. His concern is that if the talks were to end, Abbas would lose what little standing he has among the Palestinians and Hamas would take over the West Bank, paving the way for untold bloodshed and a one-state solution.
“I would argue that we in the U.S. have a major stake in the Palestinian internal struggle and should be doing all we can to influence it,” meaning bolster Abbas, “without damaging Israeli security,” Makovsky says. “That’s the core issue.”
He, too, calls for “pragmatic improvements” on the ground, such as privatized and/or more efficient checkpoints from Israel, and having the PA finally stop broadcasting anti-Semitic hatred and stop praising suicide bombers as martyrs.
Makovsky worries that too much talk about an imminent one-state solution, which he doesn’t see on the horizon for at least a few more years, could lead to “a self-fulfilling prophecy.”
In the end, there are no easy answers when it comes to Mideast dilemmas. It is possible that the post-Annapolis talks are proceeding behind closed doors, but it is more likely that they are running into the same resistance we saw in Oslo, Camp David and Taba, with Israel — the majority of its citizens, not just government leaders — willing to take risks for peace and the other side steadfastly refusing to accept a Jewish state in the region.
That’s one Palestinian assumption that, tragically, has never changed.