The following contrary opinion to how most of us see these things is by Thomas Mitchell, Ph.D., whose writings on the prospects for Israeli-Arab peace are based on a comparative analysis with other historic peace processes. See, for example, his piece on the applicability of Northern Ireland as a model for Israelis and Palestinians.
Meretz members and supporters in both Israel and the US are urging that in the wake of the Hamas takeover of Gaza, that Israel make dramatic gestures to save Abu Mazen (Mahmoud Abbas) and negotiate peace with him. I think that such a strategy would be unwise.
For Israel and the Palestinians to make peace three minimal conditions are necessary: First, the existence of a Palestinian government that could offer terms acceptable to a likely Israeli governing coalition. Second, the existence of an Israeli government that could offer terms acceptable to a likely PA government. Collectively these two conditions are known as “ripeness” but political scientists and negotiations theorists. Third, the presence of an American president or similar international mediator who is willing to devote the time and energy necessary into turning this “ripeness” into a peace settlement. This is known as “readiness,” to distinguish it from “ripeness.”
Throughout his career, Abu Mazen has been a vigorous advocate of the Palestinian right of return. Now facing competition from Hamas, he is unlikely to make concessions on this basic piece of Palestinian identity and offer a policy on refugees that even Meretz, let alone any Israeli government, could accept and survive politically. Likewise, Olmert is unlikely to be able to offer concessions on Jerusalem that any Palestinian government would accept. Olmert supported Likud positions on the indivisibility of Jerusalem throughout his career and is too weak politically to change now.
Although US Secretary of State Condileezza Rice is interested in negotiating an end to the conflict, at best she can expect no more support from George W. Bush that Bush’s father gave to James Baker in 1989 and 1991 or that Presidents Nixon and Ford gave to Henry Kissinger in 1974-75 during Kissinger’s shuttle diplomacy. Such a level of support would be sufficient for laying the groundwork for a future president, or for negotiating an interim agreement between Israel and one of its neighbors, but not for concluding peace between Israel and the Palestinians.
Historically, in conflicts like the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that have a colonial dimension, if the stronger dominant “settler” side embraces too strongly a native leader, it can be bad for the latter’s political health. Such was the case with Bishop Abel Muzorewa in Zimbabwe/Rhodesia when he was embraced by the Smith regime in 1978-79. His successor, Robert Mugabe, is still in power, to the sorrow of most Zimbabweans. Such was the case with Chief Minister Mangosuthu Gatsha Buthelezi in South Africa during the 1980s and early 1990s. Buthelezi, a leader of the Zulu “homeland” of KwaZulu, was never able to successfully challenge the ANC leadership for the allegiance of black voters and was lucky to end up as a minister in Mandela’s first government.
And it can be argued that this was the case with the nonviolent Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) in Northern Ireland. It negotiated a peace agreement with the Ulster Unionists in 1998 only to see itself replaced as the main nationalist (Irish Catholic) party as the IRA refused to give up its guns. New nationalist voters found the IRA’s political wing, Sinn Fein, with its whiff of gunpowder to be much sexier than the principled SDLP.
Israel’s overt support for Abu Mazen and Fatah could likewise prove to be the kiss of death for them. Hamas has an aura of piety, national steadfastness and incorruptibility that contrasts with Fatah’s cynical record of corruption, violence, and ineptitude during a decade in power.
The failed Oslo peace process has cost the peace camp of Labor and Meretz half of their combined Knesset representation since 1992. Meretz is now at five seats, less than 40 percent of its strength in 1992. Labor’s 19 seats is less than half of its strength in 1992. This is due to their support for the Oslo process that led to Arafat starting the Al-Aksa Intifada under favorable conditions. A second failed peace initiative would once more bring Labor’s judgement into question and would likely result in an even more thorough rejection of the peace camp by the Israeli public. Meretz may already be at its base level of support. But Labor could drop as the floating vote moved to the Likud and smaller centrist parties.
Kadima looks likely to go the way of previous centrist parties: the Democratic Movement for Change (DMC) in 1980, the Center Party in 2001 and Tommy Lapid’s Shinui in 2003 [Shinui – an initial component of the Meretz list in 1992 – originated as a vestige of the DMC – ed.] As with the DMC, this may not occur within one election cycle. Kadima could drop from its present strength of 29 seats to somewhere in the range of 10-12 seats. This would make it smaller than the DMC was in 1977 and prone to implosion as occurred with that party during Begin’s first term. Kadima has lost both its founding leader (Sharon) and its raison d’etre. One moderate possible successor, Shimon Peres, has been “kicked upstairs” [as the mostly ceremonial president of Israel] into the twilight of his career. This means that Kadima could amount to a second Likud.
Israeli history has shown that only Labor-led coalitions can make peace with the Palestinians. Even Begin relied on the votes of the Labor opposition to pass his peace treaty with Egypt through the Knesset. When Labor is the junior or co-equal partner in a coalition, the result is diplomatic paralysis.
So what should Olmert do? Israel should make some conciliatory moves towards the West Bank such as gradually removing unnecessary checkpoints, releasing Palestinian customs duties and other taxes collected on behalf of the PA by Israel, and releasing some security prisoners who do not have “blood on their hands” and have served at least half of their sentences. But if the dismantling of checkpoints increases violence, this initiative should be discontinued.
Israel should concentrate on testing the intentions of Syria. If Bashir Assad is sincere about negotiating a peace treaty with Israel, then this is something that the present Israeli government may have the political support to accomplish. Israel by now should know what the Assad regime’s asking price is for peace: A return to the June 4, 1967 line, even though this contradicts the Arab interpretation of UN Security Council Resolution 242 about the non-acquisition of territory by force — i.e., during the 1948 war, Syria took over tiny bits of the Galilee by force.
Both Jerusalem and Washington have been more interested in a peace deal with Syria than with the Palestinians as the Assads, pere et fils, have a better reputation as negotiating partners than did Arafat and Abu Mazen (the latter widely regarded as too weak to deliver). Assad has also secured the stability of his regime, which is not the case with Abu Mazen. If Israel is willing to pay Damascus’s asking price, the situation is ripe for peace with Syria. This is not the case with Palestine.