Missed Opportunities, Part 4

Missed Opportunities, Part 4

This is the final installment from the text of my talk to the Jewish Federation of Eastern Connecticut, delivered in New London, Jan. 20:

My understanding [based upon Yossi Beilin’s observations as a participant, and by way of response to Tom Mitchell’s comment on the previous post] is that the negotiators at Taba were about ready to send out teams to assess compensation terms for the families of the Palestinian refugees of 1948, who were to receive money rather than a physical right of return. The territorial solution involved the concept of settlement blocs– based upon the discovery of strategic analyst Yossi Alpher in ‘94 or ‘95 that about 80 percent of Jewish settlements in the West Bank were within a couple of miles of the pre-1967 border; this meant that a modest trade of territories between Israel and the Palestinians could produce a reasonable agreement and not require a physically and politically impossible removal of most settlers. To a certain extent, this concept still holds promise today as part of the solution.

In December 2003, a large number of notable political and cultural figures among both Israelis and Palestinians signed a model peace agreement called the Geneva Accord or Geneva Initiative. It was a projection of what the Taba conference might have produced if it were allowed to proceed to a conclusion, with contributions from many of the same negotiators on each side. It contained detailed solutions that most Israelis and Palestinians could agree to on final status issues: refugees, settlements, Jerusalem, final boundaries, a Palestinian state, security for Israel. To a certain degree, Ariel Sharon made a decision to unilaterally remove settlers from the Gaza Strip, as a reaction to the Geneva Accord in order to attempt to impose an arrangement upon the Palestinians without having to negotiate with them.

But as negotiations have rekindled with Annapolis, with negotiators now meeting regularly again, the Geneva Accord and other glimpses of an agreement are– hopefully– primary reading material. We can understand why negotiations did not seem practical when Arafat was in charge, but after Mahmoud Abbas took charge following Arafat’s death, a man who has repeatedly called the Intifada a mistake and called for a Palestinian state to live peacefully alongside Israel, it was a pity that Sharon ignored this important change on the Palestinian side.

The Intifada was a disaster for Israel but a calamity for the Palestinians. Not only did they lose lives at a rate of more than four for every Israeli killed, but all the material progress of the 1990s and a huge amount of infrastructure was destroyed. Roads were churned up, building destroyed, plans for an airport and a Gaza seaport devastated. The economy of the Gaza Strip hardly exists at all and that of the West Bank is limping along. Life in the West Bank is immobilized by hundreds of roadblocks and checkpoints.

It can be said that Arafat to a large degree was responsible for Sharon’s election and the ascendency for the rejectionist right in 2001. But within two to three years, Sharon was making clear that he had changed. He hadn’t changed enough to engage in a new effort to negotiate peace with Arafat’s successor, Abbas, but he had changed enough to know that Israel had to withdraw from most of the Palestinian territories, in order to protect Israel’s Jewish and democratic character. But without the more practical and moderate new Palestinian leadership being rewarded with the prospect of improved conditions for their people, delivering at least tangible hope for their people, the likes of Hamas and other bad actors are in a position to come to the fore as they have.

Without Israel at least coordinating the Gaza withdrawal with the Palestinian Authority under Abbas, Hamas was able to claim that it was “armed resistance” that liberated Gaza and only armed resistance. But Hamas was elected very narrowly in January 2006 mostly on a reform, anti-corruption platform. They won about 75 percent of the legislative seats with only 44 percent of the vote as against 42 percent for Fatah, largely because Fatah was so disorganized that it actually ran candidates against itself in the constituency districts. The Palestinians had a form of proportional representation that included both competing national lists of candidates– in which the two parties, Fatah and Hamas tied– but also multi-representative constituency districts in which Fatah candidates ran against each other so that Hamas won a whopping majority.

But even though most Palestinians agree consistently in opinion surveys, as do most Israelis, in the need for a two-state solution, a peace agreement with Israel, Palestinians voted for Hamas to achieve change. In so doing, they also voted for a political movement that insisted on defending the right to attack Israelis, even after Israel had withdrawn totally from Gaza. In doing so, Hamas and the other violent groups destroyed the successful efforts made by James Wolfensohn, the former president of the World Bank, and others to secure greenhouses from the departing settlers. Israel’s reaction to the constant rocket attacks into Israel, primarily in the vicinity of Sderot, a couple of miles outside of Gaza, has been harsh. This reaction was especially brutal in response to the cross-border raid in June 2006 that killed two Israelis and captured the young soldier, Gilad Shalit. Several hundred Palestinians (600, I believe), about half of whom were fighters and the other half innocents, were killed in the summer of 2006.

Yet, an offer of a long-term truce from Hamas was recently rejected by Israel. It was considered by the Olmert cabinet and advocated by several ministers. It is hard to see an end to the rocket attacks, now with increasingly greater range, if an agreement isn’t reached somehow with Hamas to end the fighting. I’m not a fan of Hamas, I don’t especially trust their motives, but I believe that it’s more likely that Palestinians will successfully police themselves rather than for Israel to succeed in stopping these attacks. If rampaging through Gaza in 2006 accomplished nothing, I see no reason to expect that Israel can put down Palestinian resistance without internal cooperation. And it will be politically difficult for Abbas’s government in the West Bank to negotiate a peace agreement with Israel, in the name of all Palestinians, when Israel is engaged militarily in Gaza.

The forces are aligned for one last chance this year to achieve an agreement. It is said that the chemistry is good between Prime Minister Olmert and PA President Abbas. Olmert is on record as saying that if Israel does not soon reach an agreement to establish a Palestinian state as a peaceful neighbor, that Israel is doomed, that Israel will soon no longer be a majority Jewish state and that a disenfranchised Arab majority will win the sympathy of the world in the same way that the struggle against apartheid was won in South Africa. Olmert has used exactly the South African example, even saying the “a” word.

But it’s not clear to me that Olmert has the political will or the skill to take the bold moves necessary to make a reasonable agreement. It’s also not clear to me that Abbas has what it takes, or that the Bush administration– not known for its diplomatic prowess– has the ability to pull this off. If I were a betting man, I would bet against it.

Olmert needs to fulfill the first phase of the old Road Map that Pres. Bush unfurled back in 2003: to dismantle dozens of unauthorized settlements– illegal settlements– filled with young radicals who lord it over and often steal or damage crops and property of their Arab neighbors. Olmert must also be prepared to compromise over what is now the expanded Jerusalem, a much larger area than Jerusalem was prior to 1967; this means a willingness for Arab-populated neighborhoods of East Jerusalem to fall under eventual Palestinian sovereignty. It means a freeze on settlement activity, including plans to expand housing for Jews in the southeastern neighborhood of Jerusalem called Har Homa– strategically placed as it is to effectively cut off Arab East Jerusalem from the West Bank. If this occurs, 200,000 Jerusalem Arabs will lose all of their natural social and economic links with the West Bank. This could make these 200,000 Arab residents of East Jerusalem violently hostile, something that they have mostly not been so far.

At the same time, the Palestinians need to decide, once and for all, that the right of return they claim for the refugee generations must be exercised only in relation to a return to the small part of historic Palestine that is slated to become the Palestinian state. They also must renew a close security relationship with Israel and the US and other countries that might become involved in helping to maintain security for both Israelis and Palestinians. They must stop all incitement against Israel by the media and in the schools– progress which has been made but must be deepened and monitored; and this effort against incitement and the preaching of hatred should make greater progress once Israeli soldiers and settlers are no longer directly in the faces of Palestinians. …

I went on to mention that Olmert’s political survival in office as prime minister is iffy— especially with the then-looming report of the Winograd Commission investigating the government’s conduct in the Lebanese war of 2006. But he may have dodged the bullet this week because of a relatively light rebuke in the final Winograd report.

By | 2008-02-01T05:11:00-05:00 February 1st, 2008|Blog|0 Comments

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