I was asked to write an op-ed piece for the New York Resident magazine, talking about “the latest” on “the situation.” The article, as submitted, is below. It also appears online, in slightly amended form.
“The situation”, of course, is vastly more complicated than what can be fit into 700 words. Due to space constraints, I was unable, for example, to mention the need for the Israeli government to take some immediate concrete actions, such as: Handing over “frozen” Palestinian tax monies; releasing some of the Palestinian prisoners (which Olmert has recently promised to do); and removing many of the checkpoints and obstacles that severely restrict internal Palestinian movement within the West Bank.
But I was motivated mainly by my first-hand memories of Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in 1982, in which a megalomaniacal Israeli Defense Minister believed that he could successfully restructure another nation’s socio-politics through force of arms. I hope and pray that Prime Minister Olmert, who was a member of the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee at the time and a member of Ariel Sharon’s party, remembers the resounding failure that results when visions of grandeur take the place of sober reasoning and the path of moderation.
Israel and Palestine Need Negotiations, not Machinations By Ron Skolnik
Once again, confusion reigns supreme in the Middle East. Last week, in a military offensive in the Palestinian Gaza Strip that seemed to surprise everyone, but should have surprised no one, the forces of the fundamentalist Hamas party overpowered the troops of Fatah, Hamas’ long-time rival for power. This “Battle for Gaza” capped off months of on-again, off-again civil war between the two sides, which hold conflicting ideologies, maintain separate paramilitaries and control different, competing branches of the Palestinian government – Hamas its parliament, and the more moderate Fatah, its presidency, in the person of Mahmoud Abbas.
Characterized by Hamas spokespersons as a “liberation” of Gaza, but by Abbas as a “military coup”, the Hamas takeover has accelerated the centrifuge that is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: With Hamas in control of Gaza, Fatah controlling the West Bank, and both sides claiming to constitute the legitimate Palestinian government, diplomats in the US, EU, Israel and the Arab world are scrambling to devise new policies adapted to the new reality.
The main thrust of the recent Western and Israeli approach has been to formulate steps that would bolster Palestinian support for Fatah at the expense of Hamas. In practical terms, this would mean more money, more weapons and more diplomatic backing for President Abbas. Within this context, one rather peculiar variant is suggesting that the West Bank and Gaza Strip be regarded as two distinct entities: Hamas-run Gaza would be treated as a pariah, while the Fatah-controlled West Bank would be showered with Western blessings.
Although an effort – even a sorely belated one – by the US and Israel to reach out to Palestinian moderates is welcome, one cannot help but be concerned about the more fundamental strategy underpinning these moves. While Abbas is certainly worthy of support due to his wholehearted embrace of a two-state solution in Israel/Palestine, and for his and clear and consistent renunciation of terrorism, such support cannot be predicated on the proposition that he and Fatah serve as an American or Israeli stalking horse in the war against Hamas or, by extension, Iran.
Both Washington and Jerusalem will be guilty of a terrible miscalculation if a warming of ties with Palestinian moderates is meant to add fuel to the internecine Palestinian struggle; if they are naively hoping that, with enough money, enough guns and enough diplomatic support, Fatah will be able to reverse its fortunes in one fell swoop, and swiftly recoup its losses of recent days.
Israel has already tried its hand at micromanaging the internal conflicts of its neighbors: Its invasion of Lebanon in 1982, (mis)conceived by then-Defense Minister Ariel Sharon, was designed to take advantage of that country’s chaotic civil war in order to establish a new, malleable regime in Beirut that could be coerced into a peace accord. The strategy failed miserably then, and – if this is indeed the current Israeli concept – would fail miserably again. Israel lacks the finesse to play puppeteer to the Palestinian political arena. Even more importantly, Israeli support for Abbas in an all-out civil war is certain to be a “kiss of death”, casting the Palestinian President in the unforgivable role of Israeli lackey, rather than loyal Palestinian nationalist.
For the US and Israel to truly bolster the standing of Abbas and Fatah, one needn’t reinvent the wheel. One merely needs to get back on track – the diplomatic track, that is. Israel must reach out to the entire Palestinian people – not Fatah alone – by engaging President Abbas in substantive negotiations over an Israeli-Palestinian final-status agreement. Israeli Prime Minister Olmert must not only use the phrase “political horizon”, he must fill it with palpable content: His refusal to discuss core issues such as Jerusalem, borders and refugees only reinforces those Palestinians who maintain that diplomacy and non-violence will not bring results. Conversely, an Israel that signals a willingness to reach an agreement based on such hallmark documents as the Clinton plan, the Geneva Initiative and the Arab League proposal will show the Palestinian people that they can advance their cause not by reason of force, but by the force of reason.
In the weeks ahead, Israel will have an opportunity to take a bold initiative, aimed at depleting the one resource that Hamas relies on most: Palestinian despair. The United States must do its share by encouraging Israel to walk this path and by reassuring her that she will not walk this path alone.
One has to wonder if rather than Washington trying to ally itself with Palestine’s archenemy in order to stimulate internal change in a political culture that it does not understand, it might not be better off working to reform the politics of its ally. This is not to say that it is Israel rather than Palestine that is responsible for failing to reach a settlement. But in the words of Shlomo Ben-Ami Israel has a “disfunctional political system.” Getting Israel to POSITIVELY reform its franchise system might due wonders for its decision-making abilities in the conflict. In the past Israeli campaigns from both major parties have used American political experts to craft their campaigns. And if tinkering in the internal politics of our client state is considered unacceptable to its population, how much more would be more brutal intervention in the politics of its enemy–many in whose population regard us as their enemy?