Robert Wilhelm Fellow,
MIT Center for International Studies
February 2, 2005
This is an incredible period in Israeli-Palestinian relations.
People were foreseeing it a few months ago, but now it is actually happening.
I'm going to lay out the puzzle, and then I hope we will have a discussion.
I see this more as a briefing than anything else.
The situation today is exciting and very complicated. There is immense movement. There is almost a total ceasefire. Israel opened a border crossing with Egypt for the first time since mid December. This morning the BBC announced there will be a summit next Tuesday convened by Mubarak, including Abbas, Sharon, and Abdallah.
On the other hand, there are worrisome signs of more of the same: persistent rocket attacks on Israeli towns within the green line and in Gaza; continued suicide attacks; Israel continuing with house demolitions, although it has announced it is going to stop; Israeli incursions into Gaza; and settlement expansion continuing.
What signs do we believe? What are the options? That is what I will discuss.
But there are two key points at the outset:
1. The situation we are living in now is the last chance for a two-state solution. It is a very narrow window that will close very quickly. There is maybe a year or eighteen months to succeed, no longer. So there will be a very high cost of failure.
2. In order for this effort to succeed, there must be a multilateral and multi-faceted effort.
For thirty years, my position has been that Israel will not have a moment's quiet unless there is a viable Palestinian state alongside Israel. I have always claimed that a Palestinian state alongside Israel is its guarantee of survival and should be a key priority. It is also the just thing to do for the Palestinians. However, there may be an inverse relationship between likelihood and preference for the various options.
The first option is the default onenothing happens. There is no status quo though. If nothing good happens, the situation will deteriorate. I wouldn't dismiss this. It could happen. It also means that the extremists who are now sidelined will regain control of the agenda.
The second option is the disengagement option. It is a unilateral Gaza pull back plan. This option is a misnomer. It is not only a pullout from Gaza but from major Palestinian population centers in the West Bank (although not from other parts of the areas). I have always considered this to be Sharon's real intentionto create a mini-Palestinian state, non-contiguous, in 3-5 enclaves in the West Bank and Gaza. Sharon has been very consistent on this. The concept behind this notion is profound mistrust of the Palestinians. It is unilateralism, but contains a very coercive component. It doesn't require any Palestinian collusion.
The third option is a negotiated option. Settlement, security, land, and refugees would be worked out at the table. A negotiated option is possible because the precedents are there. From Camp David through the Clinton proposals to Taba to the Geneva documentthere is a paper trail. It will look like Geneva. The Clinton proposals are good, but you can't call them that today in American politics. This is a peace option, probably the only one. It brings together peace forces on both sides.
There are also 2 one-state options. One is the fundamentalist option, with either an Israeli or Palestinian version: an Israel without Arabs or a Palestinian without Jews. It's a racist option. The second is a one-state option with a secular binational state. This is a very popular option in liberal circles. However, it doesn't give you the foggiest idea of what to do tomorrow. These are both long-term options, not immediate possibilities. We see elements of each of these options on the ground today.
The sources of continuity are very clear. First, the Palestinian position on the ideal outcome has not changed one inch since the election of Abbas. Second, Abbas is from the old guard. He is one of the founders of the PLO. I have a hunch he might be a transitional leader, but he did well in the elections. Third, Abbas is an outspoken critic of the occupation and Israeli oppression.
However, Abbas has clear objectives for change. He seeks immediate negotiations in order to achieve a full settlement and an end to the conflict. He is totally nonviolent. He is willing to crack down on the extremists if necessary, and he is trying hard to unify the security forces in such a way as to maintain some control over what is going on.
So there is a mix of continuity and change that could lead to option one or option three. There are a lot of indicators of change in the Palestinian side. There is a lot of optimismalmost a dangerous optimism.
On the Israeli side, what are the forces of continuity? The obvious is Sharon. The Israeli policy is one of limited objectives. The policy on the ground has changed a little, but the instincts are the same. This is the third Sharon government in four years, and it is there to do what Sharon wants it to do. That is a source of continuity. This government is a disengagement government. This is a government supported by the opposition. Sharon has a clear majority in the Knesset, but not in his own party.
Public opinion polls are now showing a three-way split in the Israeli public. 30% are opposed to anything; 40% are very supportive of disengagement; and about another third say disengagement isn't enough, we need negotiations. There has also been an effort to connect with the Arab world, and not just make it a Washington-Jerusalem axis.
So where is the balance between change and continuity on the Israeli side? There are strong change elements, but only up to a point. There is probably more of a push for change on the Palestinian side.
What about the international community? Europeans are still committed to a two-state solution, as they have been since 1988. What will make a difference is what the U.S. does. Rice is traveling to the area. There is going to be a lot of continuity in the U.S. government regarding Israel. Another area of continuity is the UK. Blair says he won't undermine Bush. Blair apparently succeeded in convincing Bush that there is a connection between Arab-Israel conflict and the war on terror that is separate from Iraq. On the other hand, the Bush-Sharon link is strong, and the Bush presidency is not ready to make a connection between the situation in Iraq and Iran and the Israel-Palestinian conflict.
Where do we go from here? There are five immediate problems we have to deal
1. There is a discrepancy between Israeli, Palestinian, and international expectations. They are not speaking the same language.
2. There are also divergences between the public and leaders. The public is ahead of its leadership.
3. There is a value split. There is demonization on both sides. But this is not being addressed. The word "reconciliation" has not been mentioned. This is an elusive factor, but you may need to confront it for a real resolution
4. This is a momentum driven situation. Any pause will lead to backsliding.
5. There is a time discrepancy. The disengagement plan that Israel wants can't work unless, from the Palestinian perspective, it leads to the negotiating table. But if Israel puts disengagement as a precondition for negotiations, that will require time. And there's no time.
What can be done to move things along? Each side has to give and get something. The Palestinians must have tangible evidence of movement and an improvement of their situation. They are miserable right now, and they can't move. They have to feel that something is going to happen and improve. They also need prisoner releases.
What about Israel? There will never be a total elimination of violence, and it is wrong to expect itbecause it gives power to the one spoiler. The demand now for an elimination of violence is almost an excuse for not going forward. But there is a right to demand an improvement. Israel also needs international legitimacy.
What can the international community do? It is hard to tell people what they need. The international community desperately needs stability in this part of the Middle East.
What can the U.S. do? Money, obviously. There may also be a need for military forces, an international presence, in the area. The US is going to start training Palestinian forces, and the Egyptians are training. Nothing can work today without a connection to US, Europe, Egypt, and Jordan. But the problem is that there is no U.S. desire to get involved anywhere after Iraq. There may be a resurrection of the Saudi plan.
In brief, the opportunity does exist, but it must be nurtured carefully or else the door will close, and with it the two state option which is a key to its resolution.
Professor Chazan served for three terms in the Knesset, including as Deputy Speaker (Meretz Party). A professor of political science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, she has been involved for more than three decades in Israeli/Palestinian negotiations, including the Geneva Initiative.
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