Former head of the National Security Council Maj.-Gen. (res.) Giora Eiland delineated in a recent speech in Jerusalem a number of reasons why Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations are doomed to failure within current paradigms.
The first is the rise of Islamist fundamentalism among the Palestinians. As Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak said bluntly last week, “Hamas will never sign a peace agreement with Israel.” And for a very simple reason: It cannot. According to Hamas theology, any land that has ever been under Islamic sovereignty attains the status of dar-al-Islam and belongs to the Muslim Wakf. As such it can never be ceded, and all Muslims are under a religious duty to recapture the territory lost to infidels.
Even if hard-core Hamas support were only 15% of the Palestinian population, as Eiland believes, that would be sufficient to disrupt any peace treaty with Israel. But, in fact, the unwillingness to accept Israel’s existence, within any borders, has always been central to Palestinian and pan-Arab thought.
In his new book, former CIA director George Tenet describes Yasir Arafat as “always wanting one more thing. [A]nd one more thing was never enough because what he really wanted was for the peace process to be ever-active and eternally unresolved.” As long as the process flickered, he could always hope to extract new concessions from Israel, without ever having to make good on any of his promises.
The refusal to accept Israel’s existence has only become more entrenched on the Palestinian side in the aftermath of the Oslo process, under which an entire generation of Palestinian youth has been raised to see its highest calling in life as martyring oneself to kill as many Jews as possible.
Next there is not enough land or water between the Mediterranean and the Jordan for the growing Palestinian and Israeli populations. As a consequence, the maximum that any Israeli government is prepared to give is far less than any Palestinian leader would ever be prepared to accept, whether with respect to territory, Jerusalem, or the “refugee problem.” And that gap has only widened since the breakdown of Oslo.
Israel’s fundamental mistake, according to Eiland, has been to treat the Palestinian problem as one that is within its capacity to solve alone. What is needed now is start looking outside the paradigm of two states between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River. Such efforts would include territorial contributions to a Palestinian state from Egypt and Jordan, in return for lucrative economic incentives. (Eiland, for instance, suggests allowing Egypt and Jordan to dig an underground tunnel across the Gulf of Aqaba that would allow for the creation of a Red Sea port that would quickly become the primary transit point between the Gulf States and Europe, and therefore an economic gold mine.)
Then there is the problem of the order of obligations under any peace treaty. Israelis are no longer in the mood to follow the Oslo model of territorial concessions in return for Palestinian promises. Israeli prime ministers may continue to insist that they are prepared to evacuate thousands of Israelis from their homes, but only after Palestinian terrorism stops. Meanwhile Palestinian leaders say they can only act against the terrorists after the parameters of a political settlement are clear.
Finally, there is no reason to trust in the intention or ability of Palestinian leaders to deliver on their promises. Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking has long been plagued by an overemphasis on promises made by Palestinian leaders without any consideration of whether those promises command any popular support. Even if Mahmoud Abbas, Arafat’s long-time right-hand man, were sincere about making peace with Israel, he has consistently shown himself unwilling to take any risk and therefore incapable of delivering on any promise.
Palestinian promises have repeatedly proven themselves not to be worth the paper they were written on – whether in Lebanon in the ‘70s, Jordan prior to Black September, or with Israel. Since the Saudi-brokered Mecca agreement between Hamas and Fatah, Ha’aretz’s Zev Schiff notes, there have already been five cease-fire agreements. And after each one, lethal fire was resumed within hours.
The population of the Gaza Strip – already one of the densest on earth – is projected to grow to 2.5 million by 2020. The situation in Gaza is already one of anarchic clan warfare today, and will only go worse as the population grows and all resources are plowed into arms rather than economic development. The resultant instability will inevitably spill across the border into Israel, and doom any peace agreement, even if the technical problems could be overcome.
MOST ISRAELIS RECOGNIZE this reality. Yet there remains a strong impulse to run after will-o’-the-whisp hints of peace, such as those currently coming from Damascus, or at the very least a feeling that Israel must ever be ready to entertain any peace initiative and begin negotiations in order to demonstrate its eagerness for peace.
In a recent lecture to foreign journalists, however, Robert Aumann, winner of the 2005 Nobel Prize in Economics for his work in game-theory, argued that these impulses must be suppressed for our survival. Israel, he said, must stop conveying the impression to the Arabs of being desperate for peace at any price.
The Arab strategy is not to defeat Israel in battle, but to gradually wear down Israel and make life unbearable. Time, the Arabs feel, is on their side. The key for Israel, then, is to convince the Arabs that “We have time; we have patience; we have stamina.” But Israel’s weariness, its various capitulations, gestures, convergence plans have only served to convince our Arab “cousins” that “we no longer have spiritual strength, that we have no time, that we are calling for a time-out.”
Over the past quarter century, there has been a sea change in the Israeli consensus about the contours of a future peace with the Palestinians. That change has not been met by any reciprocal movement on the Palestinian side. Instead Palestinian attitudes on refugees, the status of Jerusalem, terror have only hardened. Now it is time for the Palestinians to show some willingness to compromise.
The horrified journalists responded to Aumann’s argument by pointing out again and again that if Israel adopts the waiting strategy he advocates there is no possibility of peace in the near future. To which he kept responding in the same way. True, there is no hope in the near future. But unless the Palestinians become convinced that the Jews are here to stay, and start thinking about building their own society, there will be no peace in the long-run either.
In the meantime, our only strategy is to wait patiently for some change in the Palestinian mindset.
Published in today’s Yated Ne’eman