By Barry Rubin, director of the Global Research in International Affairs Center at
IDC Herzliya and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs
October 14, 2007.
The Israeli-Palestinian peace process is about to be the topic of an international
summit and optimism is breaking out all over.
A breakthrough to comprehensive peace, however, is very unlikely. Hamas
controls the Gaza Strip; the Palestinian Authority-Fatah leader, Mahmoud
Abbas, is weak; Fatah is still overwhelmingly radical and has not conducted the
internal debate – much less public education effort – necessary for a change of
At the same time, however, a situation breeding persistent crisis and violence
won’t go away. It is important to try to prevent the conflict from growing
worse, including a possible Hamas takeover on the West Bank, or full-scale
war. If this is a long-term stalemate it needs to be structured in a way
conducive to greater stability. And if it is possible to move even a bit toward
building an eventual peace, that is a good thing.
So the immediate question is whether intensive Israel-PA talks and the summit
meeting can keep the mess from getting worse, or even help bring some
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert stated: “We must give negotiations a chance. Israel
has excellent excuses to justify stagnation in the talks. I don’t mean to look for
excuses. I’m determined to give a chance to a meaningful diplomatic process.”
Or, in other words, even though we have every reason not to negotiate
with an unstable regime that cannot meet commitments, we’re willing to try in
hopes that it could work.
That makes sense, albeit with the reservations expressed below. Olmert
explained, “The current Palestinian leadership is not a terrorist leadership.
and Prime Minister Salam Fayad are committed to all the agreements
signed with Israel, and I believe that they want to move ahead together with
OLMERT CHOSE his words carefully. Abbas and Fayad want peace and would
like to keep their agreements. But he would find it hard to add any more names
to that list.
Most Fatah leaders do not think that way. And even those who “want” to
advance probably cannot and will not do so. They may not personally promote
terrorism, but they do little to stop it, even failing to curb the extremism of
official PA-controlled media.
Is it worth trying talks? Yes. Aside from showing the world Israel’s peaceful
intentions, there might be small successes. The level of conflict could be
lowered, PA-Fatah preserved, international help obtained, Arab states brought
into deeper engagement.
Yet in almost all this discussion, debate, international policymaking, and media
coverage there is a missing element. There is lots of talk about what the
Palestinians want, and what Israel might or should give, in negotiations. But
there is virtually nothing said about what Israel should get for running these
risks and making these concessions.
Or, as Bob Dylan put it, “Oh, no, no I’ve been through this movie
THE PA-FATAH demands are clear: An independent Palestinian state with its
capital in east Jerusalem and borders on the 1948-1967-era cease-fire lines. All
Palestinian refugees and their descendants must be allowed to live in Israel; all
Palestinian prisoners, no matter how many Israeli civilians they deliberately
murdered, must be released.
We know all this already. The “return” idea is unacceptable, and this won’t
change. It is a sign of Palestinian insincerity, since the goal of that demand is to
wipe Israel off the map. If Palestinians want a state of their own they should
insist the refugees settle there. Prisoners might be released only if it is certain
they will not return to terrorism, either because a Palestinian government
allowed it or even encouraged them to do so.
ISRAEL IS ready to accept an independent Palestinian state. There is debate
about east Jerusalem and the 1967 lines, but a solution could be found. For
example, in 2000 Israel’s government offered most of east Jerusalem and
almost all the West Bank, with territorial swaps to make up for any land
annexed by Israel.
But what does the Palestinian side offer Israel? That is very unclear. What does
“peace” mean? A full end to the conflict? An energetic will to stop anti-Israel
incitement and cross-border terrorism? And what of Hamas?
THE FOLLOWING points are what the Palestinian side must give. None of them
are too onerous, especially compared to the rewards they would get:
- The conflict would be ended. Over. Finished.
- Palestinian refugees
would be resettled in Palestine.
- The PA-Fatah-PLO would work
energetically to bring Arab states into the peace arrangement.
would block terrorist attacks from its territory on Israel by force, if needed, and
stop the systematic incitement of hatred, certainly on the official level, against
- No foreign troops would be permitted on Palestine’s territory.
There also has to be serious international recognition, safeguards and
guarantees for the risks Israel is taking. Israel is negotiating with people who
have no control over much of the territory or people on whose behalf they
Hamas will reject any agreement and do everything possible to wreck it,
including killing PA leaders and launching terrorist attacks to force Fatah to
guard Israel’s borders or throw away the agreement.
Beyond this, if Hamas were to take over the West Bank or any
Palestinian state, it would immediately restart the conflict, using Israeli
concessions to be more deadly.
And there’s more bad news. If Abbas and Fayad made a deal along the above
lines – or even better ones for the Palestinians – all the supporters of Hamas and
smaller radical groups, plus up to half or more of Fatah itself, would denounce
them as traitors and reject the agreement.
Focusing only on what Israel must give and ignoring the other side of the
equation is a formula for continuing conflict.