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Jerusalem Viewpoints


No. 543     5 Sivan 5766 / 1 June 2006

Next Steps in Arab-Israeli Peacemaking

Zalman Shoval


  • The U.S. military victory in Iraq did at first create a more congenial atmosphere among Palestinians for peace with Israel. However, the present situation in Iraq, as well as Iran and Muslim fundamentalism in general, have caused matters to move in the opposite direction. The Palestinians are further away from a spirit of reconciliation and compromise than ever before. Terrorists everywhere are feeling emboldened by what they see, at least for now, as an American failure.

  • While pragmatic Westerners tend not to give too much weight to ideological statements by Palestinians, this is a mistake. Article 6 of the Hamas covenant says that the organization "strives to raise the banner of Allah over every inch of Palestine." Just like the rantings of Iran's president, this should not be seen as some bizarre religious, extremist oration, but as the concrete Islamist "roadmap" and action plan it is.

  • There are those in the West who believe that once Hamas has had to face the realities of governance, it will moderate its intransigent views. But neither the Taliban, the Iranian ayatollahs, nor Saddam and the two Assads grew moderate while in office. Neither did Arafat.

  • Contrary to what is often claimed, only a fraction of the Palestinians voted for Hamas because of its promise to clean up the corruption and inefficiency of the previous Fatah regime. Palestinians voted for Hamas because they identified with Hamas' aims against Israel - including terror. They clearly recognized that they were electing a party that ruled out any form of permanent peace with Israel.

  • There is a growing tendency within the Palestinian body politic to de-emphasize the quest for separate Palestinian statehood, and to aim for a state in the whole of Palestine after having eliminated the State of Israel. Even prior to the Hamas victory, a two-state solution didn't necessarily mean that the Palestinians wouldn't continue to try to undermine the existence of Israel as a Jewish state.

  • Unfortunately, experience has shown (and I was a supporter of "disengagement") that Israeli withdrawals and concessions do not bring about Palestinian moderation and reduce the conflict but actually create escalation.




The "Peace Process" Illusion

If I were to ask people at most Washington think-tanks about what is still called the "peace-process," many would continue to frame their replies on the Oslo agreements or on the international "roadmap." This would have been an illusion even before the Hamas election victory. Oslo was moribund almost from the beginning, and it was dead and buried after the 2000 Camp David talks, which led to Arafat's so-called "Al-Aqsa Intifada."

The abject failure of Oslo and Arafat's terror offensive has engendered among Israelis a strong sentiment in favor of unilateralism. The Israeli security fence is a concrete embodiment of this approach. Especially after the failure of "Oslo" became self-evident, there was talk about some sort of "unilateral separation." The idea was that with no realistic prospect for a final, formal peace agreement to be signed anytime soon, based on premises that could be acceptable both to Israel and the Palestinians - and in order to break the impasse, and taking into account the demographic realities, as well as international developments - the only way forward was to take unilateral steps.

Of course, "unilateral" is a bit of a misnomer, as not only was it hoped that there would be certain dealings with the Palestinian side - now mostly discontinued because of the Hamas victory - but it was always clear that the United States, as well as other players, would turn the unilateral element into a multilateral one; for instance, the Egyptian role or the European role at the border crossings between Gaza and Israel. Most important were the perceived American assurances to Israel with regard to the eventual borders on the West Bank, to include the large settlement blocs, and with regard to the so-called Palestinian "right of return." Without those assurances, there might not have been sufficient support for the disengagement from Gaza.

Sharon had declared that the security fence should not be seen as a political border and it isn't, but it obviously is a point of departure, a point of reference, for a future border if permanent status talks should actually take place one day. One often over-looked point is that the Arab side with which Israel signed the 1949 armistice agreement - Jordan - never claimed that the temporary "green line" was a state border. Quite the contrary, they specifically stated - and this is well-documented - that the "green line" was not to be a border but only a temporary armistice line.

There is no denying that Mahmoud Abbas is a more pleasant and positive person than his predecessor, Yasser Arafat. He was also on record as being against terror - "because it hurt the Palestinian cause." But the real question is whether anything has concretely changed on the Palestinian side, not in words but in facts and prospects. Unfortunately, Abbas has granted Hamas political legitimacy instead of disarming and disbanding it. He also told the New York Times in an interview that his goals and principles did not deviate in any way from those of Arafat.

There are also outside factors that impact on the present state of the peace process. The U.S. military victory in Iraq did at first enhance the prospects of success for the American-led effort to further democracy in the Arab world - and perhaps created a more congenial atmosphere among Palestinians for peace with Israel. However, the present situation in Iraq, as well as Iran and Muslim fundamentalism, in general, have caused matters to move in the opposite direction. Democratization in the Arab world is on hold, if not dead, and the Palestinians are further away from a spirit of reconciliation and compromise than ever before. Actually, the present situation has created a vicious cycle, with Hamas, Syria, Iran, terrorists, and fundamentalists everywhere feeling collectively and separately emboldened by what they see, at least for now, as an American failure.


The Israeli Elections

The election results in Israel to a large extent were a direct result of the Hamas victory among the Palestinians. Even before, there wasn't too much confidence in talks with the Palestinians, but after the Hamas victory there is a broad consensus in Israel that there is no one to talk to, and that, therefore, unilateral steps of one sort or another are the only practical option.

The Israeli election results were strange; one could almost say that everybody lost - except for two parties: Lieberman's "Israel Is Our Home" Party, supported mainly but not exclusively by immigrants from the former Soviet Union, which got 11 seats; and the real "Cinderella" of the elections, the Pensioners' Party, which got 7 seats - including many votes from young people as a sort of protest vote. Kadima got 29 seats, about 10 fewer than it and the pollsters expected; Labor suffered its severest electoral defeat in the 76 years of its existence; and Likud went down to utter defeat - though some hold that its votes were only redistributed between itself and Kadima which some people tend to regard as "Likud lite." Both Labor's talk about still trying to negotiate, and Likud's approach that there could be withdrawals but only if there were a real quid pro quo on the Palestinian side, were considered by the Israeli public as largely irrelevant.

In the end, the three supposedly major parties - Kadima, Labor, and Likud - together comprise only 50 percent of the Knesset, and Kadima and Labor together have only 48 seats out of 120, which will make stable governance more complicated. The so-called "Geneva Initiative" of Yossi Beilin, who now heads the Meretz Party, also suffered total defeat as the party got only 5 seats. All in all, left-wing or center-left parties now hold 20 percent of the Knesset.


The Islamist Roadmap

While pragmatic Westerners, including not a few Israelis, tend not to give too much weight to ideological statements by Palestinians, this is a mistake. Article 6 of the Hamas covenant says that the organization "strives to raise the banner of Allah over every inch of Palestine," and "this is the law - namely that no part of Palestine may be given up - and the same goes for any land the Muslims have conquered by force, because during the times of Islamic conquests the Muslims consecrated these lands to Muslim generations till Judgment Day." Just like the rantings of Iran's president, this should not be seen as some bizarre religious, extremist oration, but as the concrete Islamist "roadmap" and action plan it is.

Israel and the world at large have been inundated by Hamas-orchestrated siren songs (but only in English, never in Arabic) insisting that their organization did not really mean it when it had called for the destruction of Israel. In a rash of recent interviews to the Western media, the new Palestinian Prime Minister, Ismail Haniyeh, has spoken about "the need to avoid bloodshed" and Hamas' willingness for a long-term truce. The truce (hudna) he proposed would in fact serve Hamas' purposes to widen its power base and build up its military capabilities for the next round against Israel. In addition, while the local Hamas leadership forms the main body of the new Palestinian government, Hamas' external leadership based in Damascus, which many consider the real power in the organization, maintains active contacts with its international supporters and funders, including other terrorist organizations and especially Iran.

Hamas has been trying and sometimes succeeding to convince the world that it has been miraculously transformed into a peaceful, democratic, tolerant organization which should, therefore, be accorded diplomatic and especially financial support - realizing that without some measure of international support it might not be able to hold on to power. This raises the question as to whether Israel and the rest of the democratic world should go out of their way to ease the burden on Hamas and in this way facilitate or prolong its hold on power.

There are those who contend that what is important is what Hamas does, not what it says. As a general rule, I would agree, but not in this case. Between 1933 and 1939, Hitler hadn't yet started a war, nor had he killed any Jews - actually he had declared eternal peace with the French and the British - and although he had made clear more than once what his real intentions were, most of the world chose to ignore it.

Hamas is not really a uniquely Palestinian phenomenon; similar to other organizations in Jordan, Egypt, and Syria, it was established by the Muslim Brotherhood, part of the jihadist movement whose aim is to re-establish an Islamic Caliphate - first in the Middle East and eventually in all regions which are or were occupied by Muslims.


The Burden of Governance Does Not Bring Moderation

There are those in the West, and even Israelis, who believe that once Hamas has had to face the realities of governance, it will moderate its intransigent views. But even leaving aside the fact that no fundamentalist Islamic organization anywhere has ever made a rationalizing about-face, according to Hamas' philosophy and ideology, without its self-declared mission to destroy Israel, in its own eyes it has no reason to exist. As Robert Satloff of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy has reminded us, one of Hamas' principal leaders, Khaled Mashal, has stated without equivocation his organization's principled rejection of Israel's right to exist - in any size, in any borders. Hence, Hamas rejects not only the international Quartet's roadmap and President Bush's vision of peace in the Middle East, but also the very concept of a "two-state solution." The reason for the total rejection of peace with Israel is that it violates the most basic tenet of Hamas' credo, according to which Islam demands the annihilation of Israel. Article 13 of the Hamas charter states: "Abandoning any part of Palestine (i.e., accepting Israel) means renouncing part of the faith."

Actually, Israel may not even be the main target of the jihadists, but defeating the Jewish state would constitute in their eyes the first step towards victory over Judeo-Christian values everywhere, over the West as a whole, and especially America.

Those who say that "one must respect the democratic choice of the Palestinian people" (this is also the favorite line of various Arab leaders who have never had a democratic election in their own countries) seem to be forgetting that the Palestinians were not blind to Hamas' anti-Israel and anti-peace stance when they voted as they did. In fact, and contrary to what is often claimed by outside apologists, it has been established that only a fraction voted for Hamas because of its promise to clean up the corruption and inefficiency of the previous Fatah regime. Palestinians voted for Hamas because they identified with Hamas' aims against Israel - including terror. They clearly recognized that they were electing a party that ruled out any form of permanent peace with Israel. Indeed, why should Hamas moderate in office when its extremist ideology is its very reason d'etre and the perceived basis for its electoral victory? Neither the Taliban, the Iranian ayatollahs, nor Saddam and the two Assads grew moderate while in office. Neither did Arafat.

In fact, Hamas is not interested in a Palestinian state. They advocate an Islamic nation, one that will engulf not only the Middle East but also other parts of the world - with a nuclear Iran in the background or, perhaps more correctly, in the forefront. As Tony Blair has said, the world "confronts a clash about civilization," not "a clash between civilizations."

It is also important to realize that it isn't only Hamas which is moving away from Palestinian statehood as a fundamental building block in any proposed settlement. There is a growing tendency within the Palestinian body politic in general to de-emphasize the quest for separate Palestinian statehood, and to aim for a state in the whole of Palestine after having eliminated the State of Israel. Even prior to the Hamas victory, in the eyes of many Palestinians the two-state solution didn't necessarily mean that the Palestinians wouldn't continue to try to undermine the existence of Israel as a Jewish state.

Professor Shlomo Avineri has made the point that there are many conflicts in the world that the international community is uncertain how to solve, such as Kosovo, Bosnia, and Cyprus. So why should the entire international community be so certain that Palestinian statehood is the inevitable outcome of any Arab-Israeli peace process, especially if it is a far more difficult conflict to resolve than any of these European conflicts?

There is a misleading tendency to point to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict as one of the principal causes for Arab and Islamic enmity towards the West. Yet after 9/11, and London, and Paris, and Bali, not to mention Amman and Egypt's Sinai, this perception has changed. Even the Lebanese Shiite leader Sheikh Fadlallah has said that the Palestinian issue is only a pretext. The chimerical formula which pretends that if only Israel were to hand to the Palestinians more or less everything they demand, not only would Palestinian-Israeli peace be achieved immediately but also Islamist terror against the world would stop, is a dangerous and self-defeating illusion.

The Zionist movement has always been characterized by an ideology and an idealism tempered by pragmatism. On the Israeli side there has been over the last several years a process which one might call the secularization of politics - no single, major Israeli political party, including the Likud, has for quite a long time now thought in terms of "Greater Israel." Most Israelis are willing to give up part of their historic homeland, the cradle of their national and cultural existence, for the sake of peace.

The exact opposite is happening on the Palestinian side and with large parts of the Arab world in general. Politics is becoming an article of religious faith. There is a theocratization of politics. Everything is ordained by God - the Muslim God - and those who don't agree with this have to be eliminated. It's not just Hamas, Hamas is only the most recent example. The Palestinians are moving further away from peace based on mutual compromise, and not only among supporters of Hamas and Islamic Jihad. Their motto is not "peace," but "justice" - "justice" interpreted as turning the clock back a hundred years and denying the Jewish people the right to any part of its land.

It must be understood that the aims of Hamas are fixed and unalterable, but they are also long-term. They are prepared to wait ten or even twenty years, and they would have no problem agreeing to a cease-fire, or even to announce that at some later stage they may recognize the State of Israel. It should be remembered that although under Fatah there was a verbal commitment to nonviolence, there actually was a reality of violence. The struggle between Hamas and Fatah isn't about peace with Israel, but about political supremacy - and money.

Hamas is also actively engaged in mobilizing the so-called Palestinian diaspora to its cause, first and foremost in Jordan, which is the number one target of the jihadists and in which Palestinians comprise about 70-80 percent of the population. Hamas considers Jordan anyway a part of Palestine.


Israeli Withdrawals Do Not Bring Palestinian Moderation

Unfortunately, experience has shown (and I was a supporter of "disengagement") that Israeli withdrawals and concessions do not bring about Palestinian moderation - quite the opposite. In July 1994, five months after handing over the Gaza Strip to Yasser Arafat, the busses began exploding in the center of Tel Aviv. Three months after giving Arafat control over most major Palestinian towns in 1995, 60 Israelis lost their lives to suicide bombers in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. Two months after Ehud Barak and President Clinton in 2000 had offered Arafat almost everything he demanded, the biggest terror offensive ever broke out, costing more than 1,000 Israeli and 3,000 Palestinian lives. And five months after disengagement from Gaza, Hamas was elected - with Kassam rockets launched from Gaza landing with increasing frequency and accuracy inside Israel. The rule seems clear, at least to Israelis: Israeli withdrawals do not reduce the conflict but actually create escalation.

If civilian "convergence" proceeds, Israel will have to decide whether it will have to continue military control for security purposes in the vacated areas - as it has not done in Gaza - which some in retrospect, especially in the military, regard as a mistake.

But the real threat to Israeli strategic targets does not emanate from Gaza and never did. By its geographic location, Gaza can only threaten a limited number of targets inside Israel. But rocket strikes launched from the West Bank could hit every target in the country's most densely populated areas, including Ben-Gurion Airport. The head of IDF military planning said in a recent interview: "I don't know what a military evacuation is in Judea and Samaria. The IDF cannot leave the West Bank. The IDF will need to control every corner there to provide security for the Israeli people."

Nor can Israel ignore other possible implications from planned withdrawals in the West Bank. Jordan might see in a unilateral Israeli withdrawal from most of the West Bank a strategic threat to itself. Nor will Egypt - and others in the Arab world who might view this as a victory for radicalism and fundamentalism and a threat to stability, which it is - be enthusiastic.


Determining Israel's Permanent Borders

The task now is for Israel to determine its permanent borders, for the time being, unilaterally. Actually, the internal problems of "convergence" will be much more difficult than the external ones. To remove 60-70,000 Israelis, one percent of Israel's total population - most of them idealists - from their homes in Judea and Samaria will be incomparably more wrenching than the removal of the 8-9,000 from Gaza. And what about the cost?

If "convergence" will go ahead, it is not because we think that Jews don't have a right - historically, morally, and legally - to live anywhere in their land, but because we shall reach the conclusion, by our own choice, that it is beyond our capacity to remain in all of the land; that Israel cannot, in the long run, survive as a democratic Jewish state with a large and growing Arab minority; that based on our experience we don't have, and are not likely to have anytime soon, a real peace partner on the other side. So we must determine our fate ourselves. Otherwise, it is probably only a matter of time until there would have been some sort of international initiative, perhaps even including the U.S., which, though not solving anything, could certainly make life more difficult for Israel.

All of this is provided that the Bush letter to Sharon of April 2004, which recognized not only the new realities on the ground but also Israel's legitimate security concerns (concerns which the U.S. has explicitly acknowledged ever since 1967, including in UN Security Council Resolution 242), will be translated into concrete diplomatic and practical support for Israeli plans, hopefully to include at least parts of the international community as well. Israel will have no problem in negotiating with the Palestinians about a final, permanent, peace treaty, if such an opportunity should arise at a future date. In the meantime, what we should strive for is recognition for a temporary, security-based border.

It could be that there really is no solution to the conflict, at least as yet - in the sense that all differences and outstanding issues would have been conclusively and completely brought to an end in a manner satisfactory to most of the people on both sides. But, hopefully, there are still Palestinians who ultimately want to live normal lives and to create their own society. Hence, I believe the prospects for equitable arrangements based on a modus vivendi which could give all sides an opportunity to live in relative normalcy, without ongoing violence, still exist - though not, for the foreseeable future, for a final contractual peace agreement.

*     *     *

Zalman Shoval, a member of the Board of Overseers of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, served as Israel's Ambassador to the United States from 1990 to 1993 and from 1998 to 2000. A veteran member of Israel's Knesset (1970-1981, 1988-1990), Ambassador Shoval was a senior aide to the late Moshe Dayan during his tenure as foreign minister in the Begin government, including during the first Camp David conference. An abbreviated version of this Jerusalem Viewpoints was presented at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington on May 10, 2006.


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