Even in These Rage-Filled Times

December 1, 2000
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Thomas Smerling

A few years ago, I proposed writing a pair of Op-Eds with a very conservative colleague. We would title both”…But I Could be Wrong.” My hawkish friend would explain why the peace process is a sham, but - since he could be wrong - Israel should give diplomacy every chance. I would argue that peace was both possible and imperative, but - since I too could be wrong - Israel needed to retain the military capability to prevail in even the worst case scenario.

More urgent projects called and the dueling Op-Eds gathered dust. But since Sept 28 I have had to ask myself that terrible question, “Was I wrong? Is Arafat serious about peacemaking? Is Oslo dead? And even if Palestinians sign an agreement, will they turn their guns on Israel again at the first opportunity?” Uncomfortable as it may be, every intellectually honest analyst has to periodically strip off all their assumptions and stand mentally naked before the facts.

My conclusion? After studying the events of recent weeks, I find nothing that alters the fundamental premises of the peace process. At the same time, I do think some serious rethinking is in order about how to pursue it.

The core logic behind Yitzhak Rabin’s peace drive still holds. In 1992 Rabin looked around and saw that Israel’s military superiority, the fall of the Soviet Union, and the Gulf War aftermath had created an opportunity. Simultaneously, looming regional proliferation of missiles, weapons of mass destruction, and radical Islam suggested urgency.

That same opportunity and urgency remain today, but obviously no serious negotiations can take place until the violence subsides. Nobody should be surprised to discover that when negotiations drag on inconclusively for years, frustration builds to explosive levels. It would be naive to think otherwise. But it is similarly naive to think that any real progress is possible while daily funerals drain public support for peacemaking. And the violence will likely get worse before it gets better

Do the Palestinians want peace? It is always misleading to speak of the Palestinians or Israelis as if they were a monolith. Both societies are deeply divided into three camps: rejectionists opposed to any compromise, moderates committed to peacemaking, and a large group in the middle that moves back and forth depending on circumstances. The peacemakers’ challenge is always to move the middle group toward moderation. Today, violence is moving the center toward rejectionism, but that may change with events.

Can we trust Arafat? Of course not. War-ending negotiations are based not on trust but on self-interest and power. We know that Arafat is willing to use violence for political gains, and he is a weak leader more inclined to ride rather than suppress waves of popular sentiment. But we knew all this before Sept. 28. We also know that to advance his goals, Arafat has at times proven able and willing to confront the most violent rejectionists, like Hamas’ military wing. Prior to September 28, Palestinian police working with Israel security forces managed to bring anti-Israel terrorism to a 33-year low and keep it there for two years.

Can Arafat control his people and deliver a peace deal? Most Israeli analysts still say “yes.” If he cuts a deal on terms that don’t cross his people’s - and the Muslim world’s - “red lines,” he can make it stick. Because he embodies Palestinian nationalism, he’s the only one who can someday tell West Bankers that Israel will keep forever large settlement blocs built on their land, and tell the refugees that most of them cannot ever come home.

I am not one to say, “There is no alternative to negotiations.” There is and it has shown its ugly face these past weeks. But there is no alternative way for Israel to achieve the security and normalcy for which it yearns, or the Palestinians to achieve the independence and dignity they crave. That is why even in these rage-filled times, neither side has closed the door to negotiations. Both Israelis and Palestinians know that they are stuck with each other and nobody is leaving.

Unfortunately, their relations are now encrusted with fresh layers of bitterness and mistrust. Reaching a final agreement may take much longer than once hoped. Moreover, though Oslo may be revived, more likely some new framework will be needed. Whatever the format, the next round will have to focus less exclusively on high diplomacy and more on conditions on the ground. Israel can no more afford to continue to placate the settlers with land confiscations than the Palestinians can afford to continue their romance with violence. Both sides will have to be more realistic about what concessions they can expect from the other side. Finally, they will have to move much faster, lest the talks be overtaken once again by violence.

I continue to believe that ending the Arab-Israeli war is no longer a question of “whether” but “when,” and “how many lives will be lost in the meantime?” But I could be wrong. And, even at best, ending the war will neither end all Arab-Israeli conflicts, nor will it be necessarily “irreversible.” That’s why, for generations, Israel’s safety will continue to rest on three legs: diplomacy backed up by deterrence and defense.

Ultimately, peace can only be tested once the parties sign an agreement and draw a border. Without a border, the Palestinians feel they are still under occupation and have little to lose. And mired down in a borderless war amidst civilians, Israel cannot use its full military power to defend itself. Until a final deal is cut and borders drawn, both sides will be tempted to try to placate their extremists, sometimes through force, while vastly underestimating the impact this has on the other side.

Though war’s end is not the end of hostility, it can create incentives and disincentives that make a return to violence increasingly unlikely. A cold but durable peace can give the next generation a chance to begin the much harder, much longer task of truly resolving the conflicts and building real peace, not just between governments but between societies. Then, as now, our job as American Jews will be to do all we can to help.

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Thomas Smerling is Vice-President of the Israel Policy Forum and Director of its think-tank arm, the IPF Washington Policy Center. He has written extensively on Middle East politics and the peace process, and has led several fact-finding missions to Israel, the West Bank, Gaza, Jordan, Syria, and Egypt.

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