By Kirk H. Sowell | July 21, 2006
Up until the renewed confrontations between Israel and Hamas and Hizbullah in Gaza and Lebanon, respectively, this past week, Israeli, Western and some Palestinian officials have continued to claim commitment to the Bush adminisration's "Road Map" plan for Israeli-Palestinian peace. Yet a clear look at the events of the past two years will show that the "Road Map" was abandoned by Israel in its frustration with the Palestinians, while Washington allowed its policy to be defined not by consistent principles but by attachment to individuals - former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas. The eclipse of these two leaders, one by health, the other by events, has left the United States without a clear policy on the future of Palestine. Context is needed for a reevaluation.
It seemed that the confrontation between Israel and Hamas in the Gaza Strip was beginning to subside just over a week ago this past Monday as Israel withdrew from north Gaza and the Hamas leadership in Gaza signaled a willingness to talk compromise. As if on cue, Hizballah ignited a second conflict on Israel's northern border by attacking Israeli military and civilian targets and abducting two soldiers. Israel's political leadership is caught between calls for restaint and the need for deterrence, while Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmud Abbas freely admits that he has no authority and even talks of abolishing the PA and leaving Gaza, while the United States blames Syria and Iran but otherwise avoids direct involvement.
This is not where the "Road Map," the plan developed primarily by the United States and the European Union with support from Russia and the United Nations to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, was supposed to lead us. The Road Map envisioned a series of reciprocal confidence-building steps that Israel and the PA were to take; Israel would end the building of settlements, the Palestinians would stop the violence, Israel would lift travel restrictions between Gaza and the West Bank, the Palestinians would focus on economic development, and then both sides would sit down and discuss the final status issues - Israel's withdrawal from the territories outside its 1967 borders, the "right to return" of the Palestinian refugees, and the status of Jerusalem.
There are legitimate arguments which could be made for and against the Road Map plan. On the upside, the process of incremental and reciprocal concessions makes sense where there is limited political will to make concessions absent movement by the other side, and where there is such a long history of distrust, as exists here. On the downside, the Road Map contained the same flaw as all previous incremental approaches - it allowed terrorists to wreck the train with a single successful suicide bombing which would bring everything to a halt.
Whatever one thinks of the merits of the Road Map, however, in order to understand the current situation one must recognize that Israel abandoned the Road Map back in 2004 when it adopted Sharon's disengagement plan from Gaza. Rhetorically, Israeli, Palestinian and Western officials have continued to pay lip service to the Road Map up until the onset of the current crisis, but that road was abandoned in 2004, and the path chartered since then has not led to the promised land.
The Israeli government, lead by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert of the newly-founded Kadima Party, finds itself in a fix. Israel's finely tuned military and intelligence services have demonstrated their ability to suppress the ability of Palestinian terrorists to launch attacks from Gaza, or even for the Hamas leadership in Gaza to move around, and at the same time pick out and destroy Hizbullah military installations in Lebanon. Yet the best case scenario now in Gaza is a fenced-in but very much functional agglomeration of terrorist factions spawned from Hamas and Fatah. Like Sunni Iraq, Gaza is brimming with weapons and young men with hate in their hearts who know how to do little else than use them to kill someone. In Lebanon, the best-case scenario is more optimistic; if the reaction against Hizbullah in Lebanon is strong enough, then the democratic factions which have already been demanding the group's disarmament will be empowered, and combined with the pain inflicted by Israeli forces, Hizbullah may back down, especially if Syria begins to feel the heat.
Yet these two fronts have one thing in common - they were created by a unilateral withdraw by Israel. While withdrawal from south Lebanon and the Gaza Strip is clearly necessary for there to be any hope of a final peace deal, it matters how you withdraw. There was a direct relationship between the May 2000 Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon, with Hizbullah loudly proclaiming its victory over Israel, what historian Benny Morris called "a hypnotic effect" on Palestinians, and the wave of attacks on civilian and military Israeli targets began in September. This violence led to the defeat of Prime Minister Ehud Barak, and Sharon's elevation as prime minister. Last year's withdrawal from Gaza seems to have had similar effects. Rather than using the opportunity to build a stable political and economic system, Palestinians tolerated continued attacks on Israel from Gaza and then this past January elected Hamas into power in the Palestinian Authority. Hamas, now in a position to entrench itself even further into Palestinian society, remained steadfast in refusing to recognize Israel's right to exist, bringing us to the current crisis precipitated by the abduction of the Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, and the escalation of that conflict through Hizbullah's strike in north Israel on Tuesday.
One major difference, at least so far, is the political reaction in Israel; Barak was thrown out of office, while Olmert stands tall. Part of this may be due to the fact that Olmert is responding whereas Barak chose not to respond to a similar abduction in October 2000. And Olmert's standing may well falter with time, although the news on the Palestinian front has been consistently negative since January. For now, Olmert is "triangulating": the left-wing Meeretz criticizes the response as excessive, while the right-wing Likud calls it too restrained (Jerusalem Post).
Yet unlike 2000, the Likud is weak. Led by former prime minister Benyamin Netanyahu, the Likud received only 12 out of 120 seats. Although Israel's economy stabilized and recovered from a recession under Netanyahu's tenure as Finance Minister, most Israelis are not strongly pro-free market, and poverty remains relatively high. Most Israelis have bad memories of Netanyahu's own tenure as prime minister, and most do not want to see him return. Remember that political alignments in Israel differ from those in the English-speaking world; the commercial class has traditionally united with secularists and security doves to support the Center-Left, while the working class and lower-income ethnic groups united with security hawks to support the Center-Right with the rise of the Likud in the 1970s. So Netanyahu's free market credentials are not a positive for his potential coalition.
There is also barely a credible alternative on Israel's Center-Left. Labor lost all credibility on security after 2000, and hasn't gotten it back. Although Kadima only had 29 seats to Labor's 19, Olmert was able to persuade Labor leader Amir Peretz to let Kadima have all the "power" portfolios - the prime minister, deputy prime minister, foreign minister and justice minister - but one; Peretz himself became defense minister. Kadima thus has Labor as its junior partner in war, giving it a "moderate" look, so that if things go well Olmert comes out on top, but even so Peretz will be and has been criticized by his supporters on the Left as being too aggressive in approving military operations. Peretz may be able to parlay this experience into greater credibility with the public on defense matters, but he will still be Olmert's junior partner. Although recent polls show that Israeli support for the disengagement policy has declined to below 50% for the first time, there is no alternative to Olmert's Kadima on the horizon.
At least Olmert can say that his policy of unilateral disengagement has an electoral mandate; he gave ample details before Israel's election in March. If Israel's operations in Gaza and Lebanon are successful in achieving their very limited aims, where does this lead Olmert's plans for a unilateral realignment (partial withdrawal) in the West Bank? It will have to be unilateral, as there will be no Palestinian partner, and Israelis may wonder why they should turn over the bulk of the West Bank if it is going to become a playground for terrorists, as has happened with Gaza.
And that, remember, is the best-case scenario.
There was much hope that the death of Yasser Arafat early last year, along with the election of Abbas as Palestinian president, would open a new era of internal reform and progress which would create a genuine partner for peace with Israel. The optimism was unwarranted. It is not true, as is sometimes suggested, that Arab or Muslim countries cannot democratize. But of all Arab societies, the Palestinians would have been the least fit candidates for democratic transition had there not been a geopolitical need. The pervasiveness of corruption and violence in Palestinian society is difficult to overstate. Aside from the established terror groups, most prominently Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, Arafat kept over a dozen security, intelligence and paramilitary groups, supported by international aid. These factions were all tied to him and no one else, so when he died they went their own way. This is why groups often described as "affiliated with" or "members of" Fatah have been repeatedly reported fighting each other and Hamas. No one controls them. (For a look at Arafat's legacy, The Atlantic Monthly had a great article which I summarize here. See also a long excerpt of an interview with the writer, David Samuels, which I reproduce here.) Abbas is now threatening to resign, close the Palestinian Authority, and simply give up.
There have been indications in the past that Damascus viewed Abbas as a threat, as he would be if he could enforce a peace with Israel. The recent kidnappings may have been instigated precisely for this reason. In April, Hamas' Damascus-based leadership sharply accused Abbas and Fatah of "conspiring with the Zionists and the Americans..." Iran and Syria are clearly calling the shots here, and these moves could have been aimed not only at increasing pressure on the United States in Iraq, but also at undermining Abbas.
Even before January's elections, it was clear that sympathy for terrorism was strong. Whenever Israel would kill an operative of the Iran-Palestinian Islamic Jihad, which operated openly in Palestinian-administered areas, there would be crowds of protestors in the streets. Unlike Hamas, the PIJ has no social welfare network; it simply carries out suicide attacks. While Hamas' electoral victory was a bare plurality in terms of the popular vote, Fatah itself had one of its listed headed by convicted terrorist Marwan Barghouti. The secular terrorist Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine received three seats, and that was one more than the Third Way party of Salaam Fayyad, the most clearly anti-terrorist party in the running. A poll published on Al-Jazeera (Arabic link) showed that Palestinians supported Shalit's abduction by 77-22%. And while there has been criticism of Hizbullah from not only some Lebanese, but also Saudi Arabia, Palestinians across the political spectrum reacted with support.
The Palestinian Authority has essentially collapsed, and the Palestinian territories will be ruled for the forseeable future by whatever armed faction, Islamist or secularist, happens to control a given local vicinity. After decades of attempts, some legitimate and others illegitimate, to obtain an independent state of their own, Palestinians are farther away now from their dream than they have been in a very long time.
So now we return to the Road Map, which has turned into a muddy ditch. Israel must deal with the current situation effectively in order to maintain its deterrent posture, but it is inconceivable how anyone could possibly describe the Sharon-Olmert unilateral disengagement policy as a success, even a mixed one. The withdrawal of Israeli troops from both Lebanon and Gaza without guarantees of security from accountable Arab political leaders has empowered and encouraged Israel's enemies, leading directly to the current crisis. Public support for disengagement was always a reflection of frustration with the Palestinians more than a real expectation of good results. But only by negotiating away land can Israel use the leverage it has to achieve security guarantees and avoid the impression of retreat under fire.
The logic of unilateral disengagement also goes against one of the original rationales for Israeli support for the peace process, and that is the relieving of Israel's demographic bomb. Israel's Arab population is now around 20% and growing, yet they have little or no identification with the state of Israel. The Jewish state could be voted out of existence at some point, so Israeli Arabs need some place they are willing to go. Since no Israeli Arab in his right mind would consider moving to Gaza right now, the welfare of the Palestinian territories is linked to Israel's need for a better demographic balance.
Furthermore, some have argued that the Gaza withdrawal would give Israel greater international support, thus allowing them more leeway with military operations. Given the lopsided UN vote condemning Israel's response this week, it appears that the greater international support only lasted until the shooting started. This is why the UN cannot be allowed to have a significant role in this issue; any significant action Israel takes will be viewed as excessive.
Palestinian society is in need of an intense deradicalization program, but there is no one to impose it. Abbas has not only lost power vis-a-vis Hamas and Syria, he has lost power within his own party, and it is not clear what percentage of the Palestinian Security Services he still controls. An attempt by Israel to forcibly deradicalize the Palestinians as the Allies did after WWII in Germany would lead to the kinds of protest that the U.S. doesn't need right now.
For the United States, the delay in the stabilization of Iraq is now taking a toll on strategic flexibility. L. Paul Bremer's "Year in Iraq" as head of the Coalition Provisional Authority was America's lost year, as the Sunni insurgents gained strength and the Shia militias armed themselves and expanded recruitment. The Falluja operation in November 2004 began the process of stabilization, but only now that Iraq has a permanent government and a reasonably well-trained army can adequate security operations be undertaken. But it will take until sometime in 2007 - this is optimistic - for the situation to settle down enough. Once it does, the U.S. can more fully support Israel in taking whatever measure are decided upon to deal with Hamas decisively, but until then Olmert must focus on maintaining deterrence and at the same time not going too far.
The United States must also get beyond its practice of focusing on personalizing foreign policy and relying on certain individuals rather than relying on broad policies. Here, Sharon and Abbas virtually personified U.S. policy regarding the Israeli-Palestinian issue . When these individuals faultered - Sharon with a stroke, Abbas with lack of public support - the policies based on them faultered as well.
Once conditions are right, the U.S. and Israel must develop a plan which includes a negotiated withdrawal from the Palestinian territories that ensures - as the price of compromise - that Hamas' terrorist infrastructure will be extirpated from Palestinian society. It cannot rely on simply retreating and playing eternal defense. Israel will not be safe until the Palestinian issue is resolved. That is the destination toward the next "road map" should be headed.