July 1, 2003
Glimmer of Hope?
by Alan Bock
is seldom incorrect to discount hopes for imminent peace between
Israelis and Palestinians. Nonetheless, it seems almost possible
to hope beyond hope this time that something resembling a cease-fire
between Israelis and Palestinians might stand a chance of lasting
longer than a day or so. This seems the case especially since Israeli
Prime Minister Ariel Sharon on Monday shrugged off a couple of shooting
incidents that came after three major Palestinian groups called
a three-month cease-fire.
is usually on the side of skepticism about peace prospects in this
part of the world, of course. But it just might be that enough people
on either side are ready to give it a try. But the most important
thing for those who hope for peace is to keep the expectations modest
rather than grandiose, and centered on the interests of the two
parties rather than the current desires of the United States government
and/or the "international community."
talked with Leon Hadar, an Israeli who was UN correspondent for
the Jerusalem Post a while back and is now Washington editor
of the Singapore Business Times and a research fellow at
the Cato Institute. "A cease-fire, especially if it lasts for
while, is an accomplishment. A cease-fire is all they have had,
formally at least, in Cyprus for decades, but the violence has been
contained. If that could happen on the West Bank we would have reason
to be grateful."
is somewhat instructive to check into the actual statement made
by Hamas, Islamic Jihad and later Yasser Arafat's Fatah movement,
the armed resistance (or terrorist, as some would insist) Palestinian
groups that announced a three-month cease-fire. (They were joined
by the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and the Democratic
Front for the Liberation of Palestine, which had earlier opposed
a cease-fire declaration but said they would honor it.)
statement leads with "the right of our people to return and
self-determination and establishing the independent Palestinian
state with Jerusalem as a capital on all lands occupied in the year
1967," which contains at least a couple of potential deal-breakers.
It continues with six demands on Israelis, including "the immediate
withdrawal of the occupation forces to where they were before Sept.
28 2000," and three detailed conditions in return for "A
suspension of the military operations against the Zionist enemy
for three months."
other words, it's not exactly a pacifist document. Furthermore,
as Hamas leader Abdel Aziz Rantisi, target of a recent Israeli assassination
attempt noted, in a story
reported by the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, "We consider
ourselves free from this initiative if the Israeli enemy does not
implement all the conditions." So the Palestinian militants
have made sure the cease-fire contains, within the announcement,
literally dozens of reasons to break it.
the other side of the divide, the Israeli government did respond
by withdrawing military forces from the northern part of the Gaza
Strip and dismantling several military checkpoints. And after two
shooting incidents, claimed by the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade (or at
least self-proclaimed members thereof), Ariel Sharon counseled patience,
telling parliament members, "Even if the Palestinians were
the fastest in the world and the most determined, you can't expect
them to destroy terrorism in a moment, since this morning."
the cease-fire was declared unilaterally, however, with no discussion
with the Israelis of the conditions grandly proclaimed, the Israelis
are in the position of being able to say they never agreed to those
conditions and aren't bound by them. One Israeli cabinet minister
Yosef Lapid said "I don't think it will last because there
are so many enemies on the Palestinian side," and education
minister Limor Livnat called the cease-fire a "trick."
Gideon Meir, a senior foreign ministry official, told Haaretz, "We
are not holding our breath. We here in Israel fully support the
road map, and we want it to be implemented chapter and verse."
Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom told Channel One Television, "The
main issue is to dismantle the infrastructures of terror."
the Israelis have also placed themselves in a position of being
able to justify an abandonment of the cease-fire for virtually any
reason, at any time.
A CEASE-FIRE NOW?
striking thing, however, is that the Palestinian militant groups
did call a cease-fire and the Israeli government responded with
something resembling a reciprocal concession almost immediately.
Considering all the underlying barriers to a permanent settlement
of the conflict – status of Jerusalem, status of West Bank Israeli
settlements, insistence on the right of return, decades of mutual
hostility – why might this tiny step toward reduction of violence
have happened now?
will say it is because of the U.S. initiative in drawing up a "road
map" and becoming intimately involved – almost to the point
of daily micromanagement – in Israeli-Palestinian affairs. Some
will say the presence in the region of National Security Adviser
Condoleezza Rice, talking to people on all sides and sticking her
oar in, was a big factor in inspiring a cease-fire.
Hadar, who just returned from a trip to Israel and a conference
in Jordan, thinks it has more to due with the situation on the ground.
"People on both sides told me they are just exhausted"
by the ongoing Intifada, he told me. The promenade in Tel Aviv is
deserted, the economy is in the tank. As is well-known, business
investment, either foreign or domestic, dries up in a situation
fraught with violence and long-term instability. The two sides have
not come to like or trust one another, but each has an interest
in stopping the killing, at least for a while.
years ago this sentiment of mutual exhaustion didn't exist,"
Leon told me. And three years ago the United States could have done
backflips and offered even more extensive bribes or threats and
had almost no impact on the situation. The sole superpower might
want to believe it is omnipotent and omnicompetent, but it is more
severely constrained than some of our dreamers in Washington imagine.
There may be a mutual interest on the part of Israelis and Palestinians
in stopping the violence, at least for a while, and that might happen.
But it isn't because Uncle Sam has issued orders.
it doesn't require much recollection (although perhaps more than
most of the U.S. media can muster) to remember that acts of violence
were specifically timed to coincide with visits by the likes of
Gen. Zinni and Colin Powell, to send the message that the United
States didn't control events in the area, the militants did.
JOYS OF UNINVOLVEMENT
conventional wisdom is that the only hope for progress toward peace
between Israelis and Palestinians is more aggressive involvement
by the United States. Leon Hadar (and I) think almost the opposite.
He goes so far to say that if this cease-fire does become extended
into something more long-term (which in fact he rather doubts) the
relative lack of involvement by the United States for the last three
years will have been a contributing factor. It allowed the two sides
to become exhausted and let them know in deed rather than word (at
least until Dubya's burst of hyperactivity) that the United States
just might not bail them out, that they would have to resolve things
on their own.
as he reminded me, has for some time been advocating that the Israeli-Palestinian
dispute be viewed as one more of many local ethnic civil conflicts
in the world that would best be handled locally rather than with
a full-court press by the wise gurus of the international communist.
With the demise of the Soviet Union there is little about the dispute
that makes it geopolitically more significant than tribal disputes
in Africa or Iran or the interior of China.
Americans, for various reasons, some understandable and some downright
foolish, tend to identify with Israel than with people involved
in other ethnic conflicts in other parts of the world, but some
Americans identify with the Palestinians as well.
point is, the global interests of the United States – whether viewed
as narrowly as some of us would prefer or even in the more expansive
vision of the American empire – will be little affected whether
this dispute goes on for decades (as seems likely) or is resolved
tomorrow. It has a minor impact on relations with Arab countries
but no impact on access to oil. It will have an impact on American
power only if the United States becomes too committed and overpromises
and then fails to deliver even a semblance of peace or settlement.
If that happens American prestige and ultimately American influence
and perhaps even effective American power will suffer.
decent human beings we should hope the cease-fire takes hold and
becomes long-term. As realists, it might behoove us to acknowledge
that that might be the best that can be accomplished in the region
for some time to come. But the fact that it is not a "comprehensive
settlement" that ties up every loose end and makes theorists
in Washington DC feel satisfied at their brilliance should not lead
us to denigrate the accomplishment.
cease-fire, even one observed only inconsistently, would be a reduction
in violence and killing. It would be the minimum requirement for
the recommencement of any kind of economic development in either
country. If a cease-fire does take hold, we could tolerate a certain
amount of ambiguity about the final outcome and a certain amount
of militant rhetoric on both sides. A cessation of killing for a
while could be much more important than a theoretical solution to
all the problems in the region.
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