Is Ariel Sharon an Israeli de Gaulle, come to power promising to implement the program of the nationalist right and instead becoming the vehicle for carrying out the ideas which the left had been unable to implement on its own? Will the death of Yasser Arafat really clear the way of the stumbling blocks that his personality and ideology appeared for years to put on the road to Israeli-Palestinian reconciliation?
It is too early to know. Yet there is no doubt that things are moving, on both sides of the Judean hills. For Sharon to quarrel with his own party, lose his parliamentary majority and have to turn to Shimon Peres’s Labor Party to save his disengagement plan — and his own government — is certainly a set of circumstances unforeseen by most observers even a year ago. That it is now Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak who tells the Palestinians that “only Sharon can deliver” shows how far the tidal waves of history occasionally mock conventional wisdom and what appeared just yesterday as plain common sense.
The months ahead will test the mettle of both sides. Israel will have to show that unilateral disengagement is not mere idle talk. One tends to underestimate the wrenching meaning of evacuating 8,000 Israeli citizens from their homes in Gaza and four settlements in the West Bank, some of whom have lived there for almost 30 years. This will severely test the democratic ethos and the boundaries of solidarity of Israeli society.
Whatever one thinks about the Israeli settlement project in the occupied territories, dismantling these settlements would be the only known case of an army forcibly evacuating its own population from part of what it considers its historic homeland — usually armies do this to enemy populations. One can only hope the Israeli government will show the right mix of resolve and empathy in carrying out the withdrawal both peacefully and successfully, and that the settlers themselves will be able to take care of the apocalyptic messianists in their midst.
But this will only be the beginning of a long road. As Labor made clear, after Gaza and the four settlements in the West Bank, further disengagement from the dozens of isolated settlements, spread all over the West Bank, will be necessary. It is here that Arafat’s death makes it possible for what was initially planned as Israeli unilateral measures to be at least coordinated with the new Palestinian leadership.
If Sharon’s challenge is to successfully carry out the deeply divisive step of using the Israeli army to evacuate Jewish settlers, the Palestinian leadership will face similarly difficult challenges. For negotiations eventually to succeed, the Palestinians need to rebuild a modicum of trust among Israelis. This trust — always tenuous, but appearing to grow after the 1993 Oslo accords — was almost totally destroyed after the failure at Camp David in 2000. What has riled the Israelis was not only the Palestinian recourse to terrorism, culminating in the obscenity of suicide bombers being praised by Arafat as shahids , or martyrs.
What was much more troubling, in a way, was the Palestinians’ insistence on the right of 1948 refugees to return to Israel. To most Israelis this signified that the Palestinians were aiming not only at putting an end to the post-1967 occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, but also to undoing the consequences of the 1948 war — namely, to undermine the very existence of Israel as a Jewish state.
In order to convince Israelis that this is no longer the case, the new Palestinian leadership will have to change course on this, clearly and unequivocally. It obviously will not be easy, but the Palestinian leaders will have to tell their people that what had been their battle cry for 50 years — Al Awda , The Return — is not going to happen.
The Palestinian leaders will have to go to the refugee camps in the West Bank, Gaza, Lebanon and Syria — where for decades children were given those symbolic keys to their parents and grandparents houses — and tell them clearly that no, they are not going to go back to Haifa, Jaffa, Akko or Ramleh. They will have to tell them that they will all become citizens of the emerging Palestinian state, that they will be rehabilitated, that many will be able to go back to newly independent Palestine — but they will not be going back to Israel.
This is indeed difficult, but without this there will be no peace. This is how peace was achieved in Europe, where more than 10 million ethnic Germans were expelled after 1945 from Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary and Yugoslavia, where they and their ancestors had lived for centuries. Had the German government insisted — as the Palestine Liberation Organization still insists — that their return is on the agenda, there would be no peace in Europe today. German Foreign Minister Joschka Fisher, himself from an ethnic Germany family expelled from Hungary, said as much to a rather surprised Arab questioner at a conference some time ago near Frankfurt.
This is unquestionably a tall order, but it is no more difficult than what the Israeli government will have to do in the next few months. Without such steps, few Israelis will give much credence to Palestinian rhetoric about peace and reconciliation. So long as Palestinians view the return of the refugees as a legitimate issue, most Israelis will remain skeptical about whether Palestinians have really reconciled themselves to the existence of Israel.
As the recent thaw in Israeli-Palestinian relations shows, progress is only achieved because the local players have the political will to do so. The peace agreements Israel has reached in the past with Egypt, Jordan and the PLO were negotiated bilaterally. Madrid was little more than a photo opportunity, and the road map has never really gotten off the ground.
So let the “road map” — actually a wish list much more than a road map — continue to hang on the walls of the world’s chancelleries, but let the local leaders on both sides, who appear now to approach some period of grace, carry on with what seems to be a number of hopeful steps. Give local players whatever support they need and require — but realize that peace is made by the contenders, not by well-intentioned outsiders.