Everyone in the Middle East is crossing their fingers these days, hoping that regional and international leaders will not blow yet another opportunity for Arab-Israeli peace. The role of Palestinian and Israeli leaders is clearly an important factor in moving the peace process ahead, but let their be no mistake about it: The crucial factor is 6,000 miles away from Jerusalem, in Washington.
The United States has as much power to change the situation in the Middle East as do local leaders, if not more. What is at stake is not only peace between Palestinians and Israelis, but also the resolution of Israel’s conflicts with Syria and Lebanon, not to mention America’s quagmire in Iraq. Suffice it to say, the consequences for the United States in the region are huge.
The current optimism stems from a number of developments, including Israel’s planned withdrawal from Gaza, the willingness of Syrian President Bashar Assad to drop any preconditions for peace talks with Israel, and the ongoing discussions among Palestinian Islamic movements of a long-term hudna, or cease-fire, with Israel. Without question, however, what woke up the dormant peace process was the unexpected death last month of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.
Arafat’s sudden exit from the Middle East stage relieved many local, regional and world leaders from the inextricable dilemma in which they had found themselves, foremost among them Prime Minister Sharon and President Bush. The Israeli leader and his recently reelected American ally had climbed a tree from which they were unable to come down, by striking the undemocratic position of excluding the popular and elected leader of the Palestinian people from any peace talks.
Many Palestinians believe that the Israeli and American shunning of Arafat was a convenient tool for not dealing with the “final-status” issues of borders, Jewish settlements, Jerusalem and Palestinian refugees. Now that Arafat is gone, it remains to be seen whether it was indeed his personal policies that proved to be the main impediment to Israeli and American participation in the peace process.
On the surface, at least, Israel and the United States should have no such reservations about Mahmoud Abbas, the current head of the Palestine Liberation Organization and overwhelming favorite in the Palestinian presidential elections scheduled for January 9. During their four decades together at the helm of the Palestinian national movement, Abbas and Arafat have differed in both style and content.
Abbas looks and talks in a more business-like manner, an important character trait that will be vital in the difficult process of changing public opinion in Israel and the United States. More importantly, Abbas has stated publicly that the militarization of the intifada it unacceptable because it has distorted resistance against an armed occupier into acts of violence against civilians, as well as into other abuses within Palestinian society. Arafat, by contrast, felt that armed resistance is an internationally guaranteed right, and that Israel’s failure to respect international treaties and its continued illegal settlement activity left Palestinians no choice but to use violence to end the Israeli occupation.
But it would be a mistake to believe that Abbas will differ from Arafat — and from the vast majority of Palestinians — when it comes to the core issues of the conflict. Regardless of who sits across the negotiating table, Israel will find strong opposition to any plan that will cede Palestinian territory within the 1967 borders, including East Jerusalem.
On the other hand, the Palestinian refugee issue, while important on a symbolic level, will not be a deal breaker. Palestinians are more interested in Israel recognizing its historic and moral role in causing the refugee problem than in insisting that every single refugee now living in the West Bank, Gaza or abroad be allowed to return to their former homes inside the State of Israel.
The issue on which Palestinians are perhaps most split is not an issue at all, but rather the pace of the negotiating process through which they are resolved. Some Palestinians are sick and tired of interim solutions and phased withdrawals. They remember the optimism that greeted the famous Rabin-Arafat handshake during the 1993 White House ceremony. To many Palestinians, the five-year interim plan that followed the 1993 handshake did nothing but cement the occupation, turning it into a permanent fact on the ground.
Other Palestinians, fearing that the negative effects of the four-year-long violent intifada will not easily be erased, worry that signing a permanent agreement now will be disadvantageous to Palestinians. An interim solution including a settlement freeze, they believe, will allow for the rebuilding of the Palestinian economy, a return to something approximating normal life and more time for Palestinians to extract a better negotiating position.
But any agreement between Palestinian and Israeli leaders will be worthless if it is not marketed properly to their general publics. Peace agreements that have no public support normally don’t stand the test of time. This means that agreements must first and foremost be fair and just, but also that they must include clear short- and medium-term provisions for improving the quality of life.
Every single Palestinian has suffered from the ongoing occupation. Travel restrictions, economic strangulations, house destructions and large-scale incursions must stop immediately. Prisoners must be released, and basic living conditions must be improved.
Palestinians will only throw their support behind a negotiated end to the conflict when they can taste the fruits of peace — a fact on the ground that American and Israeli leaders would do well to accept as they reinvolve themselves in seeking peace in the Middle East.