While it is still too early for an accurate assessment of how America’s toppling of Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq will change the Middle East, one thing is certain: The strategic landscape in the region has changed significantly, and is inexorably on course to further change.
From Israel’s regional perspective, Iraq has been eliminated as a military threat, the political implosion in Iran has probably been accelerated — although that does not alleviate the threat that Iran can pose — and Syria is further isolated and exposed for its eccentric misunderstanding of international politics. In addition, Palestinian political reform has begun, following unrelenting Israeli insistence and American pressure.
The Arab world is not about to become a Jeffersonian haven, nor will the Arab League endorse “The Federalist Papers.” Yet the prospects are evident for broad regional political change, even if incremental and slow.
Against this background, and in an effort to neutralize anti-American and anti-Israeli sentiment throughout the Arab world, a revival of the Israeli-Palestinian political negotiations process has become necessary.
Enter the “road map.” It is a three-part document that essentially designates a two-state solution as the ultimate goal, but requires both sides to take respective measures to ensure the goal is attained.
In this respect, the road map is nothing new. The Palestinians have been offered a state before: by the 1937 Peel commission, the 1947 United Nations partition plan, the 1993 Oslo accords and, most recently and tellingly, in 2000, when then-prime minister Ehud Barak and then-president Bill Clinton proposed a comprehensive, conflict-ending peace plan that would create a viable, contiguous Palestinian state. The Palestinians rejected all these plans and, following each rejection, resorted to violence and terrorism.
The road map, drawn up by the diplomatic quartet of the United States, United Nations, European Union and Russia, is like any document-by-committee. It is by nature imprecise. It is ostensibly “performance-based,” yet at the same time it seems to be timetable-driven. Israel believes that the road map could, in fact, provide the corridor through which we can all go and launch a meaningful process. The time is ripe. But for that to happen, for trust to be restored, terrorism must be defeated. Not only by Israel — but by the Palestinians.
Failure to do so would condemn the road map before it is seriously negotiated.
Presumably, the road map will be negotiated between Israel and the new Palestinian leadership, with the United States acting as facilitator and monitor.
The appointment of Mahmoud Abbas, known as Abu Mazen, as the new Palestinian prime minister allows for some cautious optimism. The emphasis is on cautious.
For one thing, Yasser Arafat is not entirely out of the picture, and maintains his destructive and disruptive capabilities and perennial inclination to exercise them.
Second, while he is a mellow and relatively pragmatic politician who has on occasion opposed the use of violence and terrorism, Abu Mazen is not about to join the Jewish Agency, nor subscribe to the Zionist cause. He is a Palestinian nationalist with a troubling lack of understanding the inner workings of Israeli society. In the past, his statements on Israel and on the Palestinian refugees’ “right of return” failed miserably to grasp the essence of Israel and its ideological codes and existential red lines.
Nevertheless, he was chosen, he is accepted by the world as the Palestinian leader and we need to assess his strengths and weak- nesses and hopefully work with him — until proven otherwise.
His first test of authority and resolve will be whether he demonstrates the willingness and long-term determination to fight terrorism. That includes fighting the organizations, such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad; the infrastructure; the educational system supporting terrorism, and their political clout and attraction in Palestinian society. It is not an easy task by any measure, but one that is a prerequisite to any serious political process. This is not a demand designed by and for Israel, but rather an issue that the Palestinians must — and can successfully — address for their own national interest.
The second question, emanating from this test of authority, is whether Abu Mazen will be consumed by internal strife to the degree that he will be depleted and devoid of sufficient legitimacy to credibly engage in a negotiating process with Israel.
Third, is the new Palestinian prime minister politically and conceptually capable of relinquishing the “right of return” of Palestinian refugees to Israel?
At the Camp David negotiations in 2000, Abu Mazen was one of the ideological hardliners pressing Arafat not to relent on the refugee issue. Had he stated that the Palestinians reserve the right to hold on to the “right of return” as a collective national myth and value, but conceded that it is practically impossible, nor acceptable in the spirit of a peace agreement, then perhaps creative formulas could have been found — as they have been at Camp David and subsequent sessions. Unfortunately, he has not said that. Equally unfortunately, the road map establishes a Palestinian state before the issue is dealt with.
Yet there are promising, visible signs that Palestinian society is battle-fatigued, tired and frustrated with the lack of any political benefits from the intifada. There are indications that Palestinian leaders have internalized the political effects and ramifications of the war in Iraq and that they would welcome a period of political negotiations.
Israel has strategically defeated the Palestinians, and it is now time to convert this victory into political assets for the future of Israel. The last three years have exacted an enormously high economic and social price from Israel; there is a collective sense of exhaustion among Israelis. We are durable, resilient and tough, but we are also fully aware that the status quo is disadvantageous and inevitably dangerous.
Public opinion polls consistently show that Israelis are ready to make major compromises if the deal is viable, credible and durable. Israelis also understand that, notwithstanding Palestinian intransigence during and since Camp David, and irrespective of Abu Mazen’s prospects for political success, we are reaching the point of decision. We have arrived at the fork, and as Yogi Berra said, we must take it, and make fateful decisions.
The prime decision, on the scale of David Ben-Gurion’s decision to proclaim the state of Israel, is for us, not for Abu Mazen or President Bush, to conclude that we must disengage from the Palestinians, and do so as comprehensively as possible. The underlying reason is first and foremost demographic.
Between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea there are currently 10.2 million inhabitants — only 5.4 million of whom are Jews. Approximately 1.2 million Palestinians and 100,000 Druze live in Israel’s pre-1967 borders — about 19% of Israel’s total population — along with 3.5 million Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza.
By any practical and realistic demographic projection, Jews will cease to be a majority as early as 2012 within this geographical unit. The demographic equilibrium may be tilted negatively as early as 2010, given birth rates in the respective Israeli and Palestinian communities.
That inevitably means that the Jewish state will no longer be a democracy, thus violating the fundamental principles of Zionism and the raison d’être of Israel’s establishment and existence.
Demographic trends are not amenable to politically expedient interpretations, and the ominous figures cannot be manipulated. They transcend Israeli politics and are oblivious to traditional rightwing rhetoric and postures about controlling all of Judea and Samaria. We cannot and should not.
Demographics also run contrary to unrealistic leftwing policies and notions, both past and present, about how the Palestinians can be credible partners for coexistence if they are simply offered an honorable and fair deal. They were, and they rejected it.
It is imperative, therefore, that we actively seek a form of political division, based on two factors: security and demography. That should facilitate maximum disengagement and minimum friction between Israel and the Palestinians. The Oslo process, if you will, was about negotiating a marriage. The three bloody years that have elapsed since Camp David necessitate a clear divorce.
This is a strategic decision. It is not risk-free, but the status quo is worse. It is a critical decision we owe our children.
The Palestinians will be wise to recognize reality, avoid missing another opportunity made available to them under the best of international circumstances and make the same decision.