Palestinians and Israelis Should Talk Amongst Themselves

by Shira Herzog
Toronto - True, there’s an abiding sense of change in the Israeli-Palestinian relationship. But what does “a window of opportunity” actually mean? Mr. Abbas’ Palestinian state—in virtually all of the West Bank and Gaza? Mr. Sharon’s long-term interim plan—leaving clusters of settlements in Israel’s hands? As long as Mr. Sharon and Mr. Abbas see the view from the “window” differently, all that’s reasonable is a reduction of violence and management of expectations.

Here’s what separates the two sides: Once Gaza is left behind, Mr. Sharon wants a long-term interim arrangement that will freeze the situation on the ground. He prefers to impose this unilaterally, in consultation with the U.S. rather than in negotiations with the Palestinians. This would postpone implementation of the American roadmap and preclude resolution of key issues—including Jerusalem and refugees—which are critical for long-term stabilization. In the meantime, in the West Bank, settlement activity and infrastructure development continue, especially in the southeastern rings around metropolitan Jerusalem.

Mr. Abbas wants to expedite the roadmap and fast-track negotiations for a permanent status agreement. His position on borders, Jerusalem, and refugees reflects the consensus among Palestinians committed to a state alongside Israel. Meantime, as last weekend’s event demonstrated, rogue organizations and factions can derail any progress by terrorism against Israelis.

In other words, there’s a circle that can’t easily be squared. The moment of truth looms six-nine months ahead, once Gaza disengagement is completed. Since in the Israeli-Palestinian equation, the absence of forward movement equals a backward slide, what can be done now to narrow the gap between the two sides?

The opportunity may lie in conversations within Israel and Palestine that will affect the language of future negotiations between them. Until now, these conversations were never given a serious chance.

In Israel, the key is Mr. Sharon’s disengagement plan. While couched in “unilateral” rhetoric, it means that for the first time in nearly forty years, a handful of West Bank and all of the Gaza settlements will actually be evacuated. The mere announcement has unleashed a wrenching and long overdue internal debate over the state’s future borders. Confronting the truth of an untenable occupation could only be done by as ruthless a leader as Sharon, who created the carpet of red roofs dotting West Bank hilltops in the first place.

But disengagement from Gaza is just the first step in this necessary, painful process. Israel’s most dramatic confidence building measure can be to tackle the warped system by which West Bank settlements have grown. A report by Assistant Attorney General Talia Sasson has just exposed the web of collusion among settlers, military, and political bodies that allowed settlement expansion outside the Israeli and international legal framework. No one should underestimate the difficulty of bringing these matters to light or of evacuating three generations of settlers from their homes—but nothing is more critical for Israel’s future as a democracy with a Jewish majority. And nothing will do more to assuage Palestinian concerns about Israel’s long-term goals than due process on this issue.

In Palestine, the key is Yasser Arafat’s death, which has created room for a leadership preoccupied with nation building rather than an armed struggle. There, the opportunity lies in honestly facing Palestinian limitations instead of blaming the Israeli occupation for them all. Mr. Abbas can now encourage a serious conversation on what moving from violent resistance to political action really means. This includes a tough understanding that masses of Palestinian refugees will never return to their original homes in what is now Israel. Nothing will do more to assuage Israeli concerns about Palestinian long-range goals than clarity on this issue.

This new Palestinian discourse is inextricably tied to the balance of power between Fatah and Hamas. Hamas has the upper hand in public perception of integrity and consistency but is burdened by its record of terror and Islamist adherence. Fatah has international support but is hobbled by Arafat’s legacy of blatant patronage and favoritism. Reform of government and the security forces will likely result in more political power for Hamas; this must be countered by reform within Fatah to hand the mantle of leadership to the younger generation. All of this requires completion of open elections at the municipal and parliamentary level, as well as inside Fatah.

There’s a role for NGOs in these critical conversations. During the nineties, NGO involvement in supporting change was doomed in the absence of sustained political support. As long as Israel stayed put in the settlements and Palestinians chose terrorism, NGOs lacked the public space for meaningful impact. Now, they may play a more relevant role.

If Gaza leads to stalemate in the West Bank, a viable two–state resolution of this conflict will soon become irrelevant. The consequences are dire—especially for Israelis and Palestinians. But their leaders and publics have to realize this themselves.

* Shira Herzog is a columnist with the Canadian Globe and Mail and divides her time between Toronto and Tel Aviv.

Source: Common Ground News Service, March 18, 2005

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Actions Are Needed To Make Peace A Reality
A Simple Plan
Urgent Steps Needed To Sustain The Fragile Window Of Opportunity
Promote Negotiations or Abandon the Two-State Solution
The Palestinian Ceasefire: A Window of Opportunity Looming on the Horizon
The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly
Only Public Support Can Sustain a Window of Opportunity
What to Do with the Gaza Settlements
Learning from Previous Mideast Mistakes
Religion and the Issue of Jerusalem
Religion Must be Part of the Solution
The Direction of Peace and its Challenges
Palestinian Refugees in Lebanon: Worthwhile Steps before Final Settlement
Achieving Long-Term Political Change in the Middle East
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Other articles in this series

Actions Are Needed To Make Peace A Reality by Nizar Abdel-Kader
A Simple Plan by Hady Amr
Urgent Steps Needed To Sustain The Fragile Window Of Opportunity by Dr. Ziad Asali
Promote Negotiations or Abandon the Two-State Solution by Naomi Chazan
The Palestinian Ceasefire: A Window of Opportunity Looming on the Horizon by Mohammad Daraghmeh
The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly by Khaled Duzdar
Only Public Support Can Sustain a Window of Opportunity by Jason Erb
What to Do with the Gaza Settlements by Saad Eddin Ibrahim
Learning from Previous Mideast Mistakes by Daoud Kuttab
Religion and the Issue of Jerusalem by Jonathan Kuttab
Religion Must be Part of the Solution by Rabbi David Rosen
The Direction of Peace and its Challenges by Hazem Saghiyeh
Palestinian Refugees in Lebanon: Worthwhile Steps before Final Settlement by Michael Young
Achieving Long-Term Political Change in the Middle East by Dov S. Zakheim