Jul. 24, 2002
THE REGION: Case of amnesia
By BARRY RUBIN
Are you ready for a truth so unpleasant that no one else will explain it? If not, read no further.
You can scan hundreds o articles, scores of speeches, and tens of peace plans on the current Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but they avoid the reality of the situation. What is really going on can be summed up in one sentence: We are all waiting for Yasser Arafat to die, presumably of natural causes.
Until that moment there won't even be the possibility of peace. And even Arafat's demise will be no immediate solution, but only the beginning of a new historical phase in which a negotiated settlement would be possible, but still time-consuming and difficult.
For why this is true, consider three quite reasonable premises:
* Arafat is both unwilling and incapable of concluding a peace agreement with Israel.
* He has no intention of stepping down as the Palestinians' leader.
* The Palestinians are not going to get rid of Arafat.
From this set of premises we can move to the underlying problem. Divide all the factors inhibiting an Israel-Palestinian diplomatic settlement into two categories: important details and structural impediments.
Important details include the precise delineation of borders, the exact division of sovereignty regarding east Jerusalem, every aspect of strategic guarantees, and how the case of each Palestinian refugee is supposed to be handled.
If the key problem blocking peace is the disposition of these "important details," would-be peacemakers can try all sorts of gimmicks, wording, and "creative" methods to solve them. But this is not the roadblock that is preventing the peace process's success and bringing hundreds of deaths and thousands of injuries in the past two years. The true barriers are the structural impediments on the Palestinian side - such as Arafat's reluctance to make a deal that would permanently accept Israel's existence; the militancy of Palestinian public opinion in opposing any concessions; the fear of every Palestinian leader of being called a traitor; the belief of many Palestinians that violence will bring international sympathy and ultimate victory; the role of Hamas and other extremist forces, and so on.
No amount of playing around with the details is going to make these things vanish. For example, consider the following questions:
If Ehud Barak was in power now, would things be different?
If Israel agreed to withdraw to the 1967 boundaries and give all of east Jerusalem to the Palestinian state, wouldn't the Palestinian response be: Great! Now how about ceding a complete "right of return" allowing all refugees to live in Israel (so they can destroy it from within)?
If Israel unilaterally withdrew from the West Bank and Gaza, wouldn't the Palestinians' response be to conclude that they were winning and step up the violence? Wouldn't Arafat's response be to find more demands and Israeli concessions to insist on before he did Israel "a favor" and made a deal on his own terms?
And why, given the experience of the past two years, should Israelis believe that Arafat would keep a deal rather than feel more secure with an agreement that trampled on their interests?
These are the type of questions all too rarely asked in the US, and virtually never raised in Europe.
PART OF the problem is that many Western leaders, journalists, academics and others think that solving the conflict simply requires coming up with a clever enough plan. If only they can figure out some magic formula for handling the questions of Jerusalem, borders, refugees and security, peace will soon follow.
In practice, this often means offering Arafat more and more in the hope that he will find the growing mountain of concessions acceptable at some point and stop the violence.
There is also a remarkable - but hardly surprising - innovation in this analysis. In many quarters, the memory of the year 2000 has already been erased. This includes what really happened at Camp David, the Palestinian rejection of the Clinton plan, the launching of a Palestinian war on Israel, Arafat's rejection of several cease-fires, and more.
Now this pattern is being extended to the events of 2001 and early 2002.
The new reinterpretation is to ignore the terror attacks on Israel, attacks which - only after well over a year - triggered the Israeli military response of entering and holding large parts of the West Bank.
According to the new approach - increasingly popular in Europe and to some extent in the US - the reason for all the current violence is Israel's presence in Palestinian areas, coupled with Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's failure to offer enough unilateral concessions.
Fortunately, President George Bush and his administration understand things better. Let's make it completely clear that Bush's policy is not based - as I've heard in recent weeks from people who should know better - on the hope of getting Jewish votes in the next election, or because Bush's brains have been taken over by the Israeli lobby. Bush's policy is simply the result of having dealt with Arafat and observing what happened to Bush's predecessor.
Is this really so hard to believe?
Even if Bush's strategy is not going to transform Palestinian politics in the near future, it is still useful for two reasons.
First, pressuring the Palestinians for reform is also pushing them to end the fighting, which is most disastrous to themselves. Second, US policy is intended to lay a basis for the post-Arafat era.
And the best constructive solution that can be expected at the present time is the achievement of a real, functioning cease-fire.
But why, ask Palestinian spokespeople - and I've frequently also heard this lately from many Arabs and Europeans, as well as some Americans - should they stop fighting without Israel promising to give them everything they want?
The fact that anyone could ask such a question is a good indication of the kind of thinking that has created these problems.
For a start, the answer includes stopping a war they are losing, the casualties they're suffering, and the total destruction of their infrastructure.