by Daniel Bar-Tal
and Akiva Eldar
For many decades Israelis and Palestinians, entranced by the maximalist goals of Greater Israel, or Greater Palestine, refused to negotiate, and instead attempted to achieve their aims through intractable conflict. This situation changed after 1988 when the PLO Algiers resolution opened the possibility of negotiating a two-state solution. In 1993, with the Oslo agreement this opportunity was realized.
Several assumptions guided the major shift in Israeli policy that led to the Oslo agreement: the Israeli-Palestinian conflict cannot be won by military means; Israel does not want to rule the Palestinians and therefore wants to separate from them; a political process is vital and is only possible with the PLO headed by Yasser Arafat; the PLO is willing to enter a political process and can be a negotiating partner in light of the strategic changes in the goals and policy of the organization (see Bar-Siman-Tov, Michael, Lavie and Bar-Tal, 2005).
These assumptions guided the Israeli leadership through the 1990s, even during the time of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, who headed a coalition led by the Likud party. Nevertheless, because of various reasons that are beyond the scope of the present paper, this approach was not transformed into a peaceful resolution of the conflict.
The failed summit meeting at Camp David in July 2000, and the eruption of the second Intifada in the fall of 2000, were the major events that brought about a sharp change in Israeli assumptions. Since much has been written about these two events that dramatically changed the course of relations between Israelis and Palestinians, we must only point out that their nature is much more complex and multi-sided than publicly presented by the Israeli leadership and most of the Israeli mass media. In contrast to the widely-held perception in Israel, accumulated evidence suggests that Israel bears much responsibility for the deterioration of the relations between Israelis and Palestinians and the escalation of the conflict.1
The new assumptions that began to evolve in certain political and military circles during the last months of Ehud Barak’s premiership became dominant during Ariel Sharon’s first years as prime minister. The new assumptions suggested that the political process must end because the Palestinians had resorted to terrorism and violence to achieve their goals: Yasser Arafat was responsible for the outbreak and continuation of violence and therefore he could not be a partner to negotiations and had to be removed; Israel was committed to negotiations, but they could only begin after complete cessation of violence, removal of Arafat and disarmament of the terror organizations; meantwhile Israel would continue to manage the conflict forcefully to prevent any political and military gains by Palestinians (see Bar-Siman-Tov, Michael, Lavie and Bar-Tal, 2005). The Israeli conditions had the purpose of avoiding any negotiations because it was obvious to those who posed them that the Palestinians would not accept them.
These basic assumptions are intact today with certain changes in the wake of regional developments. Israel continues to claim that there is no Palestinian partner for negotiation in spite of the fact that Arafat died in the fall of 2004, Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) was elected as president and later Hamas formed a government. Various reasons were offered to explain why Israel will not negotiate with Abbas (he is weak, he does not control the armed groups, he does not want to crush Hamas, he does not make serious efforts to fight terrorism, etc.). Specifically, for example, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in an interview with the British newspaper The Independent on June 10, 2006 said: “If, as appears at this time, there won’t be negotiations because the Palestinians are not ready, because they are not prepared to assume responsibility, because the extremist fundamentalist, religious radical government of Hamas is not prepared and Abu Mazen is too weak, then I’ll try and discuss this issue with the international community.”
Of special interest are the arguments for the unilateral approach presented by the Israeli left. They served as first-hand witnesses of what they described as the frustrating experiences of negotiating with Palestinians. Justice Minister Haim Ramon, formerly a member of the dovish faction of the Labor party who moved to Kadima, the main party in the present Israeli government coalition, said in an interview: “I’m telling you from experience that they can’t give up on the Right of Return. And they are not capable of reaching a compromise on Jerusalem. So there will not be a final-status agreement. Any attempt to reach a final-status agreement, like Camp David, will lead to a thousand more fatalities. But they are also not ready for an interim agreement. Therefore, the choice is between the status quo and a unilateral process. To die or to have surgery. (“On life and death,” Haaretz, 24 March, 2006).
Alon Liel, director general of the Foreign Ministry in the Barak government, and member of the left-wing Meretz party, added more explanations. Liel used the victory of Hamas in January 2006 parliamentary elections to justify unilateralism. He wrote: “There is no possibility of solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict through negotiations with Abu Mazen in his current situation. And the question isn’t who is nicer – Abu Mazen or Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh. The question is whether we believe in democracy... If it were possible to skip straight to Haniyeh, it would be worth it, but because this is impossible, it is necessary to proceed with more surgery, immediately.” Liel argued that negotiations with Abbas would have negative side effects. “It’s slow and wastes time. It can also cause degeneration among other, relatively stable systems. And it doesn’t treat the hemorrhaging that the disengagement has left behind, which could be fatal. Every day we talk to Abu Mazen, the West Bank settlers’ roots will deepen.” (“Don’t negotiate – just evacuate,” Haaretz, 26 May, 2006).
It is true that the vicious Palestinian terror causes loss of innocent lives, spreads fear, desire for vengeance, distrust, delegitimization of Palestinians and serves as a major obstacle to peaceful conflict resolution. But it is time to understand that Palestinian violence is part of the vicious cycle of the conflict, it has causes, and is also set off by continuous Israeli violence that harms all aspects of individual and collective lives. The violence will only greatly diminish with the resolution of the conflict. The absence of negotiations and prospects for a solution are some of the reasons for increased violence.
In view of this basic position about the lack of a partner on the Palestinian side, Israel decided under Sharon’s leadership to withdraw from Gaza unilaterally, and he executed this decision the summer of 2005. In the fall of 2005 there was a major political realignment and it became clear that Israel would continue its policy of unilateral withdrawals and eventually unilaterally set the borders of the State of Israel.
Formally, Israel has declared that it would try to negotiate a peaceful settlement of the conflict, but if the negotiations did not succeed, withdrawal and decisions on borders would be made unilaterally. In his famous Herzliya speech in December 2003, Sharon said: “We wish to speedily advance implementation of the Road Map towards a quiet and genuine peace,” adding that “we also hope that the Palestinian Authority will carry out its part.” But right after this opening he added: “However, if in a few months the Palestinians still continue to disregard their part in implementing the Road Map – then Israel will initiate a unilateral security step of disengagement from the Palestinians. We are interested in conducting direct negotiations, but do not intend to leave Israeli society hostage to the Palestinians. I have already said – we will not wait for them indefinitely.”
Our basic claim in this paper is that Israel does not want to negotiate with the Palestinians because the present leadership does not have anything meaningful to offer that corresponds to the minimal Palestinian goals. The minimal Palestinian goals, held by the majority of the populace and part of the leadership (see for example, Shikaki, 2006), correspond to the contours of the Clinton proposal, the Taba agreement, the Geneva accord or the Saudi proposal.2 These plans refer to all the major issues, including the refugee problem,3 and provide solutions with which both nations can live peacefully, safely and prosperously and still retain their own identity. In an interview in Haaretz, Abbas said that he is confident that in one year the Palestinians and the Israelis can reach a final status agreement along the lines of the 2002 Arab League’s Beirut resolution. This means a two-state solution on the basis of the June 4th 1967 borders as well as an agreed solution to the refugee problem (“You Have a Partner,” Haaretz, 24 March, 2006).
All these solutions carry a very clear blueprint that outlines the minimum that can satisfy the majority of Palestinians and lead to the final resolution of the conflict. But in our view, Olmert (as well as Sharon before him) has broader goals and believes that he can achieve them, even unilaterally, with the agreement of the U.S. and possibly Europe. The willingness of the international community to accept the unilateral disengagement from the Gaza Strip in the summer of 2005, and to put the Road Map on hold, signaled to the Israeli leadership that it is possible to dictate a unilateral approach. This, in their view, is much safer than negotiations over difficult issues, such as Jerusalem and refugees.
A measure that has already been implemented provides unequivocal evidence of the overall goals of the Israeli leadership: the fence not only serves security purposes, but, in effect, swallows up additional land for the State of Israel, since it significantly exceeds the Green Line border of 1967. Israel’s stated intentions provide further evidence of this contention: the attempts to hold on to the major clusters of settlements beyond the Green Line; the recurring declarations to keep Jerusalem undivided; the attempt to retain Ariel and the surrounding area; the plan to connect Maaleh Adumim with Jerusalem; the scheme to establish the eastern border along the Jordan River and annex the Jordan Rift Valley; and the continuous expansion of Jewish settlements and roads beyond the Green Line in the West Bank (see for example the interview with Olmert in Newsweek, 17 April, 2006, or his speech in the British Parliament, Haaretz, 14 June, 2006).
These goals will never be accepted by the Palestinians and no Palestinian leader will be a party to negotiations about them. Moreover, these demands are unlikely to win international support. The international approach is that the June 4th, 1967 border is the basis for any agreement and that Jewish settlements that were erected beyond this line, after this date are illegal. If Israel wants to annex any of the territories in order to keep the settlements, the Palestinian demand for a land swap is likely to gain wide international support.
The present leadership of Israel in the Kadima party, especially those who split from the Likud, still continues to believe that Jews have full rights to the land. On presenting his new government Olmert said: “I, like many others, also dreamed and yearned that we would be able to keep the entire land of Israel. Only those who have the land of Israel burning in their souls know the pain of relinquishing and parting with the land of our forefathers. I personally continue to advocate the idea of the entire land of Israel as a heart’s desire. I believe with all my heart in the people of Israel’s eternal historic right to the entire land of Israel. However, dreams and recognition of this right do not constitute a political program.” (Haaretz, 5 May, 2006).
It is our contention that Israel’s political program is affected by dreams and the present leadership attempts to expand beyond the Green Line within its unilateral political program block any possible negotiating process. However, this cannot be said aloud because the majority of Israelis prefer negotiations to unilateral moves (see survey carried out by the Harry Truman Research Institute for the Advancement of Peace, March 2006), and it also does not resonate well in the international community. So Israel will continue to publicly declare its willingness to negotiate, but at the same time do all it can to jeopardize this possibility.
It has to be noted, though, that although Israelis would like to settle the conflict via negotiation and a great majority of them support the two-state solution, most of them also want to keep Jerusalem undivided, connect Maaleh Adumim with Jerusalem, and retain the Jordan Rift Valley and the major settlements that are close to the green line. They also support the present line of the fence – even if all these steps torpedo a peace agreement (see survey results carried by the Tami Steinmetz Center for Peace Research and Jaffe Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University). However, 55% of the same public believes that the Palestinians’ main condition for a permanent agreement is an Israeli withdrawal to the 1967 borders (Zakay, Klar, & Sharvit, 2002). This contradictory slew of opinions cannot advance a solution.
A turning point in the Israeli public’s collective psyche took place following the Six Day War when the great majority of Israeli Jews began to view the territories as “liberated,” rather than “occupied.” From then on any attempt to solve the conflict under the principle of “land for peace” was perceived as “giving up land” rather than justly sharing land belonging to two nations.
We believe that a brave Israeli leadership, freed from ideology and recognizing the validity of Palestinian claims, could lead the nation to an acceptable solution. It was Sharon, who had the courage to say in the Knesset: “It is impossible to hold 3.5 million Palestinians under occupation… occupation cannot last without end” (May 26, 2003). After years of indoctrination and manipulations, he stated clearly that Israel was occupying the territories. When this view is fully acknowledged in Israel it will serve as a major force in the bid to solve the conflict. An end to the occupation and justice for the Palestinians would also be beneficial for the Jews, who only then will be able to devote themselves to the challenge of building a just, safe, and moral society. It would be the time to abandon narrow ethnocentric considerations of how much Israel can expand in favor of the universal moral principles of justice that Israel demands from other nations.
The ascendance of Hamas to power in the Palestinian Authority serves the goals of the present Israeli leadership. The obstructionist views of the Hamas government allows Israel to adopt a harsh policy line, ignore Abbas, pay lip service to the principle of negotiation, while carrying out a unilateral political program that will result in the continuation of violence. The idea of removing a few dozen isolated settlements looks attractive to many Israelis, including those who consider themselves “liberal.”The unilateral option seems to them as a risk-free way out of the deadlock, unlike the path taken by the Labor-left coalition in signing the Oslo agreement.
It is our belief that Israel’s present path ensures the continuation of the violent conflict. Thus it is important to illuminate the intentions, goals and policies of the Israeli government that have an effect on the well-being of two nations, the region and the international community. It is Israel that holds the great majority of the keys that could help resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. We hope that eventually reason and morality will prevail to take the parties in direction of difficult, but possible, negotiations for the settlement of this conflict that have a high probability of bringing badly needed peace and security to Israelis and Palestinians.
Baltianski, G. (2005) In Y. Rachamim (Ed.), There is no one to talk with: Critical view of the relations politics-media. Proceedings of the conference organized by the Chaim Herzog Institute for Media, Politics and Society, Tel Aviv University (in Hebrew).
Bar-Siman-Tov Y, Lavie E, Michael K, & Bar-Tal D (2004). The transition from conflict resolution to conflict management: The Israeli-Palestinian violent conflict 2000-2004. Jerusalem: The Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies.
Bar-Tal, D, & Halperin, E (in press) Decline of the peace camp in Israel: The influence of Prime Minister Ehud Barak on public opinion in Israel – July 2000-February 2001. Megamot (in Hebrew).
Ben-Ami S. (2004). A front without a rearguard. Tel Aviv: Miskal-Yedioth Ahronot Books and Chemed Books (in Hebrew).
Dor, D. (2004). Intifada hits the headlines: How the Israeli press misreported the outbreak of the second Palestinian uprising. Bloomington IN: Indiana University Press.
Lessons of Arab-Israeli negotiating: Four negotiators look back and ahead (April 25, 2005). Transcript of remarks delivered at the National Press Club, Washington D.C.: Middle East Institute.
Malka, A. (2004). The regional arena under the test of stability. In Y. Bar-Siman-Tov (Ed.), As the generals see it: The collapse of the Oslo process and the violent Israeli-Palestinian conflict (pp. 19-33). Jerusalem: The Hebrew University, The Leonard Davis Institute for International Studies (Publication No 95).
Peri, Y. (2006). Generals in the cabinet room: How the military shapes Israeli policy. Washington, D.C.: United States Institute of Peace Press.
Pressman, J. (2003). Vision in collision: What happened at Camp David and Taba? International Security, 28, 5-43.
Ross, D. (2004). The missing peace. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
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Sher, G (2001). Just beyond reach: The Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations 1999-2001. Tel Aviv: Miskal-Yediot Ahronot Books and Chemed Books. (in Hebrew).
Shikaki K (2006). Willing to compromise: Palestinian public opinion and the peace process. Special report of the United States Institute of Peace. Washington, DC: United States Institute of Peace.
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1 See for example Baltianski, 2005; Bar-Tal & Halperin, in press; Ben Ami, 2004; Dor, 2004; Lessons of the Arab-Israeli negotiating, 2005; Peri, 2006; Pressman, 2003; Ross, 2004; Shamir & Maddy-Weitzman, 2005; Sher, 2001; Swisher, 2004.
2 Maj.-Gen. (ret.) Amos Malka, who served at the time as commander of the intelligence branch of the Israel Defense Forces, outlined to Barak, before he went to the Camp David summit, the contours of the settlement that could be accepted by the Palestinians. These correspond to proposals by Clinton and others (Malka, 2004, p. 20).
3 In all the four plans, the proposed solutions of the refugee problem do not change the demographic nature of Israel and allow it to determine how many refugees would be allowed to enter.