Many Israeli observers have noted the inherent foolishness of claims by Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Acting Foreign Minister Shlomo Ben-Ami that "there is no longer a 'partner' for the peace process." Such statements are presumably meant to indicate that the peace process is "on hold" for the time being, since a meaningful answer to the question "Who is Israel's partner?" can only be provided by the Palestinian people itself. Israel, in any case, will return to the negotiating table with the "partner" whenever the peace process resumes. However, the senseless talk about "no partner," which implies that the whole crisis is due to Arafat's problematic and untrustworthy personality, is both factually untrue and politically unwise.
Numerous Israelis with leftist views have also expressed "disappointment" with Arafat following the Palestinian uprising at the end of September 2000, as if what was at stake was not a complex relationship between two nations at war but rather a personal friendship with Arafat, which he has "betrayed." They accused him of breaking the confidence that had been entrusted in him. The argument that the real problem is Arafat's character prevents the Israeli public from understanding the true nature of recent events and damages the slight chance that remains of returning to sane and serious discussions between the parties.
Rather than blaming the personality of one leader or another, it is now high time (I am writing about a month after the outbreak of what is called the Al-Aqsa Intifada) to make a serious attempt to address the question: why have we reached this crisis? Why has the peace process, which was and still is supported by the majority of Israel's citizens, reached such an impasse?

Understanding the Oslo Accords

I do not know if the Oslo process which started seven years ago is now "dead," as many tend today to believe, but recent events may provide us with a better understanding of past errors and, particularly, of our mistaken interpretation of the fundamental meaning of the Oslo Accords. The accords included complex formulations regarding the interim period, but at their core were two basic assumptions, without which the two sides would not have reached an agreement. Their non-fulfillment led to inevitable erosion in the validity of the agreement itself.
The Israeli assumption was that the accords would eliminate, or at least reduce, the need to assure Israel's security through the use of force since, from now on, the Palestinians would suppress any use of force against Israel from within their own camp. The Palestinian assumption was - though this was not explicitly promised - that the accords would lead, within a defined period of time (five years at most), to the creation of an independent Palestinian state in all or the greater part of the land occupied by Israel in the 1967 war.
There was a clear asymmetry in the expectation of the two sides. Israel expected the change in the area of security to occur immediately and, for this purpose, even agreed to the creation of Palestinian security forces in the limited territories that were granted self-rule. On the other hand, Palestinian statehood and the degree of sovereignty were left for the negotiations on permanent settlement. Palestinian expectations were therefore postponed for five years and they were never specified in detail.
Through a five-year interim agreement, Israel strove to "verify" whether the Palestinians had indeed relinquished the use of force to further their interests, and had become sufficiently "reliable" to establish an independent state. This approach was based on a hope so false that is without precedent in a historical context - that within five years, the Palestinians would drop their historical and emotional opposition to the Zionist enterprise and to a Jewish state in their midst. This was an illusion. Nations stop fighting and sign a peace treaty when, while continuing to uphold their aspiration and animosities, they reach the conclusion that the war can no longer satisfy them. If, among the nations, it can subsequently take years or even generations for the hostility to be overcome, it surely cannot be otherwise in a struggle with roots as deep as those nourishing the Israel-Arab conflict.

Against All Logic

Thus, while Israel was ready to bestow sovereignty on the Palestinians so as to render them fully responsible for their actions, this was not due to a change of heart among the Israelis. The fundamental meaning of sovereignty is that the central government has sole authority, including that of using force both internally and externally. Israel refrained on a number of counts from taking this issue to its logical conclusion: it both failed to maintain the Oslo schedule and, during the interim phases of the agreement, to buttress Palestinian sovereignty and responsibility. On the contrary, Israel constantly and manifestly treated the Palestinians as "untrustworthy," consequently trying to do everything in its power at every stage to limit the territorial degree of Palestinian rule and the extent of their independence.
While errors on the part of the Palestinian leadership also contributed to these negative developments in the process, many on the Palestinian left, and not only in the rejection front, had foreseen this development from the outset and warned that the interim status would become permanent and the Palestinian goal of statehood would not be attained. In this complex situation, though the prediction turned out to be true, the outcome was not inevitable. Had Israel adhered to the schedule, fortified Palestinian independence and expanded its territorial sway, it could have expected a greater degree of responsibility from the other party. Israel would thus have encouraged the Palestinians to pursue the process in spite of the obstacles. Israel's policy over recent years stood in direct opposition to this logic.

A Process of Erosion

This policy is epitomized by prime minister Yitzhak Rabin's refusal to remove a single settlement, even those established in the midst of areas that would clearly end up in the Palestinian state, like Netzarim, the Jewish Quarter in Hebron, Joseph's Tomb in Nablus and Psagot. More than any other factor, for the Palestinians, these and other settlements in different parts of the country symbolized the meaning of occupation and the extent of annexation. In Palestinian eyes, they seemed to furnish visible and undeniable proof that the Israelis had no intention of granting them a solid and contiguous territorial base on which to establish their sovereignty.
To the contrary, the Palestinians perceived Israel's intent as merely to assure that the Palestinian leadership cooperate with the Israeli authorities in perpetuating the existing situation. Hence the continuous erosion of Palestinian faith in the Oslo process. One could analyze the constraints behind Israel's policies, but this would not change the overall picture: the Oslo process "died" not only because the Palestinians "killed it," but also because Israel from the start denied it a real chance to live.
Israel's contribution to this course of erosion and creating ill will on the Palestinian side took many forms: the complex and intricate negotiations preceding every step forward; seemingly petty and embarrassing Israeli intransigence over security affairs; the limitations that Israel placed on internal and external Palestinian movement from place to place, such as the safe passage between Gaza and the West Bank, the airport in Dahanieh, or delaying the development of the Gaza port. The gradual breakdown of Palestinian trust was particularly evoked by ruinous closures and travel limitations into and through Jerusalem.
With all this, the overriding problem was always Israel's attitude to the settlements. The Gush Emunim (Bloc of the Faithful) religious-nationalist settlement movement in the occupied territories, and the Israeli right wing, never concealed that the goal of the settlements was to consolidate Israel's sovereignty over all the territories west of the Jordan. But even many of those Israelis seemingly loyal to the peace process refused to give up the settlement option on the assumption that it was necessary "in case the process were to fail."
Consequently, as governments came and went, one pretext after another was sought for continuing the expansion of the settlements and opposing the removal of any of them. At the same time, a dense network of bypass roads and tunnels, of which Rabin was the most prominent architect, was established for so-called "security reasons." In view of all this, no wonder that unmistakable signals of Israeli mistrust were accompanied by increasing signs of Palestinian alarm.

Barak and Arafat

At this point, Ehud Barak entered the scene, after the process had already passed through six years of progressive erosion. He correctly understood that accelerated negotiations were now needed to urge the process forward toward its final goal of a permanent settlement. Vigorously setting about this endeavor, he courageously offered a list of far-reaching "concessions" in all spheres, including the particularly sensitive issue of Jerusalem. The then-approaching elections in the U.S.A. (and in New York!) ensured him enthusiastic American support. From the Arab point of view, this undermined the American role as "honest brokers." Moreover, since Barak went so far in his opening proposals, the Barak-Clinton pair ended up confronting Yasser Arafat with an ultimatum of "Take it or leave it."
Arafat was no longer willing to play the game according to these rules. He may also have reached the conclusion that it would be preferable to continue with the present temporary status rather than reach the sort of final settlement for which the price was too high. We refer to Arafat, but we are dealing not with him personally, but with the entire Palestinian leadership, not to mention Palestinian public opinion. (Incidentally, Israel reacted similarly at the end of its war of independence when the UN Palestinian Conciliation Committee demanded that it pay what it saw as too high a price in return for a peace treaty at the Lausanne Conference in the winter and spring of 1948.)

New Parameters

It is a mistake to believe that the sides were close to an agreement at the second Camp David summit (July 5, 2000) and that everything was ruined only by Arafat's last-minute refusal to accept the American proposal regarding the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif in Jerusalem. Arafat, who, in any case, had gone unwillingly to the summit meeting, found himself dragged into the continuation of a process with which he had long felt disillusioned. Rather than evading a particular agreement, he negated the entire framework of the process. In effect, at Camp David, Arafat declared "We quit." Since then he has been trying to achieve a change, not in the outcome of the process, but in its fundamental parameters, aspiring to replace the framework with which he entered the Oslo Accords by an alternative which would serve the best interests of the Palestinians.
This explains Arafat's insistence on involving the UN in the conflict and trying to turn Kofi Annan into the central host of the Sharm al-Sheikh Summit (October 16, 2000), as well as his persistent efforts to win the support of the European Community in his confrontation with the Americans. Some worrying signs point to an attempt to impose on the Middle East the rules of the game applied in Kosovo, if not through his friends in Europe then through the Arab world, with the help of the Muslim world. Even if he does not delude himself about the possibility of a European military coalition against Israel, perhaps Arafat hopes to bring about the imposition of political and economic sanctions against Israel. Whether they can or cannot be achieved, such considerations are not entirely irrational. Brutal events on the ground, as reflected in media images, may advance Arafat's chances in this direction.
The return to the path of violence, and particularly the behavior of Palestinians when attacking holy Jewish shrines, have led to a wave of disappointment, anger and hatred in Israel, part of which is focused on Arafat's personality. But anger is never a good guide in times of crisis and Arafat's decision to revert to violence was not the result of emotionalism or character defects. Risky and speculative as it may be, it was not without a significant degree of rationale and, up to now, it has yielded a fair number of achievements. If Arafat does not go too far, the historian may have some good things to say about this decision of the Palestinian leader.
This was perhaps the best way for him to "opt out," to change the rules of the game, to express his refusal to continue playing the role of "collaborator," ready to guarantee Israel's security in exchange for some crumbs of autonomy. Israel itself contributed significantly to pushing Arafat into the corner from which he is now trying to escape. As we noted, the Oslo process had "died" long before the Camp David summit. Arafat never promised to be "nice" to the Israelis. His primary duty is to be "nice" to the Palestinians. If he has a negative image in the eyes of the Israeli public as an "immature" and "erratic" person who cannot be trusted, who is an obstacle to peace - all these allegations ignore what should be clear, namely, that it was the Palestinian people as a whole that had urged him to take this course. It is they who now afford him full support.

Sovereignty and Power

Influenced by repeated reports of the fighting and the count of casualties, many Israelis also harbor a basic misconception regarding the purpose of Palestinian violence. At the risk of a small degree of exaggeration, one could say that, consciously or unconsciously, the Palestinians seek less to kill Israelis than to cause the Israelis to kill them. Even if this was not the initial intention in the first weeks of the fighting, it was certainly the result. The gains in terms of public relations and on the political level did not stem from children attacking Israeli soldiers with their slingshots. The world saw a quite different picture: before the cameras, Israeli soldiers killed a Palestinian child in the arms of his desperate father.
The predominant assumption of most of the Israeli public is that we cannot afford to give the Palestinians sovereignty before we are sure that they have changed their ways, because sovereignty provides them with power, which in turn makes it more difficult for Israel to maintain its own security. However, from the strictly military point of view, recent events have proved that there is no fundamental difference between the situation that Israel would face with a sovereign Palestinian entity and the current situation in which Israel maintains the option of occupation and control over the Palestinians. On the contrary, to the extent that a confrontation would appear as a war between two sovereign entities, Israel would have more effective ways to force the Palestinians back in line, so to speak, without having the international community lay the blame at its feet.
Various military measures, be they the destruction of buildings, the use of live ammunition or rubber-coated bullets, have always been used in the semi-autonomous regions, or in the perimeter of the fully autonomous regions. However, these measures have no real effect on the resolve of the Palestinians to continue with the violence. On the other hand, there are measures which more resemble a war between states, such as the use of tanks or air strikes on selected targets in Palestinian towns and, particularly, blockading and isolating the Palestinian areas from the outside world. The latter may have a stronger effect and demonstrate to the Palestinians that there are limits to the achievements to be obtained from the use of violence.

No Solution by Force

After his achievements in the early weeks of fighting, Arafat may have exaggerated expectations regarding what he can achieve by force. There is no chance of his being able in this way to compel the Israelis to concede on what they consider absolutely vital issues, like the impossibility of the return to areas within the Green Line of a large number of Palestinian refugees. Yet in the gray area between Barak's proposals and Palestinian aspirations in the current unresolved situation that Arafat has chosen, there are issues on which Israel might think that it would not be rational to refuse a compromise in view of the risk of international sanctions and perhaps, even, of the alienation of American friends, who have shown more than once in recent times that their own interests are not bound solely to the fate of Israel.
It is difficult for the two sides to return to the negotiating table as long as violence is rampant, and everything possible must be done to bring about its cessation. Though Israel has effective means to cause great suffering to the Palestinians, it is crystal-clear after over 30 years of occupation that there is no way to subdue them by force. Regardless of the vocal opposition of the rightists, Israel must take all possible measures to ensure even a temporary end to the confrontation, and even at the cost of concessions and compromises regarding the way the negotiating process will continue in the future.
Those hoping to achieve an interim agreement via which to continue the status quo have completely failed to learn the lesson of the more distant and the more recent past. Statehood for the Palestinians is inevitable, and will enable them to maintain their international responsibilities, not as a people waging an uprising of the oppressed, but as a sovereign entity capable of maintaining its international responsibilities. Thus, there is no alternative but to return as soon as possible to renewed negotiations on a final settlement that will ensure the establishment of an independent Palestinian state within viable borders.