The great challenge facing the Palestinian leadership is to prove
that its participation in the peace process, through the Oslo
agreements, was not a historic mistake. Indeed, growing criticism
of the implementation of the peace process is being heard
everywhere in the Palestinian territories and on all levels.
The goal of the peace talks was to start a process of transferring
powers and authorities from the Israeli military and civil
administrations to the Palestinians, leading to an end to Israeli
occupation and enabling the Palestinians to rule themselves by
themselves. The reference was UN Resolution 242, which posits the
principle of the exchange of land for peace.
Israel, for its part, tried from the outset to undermine this
principle and to block the road to any possibility leading to the
establishment of a Palestinian state. The principal instrument used
to achieve this end was the Jewish settlements and their
infrastructure in occupied Palestinian land. Continued settlement
activity, mainly in the so-called Greater Jerusalem area, as well
as the closure and total isolation of the West Bank from East
Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip, in response to the January and
February  suicide attacks against Israel, brought the peace
talks between Israel and the PLO to a halt.
Signed agreements were put aside. Meetings and follow-up activities
were forbidden. Shimon Peres, who in February 1996 decided to delay
redeployment from Hebron (slated for March 1996), froze all joint
committees, safe passages between Gaza and the West Bank, the
release of political prisoners and the resumption of negotiations
over final-status issues, originally scheduled for May 1996. He did
not know that by so doing he was killing his own dream - the "new
Middle East." All this he did to assure his winning the Israeli
elections of May 1996, succumbing under the pressure to total
political blindness. Unfortunately, Peres had failed to realize
that his was the peace camp and that, no matter how hard he tried
to please the right-wing, he would not gain their confidence. They
would still vote for their natural candidate, Binyamin Netanyahu,
the Likud leader.
In fact, Peres was preparing the ground for an easy transfer from
the concept of "peace for land" to that of "peace for security." By
this he made his successor's job much easier. Netanyahu inherited a
very comfortable situation: Contacts at all levels had been
discontinued by the Peres government since February 1996. The huge
network of bypass roads, fragmenting the West Bank and separating
west from east and north from south, had almost been completed. The
door for further settlement activity had been left wide open in
about 73 percent of the West Bank in what is known, according to
the Cairo agreement, as area "c."
Netanyahu opted for the same course. Conciliating statements about
peace and security were made, but there was no serious effort to
resume the implementation of Israel's signed commitments to the
Palestinians. As every activity has been frozen by his predecessor,
any move on Netanyahu's part can be interpreted as a positive
development. Accordingly, he has started his contacts with the
Palestinians on the lowest level, dispatching his political advisor
with oral messages.
His defense minister is relaunching negotiations over redeployment
from Hebron. The major changes he suggested proved unsatisfactory
to Ariel Sharon, the settlers' protagonist. The latter felt
slighted when he failed to get the defense ministry and was left
hanging in uncertainty about his ministerial prospects. Now Sharon,
as well as other hawkish ministers like Rafael Eitan, are trying to
set a new precedent by renegotiating the redeployment in Hebron.
Such a precedent will enable the Netanyahu government to withdraw
from any uncomfortable commitment made to the Palestinians by the
Labor government, wreaking havoc on the peace process.
For the moment, the Netanyahu government is enjoying a political
vacation. They see no urgency in dealing with the Palestinians, as
long as Israel is not subjected to pressure by the American
administration, presently involved with the upcoming presidential
elections. Netanyahu himself is still learning how to switch from
being in opposition to being in government, how to create problems
for his allies and how to solve them, and how to raise fears of a
future war with Syria and how to dispel them.
From a Palestinian perspective, Israel succeeded in the past to
establish the principle, introduced by the late Yitzhak Rabin, that
dates and timetables are not sacred. Consequently, all signed
agreements have been dragged behind schedule. This dangerous
precedent will be further underscored if the Netanyahu government
succeeds in reopening the Hebron file and changing the agreement
pertaining to it. The two principles: "timetables are not sacred,"
and "agreements are not sacred" will then become the ruling
procedure. Such a situation will lead to an open-ended process
where Palestinians will barely be able to obtain an administrative
¬autonomy for the people but not for the land. It will also
allow Israel to continue changing the geographic and demographic
character of the Palestinian land, eventually making separation
between Palestinian and Israeli land and people impossible.
Under the Likud government, the so-called peace process appears to
be heading in the direction of an administrative autonomy to be
imposed by Israel on its Palestinian partners. In fact, it seems a
likely development. On the other hand, it is quite unlikely that
the Palestinian leadership or people will accept an imposed
administrative autonomy. Consequently, it should come as no
surprise were the region to sink again into even greater violence
and bloodshed than it had witnessed before. Is this what the
average Israeli citizen wants? Certainly not.
Continuing the process as was originally planned might lead to a
historic compromise between Jews and Arabs in Palestine - a
Palestinian state alongside Israel. A new Middle East.
Unfortunately, this does not seem to be the case.
By aborting the current peace process, Israel will in the final
analysis be the loser. Imposing an administrative autonomy and
creating an apartheid regime, similar to the former South African
one, will only lead to struggles in human and civil rights. It will
ultimately pave the way to a binational state, a democratic one for
Jews and Arabs (Muslims and Christians) in Palestine. This will be
the end of the Zionist dream of a Zionist state. The irony in such
a historic development will reside in the fact that its foundations
will have been laid by the very same people who have fought for a