Rather than examining ways of preventing renewed warfare in the region after the peace process’s collapse, I would wager that Israeli decision makers are now thinking of how to justify an armed offensive against the Arabs. If this is true, they have passed the “feasibility study” phase by now, determined that military action is the only way out of the present deadlock and are currently in the process of devising practical scenarios for the theatre of operations.
Although this assessment may seem alarmist and purely speculative (few hard facts are readily available), any realistic reading of the impasse in peacemaking efforts given rising tensions over the past year inevitably leads to this conclusion.
Developments in 2000 cast into relief two major events that reveal the Arab-Israeli conflict’s true nature in an unprecedented way. The first was the Camp David II summit, at which then Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak tendered a proposal to end once and for all the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. The second was the Al-Aqsa Intifada, the uprising that expressed the Palestinians’ collective rejection of this proposal. The two events are inextricably connected and, together, triggered a series of interrelated reactions at all levels, which in turn have served to remind us of several axiomatic truths that the “peace process” had almost obliterated from our memories. Most importantly, the Arab-Israeli conflict is not over borders but over the right to exist. The Israelis have always been conscious of this reality and prepared to act accordingly; sadly, not so the Arabs.
In Israel, virtually all major political forces denounced the package deal Barak offered Arafat, then moved to topple the prime minister’s coalition even before the conference at which he made this proposal had ended. Clearly, Israeli society was not mentally equipped to accept such a settlement; even if Barak had managed to secure Palestinian approval of the deal, it is very unlikely that he could have pushed it through the Knesset.
If Israeli society had been psychologically prepared for a settlement that met the Palestinians’ minimum demands, Barak would not have been as erratic as he was before, during and after Camp David. Indeed, he could have come up with a flexible proposal as soon as he came to power and given the Israeli public time to digest it. But then, it seems that Barak himself was not prepared for such a settlement, which is why his offer appeared sudden, ambiguous and underhanded to both sides and why, when he encountered opposition from his own camp, he panicked and acted even more recklessly, bringing about his own downfall.
On the other hand, no Palestinian, Arab or Islamic leader, however moderate and flexible, could have seriously entertained the deal Barak offered at Camp David. Above all, it is impossible to accept co-sovereignty with Israel over Al-Haram Al-Sharif. The formulas put forth, such as Palestinian sovereignty above ground level and Israeli sovereignty underground, would have been laughable had Israel’s intention not been to secure rights over this area that would give it the pretext to demolish Al-Aqsa Mosque and rebuild the Temple. Nor did Israel offer a reasonable solution to the question of the Palestinian refugees in accordance with Security Council Resolution 194. Indeed, Barak was adamant in his rejection of any responsibility for their plight and any notion of a right to return. The most he conceded was the return of some refugees under a general humanitarian “family reunification” scheme, which, if implemented over the 20-year time frame he proposed, would permit for the return of no more than 150,000 of the four million refugees.
To even a novice political analyst, it would be obvious that Arafat could not have signed a settlement based on such absurdities. Not only would he have turned at least half his people against him — the millions of Palestinian refugees who have been waiting to return to their land for over half a century — he would have isolated himself from the rest of the Islamic world. When he realised that it was either Barak’s deal or nothing, he could only back away from the wall against which Oslo had pushed him. He could only regain his stature, he knew, when he resumed his leadership of a people fighting for their legitimate rights, not when he was being cornered in a secluded room and bullied into reaching a settlement at any price.
The arrogance and determined blindness with which the Israelis, at both official and popular levels, responded to the Intifada were staggering. Even the Israeli left did not attempt to understand Palestinian demands and to ponder the suffering and frustration that would drive a defenceless people to engage in such desperate resistance. Instead of giving Arafat and Barak time to reach an agreement that seemed closer at hand than ever before, the Israeli people closed their minds to everything the Palestinian Intifada stood for and mounted an “intifada” of their own and voted by an unprecedented majority for Ariel Sharon, whose rightful place is in the dock of an international court for war crimes and crimes against humanity. The Israeli people, in other words, gave a known butcher their mandate to massacre the Palestinian people and to bully and intimidate any party that dares support them. In this frenzy, any doves there were in Israel took flight as the hawks dug their talons into the reins of political control.
Now, even the most moderate voices in Israel believe that a unique opportunity for a settlement has been lost and that Arafat is primarily responsible. They also cast a significant portion of the blame on the Arabs, particularly Egypt and Saudi Arabia, for having either failed to encourage Arafat to accept the deal or goaded him into rejecting it.
The less “moderate” voices, grounded in flagrantly racist arguments, are seething with a belligerency unheard-of since Oslo: the PLO is a terrorist organisation whose members should be apprehended or expelled, they say; Israeli forces should attack PA targets, decimate Hamas, Jihad and Hizbullah, and threaten anyone moved to lend moral and material assistance to Lebanon or the PA. Some of the more rabid have urged strikes against Syria, Iran and Egypt’s High Dam.
Against this background of mass hysteria, the “national unity” government led by Sharon has no plan or even desire to reach a settlement. What Sharon proposes is as far from a peace accord as could possibly be. It is an extended capitulation agreement that at most would provide for an unarmed Palestinian state lacking territorial integrity and occupying at most 56 per cent of the Gaza and the West Bank, excluding Jerusalem. As for the refugees’ right of return, the Palestinians would be expected to drop that demand all together. One thing is certain: an agreement along these lines, however it is marketed, will meet with the approval of the Palestinian people only over their dead bodies.
Israel’s “counter-intifada” has placed all parties, including the Israeli government, in a difficult predicament. That government came to power on a pledge to achieve the impossible — national security and the safety of the Israeli people without yielding one inch of “Greater Israel” — within 100 days. Over twice that period has elapsed, and not only has the government failed to deliver on its promise, but the Intifada continues and the ability of the Palestinian people to resist Israeli brutality appears greater than ever. The longer this situation persists, the more vulnerable the government will become. Inevitably, Sharon will soon have only two options: either to negotiate with Arafat or to impose a military solution beginning with the reoccupation of the West Bank.
At that point, it will be not Sharon but Arafat, or at least the international community, who will be dictating conditions for negotiations. Sharon knows that his ruling coalition will collapse the moment Arafat enters the negotiating room undefeated. His only real alternative, therefore, is to raise the military stakes and create an opportunity to impose his will by force of arms.
Sharon has succeeded in shunting aside the Egyptian-Jordanian initiative, temporarily at least, now that it has been abridged in the recommendations of the Mitchell report, which do not oblige him to resume negotiations from the point they left off in Taba or to accept international guarantors for any results negotiations bring. He has also managed to ignore the Mitchell report (again for the time being), since it has been reduced to the Tenet plan, under which he does not have to bring a complete halt to settlement construction before resuming negotiations. Now he is hoping to wriggle out of the Tenet plan, and will probably succeed in bringing the second “cooling-off” phase to a freeze. Since it will be impossible to transform that freeze into a permanent situation, however, some movement will be inevitable; and as long as Sharon is in power, Israel will move toward military escalation, not resolution.
The Sharon government has trapped itself. To save itself it is playing a dangerous game of brinkmanship, raising the stakes with every accusation and threat it hurls at Hizbullah, Syria, Lebanon, Iran or Egypt. The Israeli people, meanwhile, have abandoned any pretence of honest introspection. They will blame anyone rather than themselves and their government. War, thus, seems imminent, because the majority of Israeli society, not just Sharon, is pushing in that direction. Israeli public opinion has convinced itself that war is the only way of dealing with all those who refused to accept the most generous deal tendered by the Israeli left — a term that is now only derogatory in Israel. Perhaps this should provide a reality check to all those in Egypt and the rest of the Arab world who are still trying to sell us the illusion of a settlement.