Almost irreversible

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The first decade of the twenty-first century, which ended a few days ago, witnessed the undoing of all the positive milestones and achievements that had occurred in the Palestinian-Israeli peace process in the last decade of the twentieth century.

That decade started with the first international peace conference in Madrid. This was followed by the first Arab-Israel multilateral and bilateral negotiations, which ended with the signing of the first Palestinian-Israeli peace agreement, the Oslo Accords.

In that agreement, the Palestinian Liberation Organization, the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people, accepted the principle of Israel’s right to exist in peace and security, and Israel accepted the principle of ending its occupation of part of the Occupied Palestinian Territory, committing to future negotiations over the substantial outstanding issues, including borders, the fate of the refugees and the future of Jerusalem. The Palestinian Authority was established on Palestinian soil. Despite the difficulties, there was hope and optimism on both sides.

However, as the decade wound down and another millennium started, Israel stopped the process of implementing the signed agreements, particularly its gradual withdrawal from occupied territory. Palestinians resumed their armed resistance, and Israel "reoccupied" the OPT. Peaceful relations and cooperation between the two sides were replaced by fierce and violent confrontations. The Israelis accused the Palestinians of instigating the violence that had caused the reoccupation, and the Palestinians accused Israel of continuing its settlement expansion on Palestinian land, instead of ending the occupation, thereby causing the return to violence.

The international community led by the United States, which had been active in helping the two sides in Oslo, Madrid and Washington, became much less active and refrained from any systematic engagement. It therefore failed to prevent the two parties from spiraling into the worst violence and hostility in the history of the conflict.

A radicalization process in the two respective societies accompanied this deterioration–either caused by it, resulting from it or both. In Israel, the extreme right wing leader Ariel Sharon was elected prime minister in 2001. He pursued a unilateral strategy characterized mainly by the use of force to impose Israel’s will on Palestinians. In the OPT, the radical Islamic Resistance Movement (Hamas) won the January 2006 parliamentary elections by an overwhelming majority, forming a government that refused to recognize or adhere to previously-signed agreements with Israel.

These changes are unfortunately far-reaching and either irreversible or very difficult to reverse. They include the negative trends in public opinion, which turn very slowly by nature, and the concrete facts on the ground that the Israeli settlement expansion policy has created.

In the last few years of the decade that just ended, Palestinians have had unprecedented success in reforming their institutions, especially the financial, security and judiciary sectors. An impressive success in enforcing law and order and ensuring due process, together with improving the economy and public services, has enabled the Palestinian Authority to fulfill its obligations under the 2003 roadmap, including in the security and reform areas.

The last end-of-year report from the internal Israeli security service, the Shabak, proclaimed 2009 as the most quiet security-wise since 2000. The report said that the year witnessed a "dramatic" decline in number of attacks against Israelis. The report attributed the security improvement to the efforts of both Israeli and Palestinian security. The irony is that against these positive developments, the reports from Settlement Watch and Peace Now indicate that the last year also witnessed the most aggressive Israeli settlement expansion policy. In addition, 2009 produced the most right-wing and aggressive Israeli government coalition that we have yet witnessed.

What message will that send Palestinian public opinion?

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