What is the logic in returning to square one?

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After negotiations that lasted through the nineties, we imagined that Israelis and Palestinians were very close to signing a historic agreement to end their struggle and open up the possibility for more agreements with other Arab countries. At that time, most Palestinians and Israelis believed that the negotiations had achieved approximately 95 percent of what they were supposed to accomplish, and that nothing remained but to agree on a few select issues–albeit issues important to each side.

Ariel Sharon, leading the opposition Likud party at the time of the Camp David negotiations, did everything in his power to undermine those talks and preclude an agreement that would end the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. He achieved dazzling success and more. The Al Aqsa Intifada flared and put an end to the peace negotiations. Then, in Sharon’s first government, he exploited the Labor Party to wipe out all of its accomplishments towards peace with Palestinians. The West Bank was completely reoccupied, already-weak Palestinian sovereignty was nearly abrogated, and the Palestinian Authority was virtually destroyed.

Despite Sharon’s extreme right-wing character, he now stands in his newly formed second government at the far left of its members. This is not because he has changed his views, but because the new government’s members are either just as right-wing and extremist as he is, or even more so. In order to understand this government’s position on peace, we must refer to two extremely important documents: the coalition guidelines and Sharon’s December 4 speech at the Herzliya conference. The coalition guidelines can be summarized as follows:

The government will work towards peace with the Palestinians and Arab countries, on the condition that this does not harm the national, historical and security interests of Israel and the Jewish people.

The government will work towards strengthening the position of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.

The government will work towards strengthening settlement construction in all areas of the land of Israel.

Peace demands difficult concessions from all parties.

On the other hand, the primary idea in Sharon’s Herzliya speech is that of Palestinian statehood. According to that text, Sharon is prepared to accept the establishment of a Palestinian state in stages. There can be no progression to another stage until the previous stage is fully implemented, and it is confirmed that Palestinians have fulfilled with integrity and good intention all that is demanded of them.

To outline these stages, in the first, Palestinians must end the Intifada and all acts of violence. The Palestinian Authority must collect all weapons from Palestinian organizations and put an end to incitement to violence in the Palestinian curriculum, among other things. In the second stage, there must be fundamental reforms in the Palestinian Authority, particularly regarding the powers and duties of various governing institutions, as well as in the areas of finance and security. There must be strong security cooperation between the Authority and Israel. In the third stage, there must be Palestinian elections. Only afterwards can a Palestinian state be established, and then only in Areas A and B (areas of Palestinian control under signed interim agreements). All external exits and airspace will remain under Israeli control, assuming that the Israeli government coalition agrees to this state project. In the subsequent stage, which is not defined by a timeframe, negotiation! s will be held to end the Palestinian-Israeli crisis once and for all.

For Palestinians, the proposals of Sharon and his government are not serious at all, rather intended to give the appearance of supporting peace and forcing Palestinians to reject these ideas so they appear the spoilers. More than anything, the lack of seriousness comes through in ideas so full of contradictions, stipulations and demands that they are too vague to agree on, much less comply with.

How can there be a Palestinian state as long as settlement activity continues? Is it reasonable to impose a system of governance and administration upon the Palestinians, when doing so may be intended to meet Israeli goals before Palestinian vital interests? How can Palestinians meet Israeli demands if the Israeli government is the party determining Palestinian compliance, and with the knowledge that this government does not want to progress to the next stage?

The government’s guidelines stipulate agreement on a Palestinian state, at the same time that the right wing parties are loudly announcing in the media that they will not agree to a Palestinian state west of the Jordan river. In only one example, the National Union party headed by Avigdor Lieberman has stated repeatedly that it “opposes the establishment of a Palestinian state west of the Jordan river no matter what its borders.”

Even stranger is that the leaders of this government opposed the Oslo accords, did everything to invalidate them, and succeeded to a large degree. Now they are proposing a peace between the two sides that has many of the same characteristics of the Oslo accords. Is their intention simply to change the accords in name, since the old name is connected to the Labor Party and President Yasser Arafat? Or is the goal to start over and stall, imposing new facts on the ground that will preclude the establishment of a Palestinian state?

Following World War II, the most extensive war in the history of mankind, there were hundreds of peace settlements and agreements signed in the short period of two years. By contrast, Israel has imposed on Palestinians negotiations now lasting over a decade that have still not solved the problem of a piece of land one millionth of the global land mass that participated in World War II. On the contrary, Sharon and his government have returned the problem to square one and ignored the last decade of talks. Here one must ask–how much time do the two sides need to negotiate before the conflict is finally put to an end?

I believe that the fundamental flaw in the Oslo accords was the principle of a stage-based solution to the conflict. The waiting factor and fear produced by very slow talks have increased the anxiety of both Palestinians and Israelis. The arena has been opened up to those who oppose any settlement at all, placing both Israeli and Palestinian societies in a position of anticipation, tension and apprehension, as they interpret any act of violence as dissolving the glimmer of change ahead.

What is strange is that Israeli and American politicians have apparently not learned the lessons of Oslo, as it seems that they are soon to repeat the same mistakes. In my view, the solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict will ultimately cause sharp pain to both peoples, just as labor pains or a toothache cause brief severe pain before the body returns to normal. This conflict must be dealt with in one blow, because a stage-based solution means continuous agony for months and years on end.

Most of the members of the current Israeli government don’t want to begin peace negotiations before teaching Palestinians a lesson they won’t forget, so they don’t return again to revolution and Intifada. But the Israeli leaders must remember that Israel has crushed Palestinians many times in the past and yet they always returned quickly to revolution. This doesn’t mean that the Palestinians are stupid or slow to understand, it is simply that the great injustice done to them in 1948 far outweighs the pain of revolution.

I believe that every few years, the Palestinian people will return to revolution and Intifada–just as they always have–as long as their cause is not handled justly and humanely. What will Sharon’s new government accomplish if the Palestinian people–who now make up half the population of Mandatory Palestine–quiet down? Will they disappear from the face of the earth, or will they force future Israeli governments to accept a democratic bi-national state? Isn’t this the solution that Palestinians have advocated for decades, one Israel rejects out of hand to this day?

Muhsin Yusuf is a history professor at Birzeit University.

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