The people of the Middle East have learned from long experience that the security of their region is inseparably linked to Palestinian/Arab-Israeli peace. Whenever regional security breaks down, immediately the peace process also breaks down, and the opposite is true. At present the security of the region is under the impact of the events of 11 September, the growing power of radical forces, the global war against terrorism, the developments in Iraq and the degree of stability in oil-producing states. All these issues are in no way isolated from the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. The experience of the past century demonstrates that the conflict continued to be the decisive factor behind all upheavals that affected the security of the region, leading to the outbreak of five major Arab-Israeli wars. There can be no security or stability in the Middle East unless the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is settled, and conditions in the city of Jerusalem are stabilized.
This paper presents a brief reading of the state of regional security, and its interface with the impasse the peace process has reached.
First: Breakdown of security in the region is the inevitable outcome of the breakdown of the peace process
Following the Madrid Peace conference in 1991, the Oslo Accords and mutual recognition between the PLO and Israel in 1993, the agreements that followed on the Palestinian and Jordanian tracks coupled with serious negotiations on the Syrian track, all gave rise to big hopes among the supporters of peace who believed in the possibility of resolving the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and the Syrian/Lebanese-Israeli conflict by peaceful means. Researchers and strategic analysts believed that years of bitter armed conflict had taught both Palestinians and Israelis lessons in the importance of peace. Everybody hoped that these developments would lead to extensive improvement in security, after the partial improvement that came as a result of the Camp David Agreements between Egypt and Israel in 1979.
Later on, events proved that such expectations were not well-placed and the option of going back to the arena of war remained dormant in the minds of large sectors of both societies. Events between the failure of the tripartite Camp David summit that brought together Ehud Barak, Bill Clinton and Yasser Arafat in July 2000, the failure of the Taba talks in late January 2001, the eruption of the “armed Intifada” at the end of September 2000, and the killing of about 3000 Palestinians and 900 Israelis, with thousands of wounded on both sides, all demonstrated that ten years of Palestinian-Israeli negotiations and agreements had miserably failed in safeguarding peace as the only way to address this chronic conflict, and had not entrenched durable principles for a developing peaceful relationship. All the immense American, international and regional efforts had not succeeded in building a protective fence to protect the agreements and to safeguard peaceful relations. On both sides there remained those who did not absorb the lessons of the past, and still believed that the conflict could be resolved by resorting to force and imposing the position of one party upon the other by force.
After the breakdown of Palestinian-Israeli negotiations and the coming to power of Ariel Sharon in the Israeli elections in February 2001, the peace process was dealt a decisive blow, and the Palestinian-Israeli track was shelved alongside the Syrian-Israeli track. Palestinian and Arab suspicions grew as to the honesty of the American peace broker, security coordination between the PNA and the Israeli government broke down, and incidents of killing and counter-killing increased, contaminating the security environment in the whole region.
World public opinion was moved by the scenes of killing, closures, demolition of homes and up-rooting of trees. The Arabs voiced their support for their brothers, and the Palestinian question regained its Arab depth, and security in the region deteriorated further. Israeli society was seen by the Palestinians and Arabs as a society that had not matured enough to build a balanced peaceful relationship, the great majority of its people were not yet ready for a historic reconciliation and were not convinced that peace bore greater strategic benefits than the temporary and limited ones gained by colonizing another people and occupying its land. European, Islamic and African governments, that had given their support to the peace process, held the Israeli government mainly responsible for the collapse in security conditions in the region.
With the escalation of the Intifada and the rising numbers of Palestinians killed, many Palestinian and Arab voices were raised calling forcefully for greater military action, and holding up Hizballah as an example in the successful fight it led for the repatriation of rights and expulsion of the Israeli army out of south Lebanon. The Palestinian opposition took up the opportunity to attack peace, the Oslo agreement, and the American sponsor. Hamas, Islamic jihad, PFLP, DFLP and the Fateh Organization all worked to escalate military operations against the army, settlers and Israeli civilians in Israeli cities. They demanded that an end be put to all negotiations, contacts and security coordination with Israel, and to opt for “Jihad” as the only way to liberation and driving out the occupation. They expressed appreciation of Arafat’s stand who held out in the face of US pressures and Israeli blackmail. Meanwhile, Abu Ammar kept spreading the message that there was no horizon for an acceptable solution with Sharon in power. In internal meetings, he did not defend the peace process, and provided the opposition with ammunition in support of their arguments.
All in all, during the era of Intifada and Sharon, extremist ideas prevailed at the expense of more realistic approaches, and regional security was destabilized further. Relations between Israel and a number of Islamic countries cooled off, and steps taken towards political and economic normalization with many Arab countries took a downturn, as Arab officialdom revived the Boycott of Israel Bureau. Bit by bit the rules of the political and security game changed. Israeli tanks crushed the Oslo agreement in the streets of the cities and towns they reoccupied and buried security coordination under the rubbles of the Palestinian security offices that they destroyed. The cracks in regional security grew deeper. Sharon’s policy, in its hostility to peace and in its ongoing persecution of Palestinians, was driving Arab-Israeli relations in general, and the relations of Jordan and Egypt with Israel in particular, to greater deterioration and complications.
Second: Prospects for security and peace in the region are dim
The breakdown of the peace process on the three tracks, and the hatred that accumulated over the last three years, brought Palestinian-Israeli and Arab-Israeli relations to a new stage that is still in the process of formation. The doors of conflict were opened wide before many possibilities, all of which did not promise well for a stable security and for building peace.
As experience shows, when people move from one stage to another, they usually go through an interim period during which they are torn between the past and the new approaching future with its strong stimulating components. The features of the new era in politics and in security confirm the following painful facts:
1- The roadmap drawn up by the international quartet to translate the Bush “vision” for solving the conflict and for the establishment of a Palestinian state alongside Israel, has been shelved, joining the Tenet Plan, the Mitchell Plan, and numerous other plans and ideas that were wasted by both parties. As for the exaggerated talk by Sharon about the importance of the roadmap, it is only to cover the obituary he prepared for it with his 14 reservations. The Bush administration, while confirming that the roadmap is still alive and that it is determined to implement it, has contradicted itself by accepting 12 out of the 14 conditions imposed by Sharon. The fact that the Bush administration decided to delay the return of its envoy John Wolf, assigned to follow up the roadmap, after 3 Americans were killed by a mine explosion, only indicates that Wolf has followed the trail of General Anthony Zini, and withdrawn quietly from the mission. It is a mistake to believe that the recent UN Security Council Resolution 1515 is sufficient to save the roadmap and bring back Wolf. This is not the first resolution, nor will it be the last, that Israel refuses to implement, defies the international community, and secures complete American protection for its position.
2- The collapse of the peace process did not only stop at the failing of the roadmap, it affected the whole foundations of the process. Clearly, the peace process has reached the end of the road and there are no prospects for its revival as long as the Israeli right-wing remains in power. There are no prospects for its revival or for the birth of any new alternative process in the Sharon era, and as long as the US administration continues to adopt the positions of the Likud, refuses to deal pragmatically with the elected Palestinian leadership, maintains its ideological position towards Arafat, and considers the building of the so-called “security fence” deep in the Palestinian territories, along with the killing of civilians and the demolition of their homes, to be a part of the “war against international terrorism”. It also appears that Israeli extremist forces will remain in power for a long time. Opinion polls indicate that they continue to garner the support of the majority of the population. It appears that the development of political thinking in Israeli society has not matured sufficiently to accept a true reconciliation. The chiefs of the Israeli security establishment are aware that the days of “dependence on Palestinian security forces” (as Israel conceives it) are over. Their Palestinian counterparts are also aware that the days when the Israeli army dealt with them as the leaders of friendly forces are over, too. Whatever the position of Israel’s security and political establishments regarding the Palestinian leadership and security organizations, it is no longer possible to speak of security cooperation and coordination in its old format, after the killings on both sides and the collapse of the foundations of all security arrangements that were adopted after the Oslo agreements. In addition, the PNA has lost the necessary tools needed to dismantle the terrorist forces, after Sharon destroyed its security organs.
3- It should be granted that the Islamic opposition, represented by Hamas and Islamic Jihad, succeeded during the “Intifada” period in drawing the PLO factions into their own playground, and have imposed their nihilistic positions on Palestinian public opinion. The Islamist factions and the Fateh organization, along with the PFLP and the DFLP, entered a race for militarizing the Intifada and carrying out suicide operations against civilians. These forces ignored the fact that military action was Sharon’s favourite playground, and that images of explosives and civilian victims only drove the Israeli public towards Sharon and the extreme right-wing in search of security and safety. With the increase in the number of suicide operations, support for peace died out among Israelis, and the majority started to believe Sharon’s words, picked up from Ehud Barak, about the Palestinians seeking to drown Israel with millions of returning refugees, and so on. These operations made it easier for Sharon to destroy the Oslo agreements and Palestinian institutions, and to initiate the construction of the separation wall, while taking over extensive areas of Palestinian land.
4- During this same period, the Syrian and Lebanese tracks became more complicated, compounding the complications resulting from the failed Clinton-Assad meeting in Geneva in March 2000. Sharon’s threats against Syria and Lebanon took the region back to the atmosphere of the pre-peace process days. Both Israel and Syria returned to the days of boasting about their military capabilities, and of highlighting every military action committed against the other party. Sharon prided himself about Israeli bombardment of the village of Ain al-Sahib, and of Israeli fighter planes flying over the Presidential Palace in Damascus, and the earlier attack against Syrian radars stationed in Lebanon. Syria in return threatened retaliation in kind, as both parties seemed to forget that they had one day drawn very close to an agreement that would put an end to the conflict.
It is not rational to expect the Syrian leadership to be prepared to resume negotiations from point zero, as Sharon is demanding, or to agree that the withdrawal from the Golan Heights be any different than what was implemented in south Lebanon. While Sharon remains in power and the US continues to occupy Iraq, Syrian interests will only lead the Syrian leadership to hold onto their rights, not wasting time or effort on reviving the peace process with Israel, while seeking to shorten the term of the Sharon government and the departure of American troops from Iraq. If Syria will not encourage Hizballah to escalate military activities, neither will it discourage it from doing so. It believes that just as Israel implemented UN Security Council Resolution 425 on south Lebanon, it will have to implement UN Resolutions 242 and 338, as relates to withdrawal from Palestinian and Syrian territories occupied in 1967.
The Hizballah leadership can not retract its “Jihadi” platform, which is the very reason for the existence of the party, nor can it keep silent about its members held in Israeli captivity. This leadership draws encouragement from the Iranian position in support of Syria and will continue its support for the struggle of the Palestinians. Obviously, if Hizballah carries out operations against Israel, this will cause a limited regional conflagration, particularly as Sharon has changed the rules of the game. He and his establishment now insist on holding Syria responsible for every operation carried out by Hizballah, and they are threatening to attack targets inside Syria and to attack Syrian troops in Lebanon. This is the same logic they have applied with the PNA. When Hamas carries out military operations, Israel holds the PNA responsible.
5- The American position: The maximum the Bush administration will seek to achieve during its involvement in Iraq and up till the American presidential elections in November 2004 is: a) attempt to contain the situation in the region, and keep it under control, while reducing the level of violence and constraining Sharon from carrying out any major military adventure that would escalate the conflict and spread the fire from the West Bank and Gaza to neighbouring countries and develop into a regional conflict, b) encourage the Palestinians and the Israelis to reach a cease-fire agreement, or “hudna”, to soften the positions of the two sides, and to resume security and political contacts at the highest levels, c) cool down the political and military tension on the Syrian and Lebanese front, and pressure both governments to curb the actions of Hizballah, d) keep alive the concept of resolving the conflict by peaceful means.
It should be added here that any discrepancies between the Israeli and American positions regarding settlements and building the wall are limited and do not touch upon the position of the Bush administration in support of the Sharon government. It is true that while in London Bush criticized Israel for not halting the building of “fences” and settlements, but the Sharon government did not take these criticisms seriously, realizing they would not evolve into a serious difference or be followed by pressures applied on Israel, particularly as Washington did not take any serious sanctions after Israel started with building the second phase of the wall. Therefore, if there are no prospects for the parties stepping down from their positions, and no prospects for convincing the Bush administration to make Israel resume its negotiations with Syria from the point they stopped at and to implement the roadmap on the Palestinian track, then the logical conclusion is that the peace process, as the peoples of the region came to know it, has gone into a deep slumber, and there has to be a third party present that would separate between the two parties and stop Sharon from creating facts on the ground that would be very hard to reverse later on. It is not clear if the situation in the Palestinian territories can bear the wait until the day such forces finally arrive. Under all circumstances, no judge would be able to absolve successive American administrations from their responsibility for the collapse of the peace process and regional security, and the obstruction of the role of the United Nations. If President Clinton left office, and is blamed for failing to resolve the conflict, then President George W. Bush and his team are accused of facilitating the spilling of innocent blood and prolonging the conflict, for he dubbed Sharon “a man of peace” and allowed him to spread hatred and anger in the whole region.
Third: The Geneva Document: A glimmer of hope that should be put to good use
The region of the Middle East has never been so turbulent: declared wars, undeclared wars, chronic conflicts alongside new ones that could well escalate, and more ticking bombs being prepared to be blown up. Everything in the region is in turbulence and nobody can tell how things will end up. If the resumption of negotiations on the Syrian track with Sharon in power would require nothing less than a miracle, then his irredentist ambitions in the West Bank and Gaza Strip would render any agreement over final status issues with the Palestinians absolutely impossible.
Peace advocates are able to identify the dangers surrounding both peoples and regional security as the Likud maintains a prolonged hold on power. The year 2004 bodes of major events and developments, and Sharon has said on more than one occasion that Iran, Syria and Libya should be cleaned of weapons of mass destruction. He considered them to be undemocratic and not to be trusted with the possession of such weapons.
He will strive to make optimal use of the remaining days of the first term of his friend president Bush, and the preoccupation of the White House team with the forthcoming elections and with the open-ended war in Iraq. It seems that Sharon is determined to leave politics after having created facts on the ground, the gravest of which is the continued building of the wall, and extending control over one half of the territories of the West Bank, building more settlements and undermining any bases for the establishment of a Palestinian state, while escalating the situation on the Syrian and Lebanese fronts, and attacking the nuclear reactor in Iran. Instead of exploiting the state of weakness prevailing in the Arab world to make peace, he finds in this weakness the opportunity to tear down all the foundations of peace, to get rid of Arafat and to destroy what remains of the Palestinian Authority. On the other hand, the continued control of Palestinian extremists over the situation will only bring greater disasters upon the Palestinians. However, on the Israeli side, the intransigence of the current leadership behind ideological, political and military trenches, governed by the mentality and arrogance of the occupier, while insisting on breaking the spirit of the Palestinians and subjugating them by force, can only lead to greater and more dangerous political and military confrontations, even if matters calm down for short periods. This will only drive the region into new cycles of violence and further loss of lives.
To stop the losses on both sides and save the security of the region is a collective task shouldered by the supporters of peace everywhere. Numerous international parties have voiced their concern about the inability of the two parties alone to address their differences, and experts in the conflict have called for imposing an international mandate over the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, placing the Palestinians under international trusteeship and assisting them in building a viable democratic state. Research centres and think tanks everywhere have focused their attention on the question of bringing in a third party, and the issue is still under discussion. Such a step appears to be an important way out of the current impasse, if not the only one. The hudna between Palestinians and Israelis is of utmost importance in stopping further deterioration. However, as we well know from experience, to maintain such a hudna, save the peace process and provide security to both sides, large numbers of observers are needed to observe both sides in meeting their obligations, and the time has come to make the presence of a third party an issue of central priority.
In the same context, the Geneva Document that the Beilin-Abd Rabbou group drew up, along with the Ayalon-Nusseibeh document, have given a glimmer of hope in the horizon, demonstrating that saving the peace process from its crisis, and spreading peace and stability in the region, are possible and achievable. The interview of the four Shabak chiefs with Yediot Aharonot has strengthened this hope. Will the supporters of peace be able to take up the opportunity offered by these initiatives and turn it into reality, saving the peoples of the region form greater turmoils and conflict? Or have they lost the initiative and are too weak to stand up to the extremists?