The Centrality of the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict for Middle East Peace

by Mamdouh Nofal on 02/01/2004

A Quest for Peace and Security

Mamdouh Nofal

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, the peace process breaks down, and vice versa. At present, the security situation here is feeling the effects of the events of September 11, the growing power of radical forces, the global war against terrorism, developments in Iraq and the question of stability in oil-producing states. None of these issues can be isolated from the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. The experience of the past century demonstrates that the conflict has been a decisive factor behind all the upheavals that affected the security of the region, and the cause 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 piece presents a brief reading of the state of regional security and its interface with the impasse the peace process has reached.

The link between regional security and the peace process

Following the Madrid Peace Conference in 1991, the subsequent 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, hopes were raised among those 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 years of bitter, armed conflict had taught both Palestinians and Israelis lessons in the importance of peace. Everybody hoped these developments would lead to extensive improvements in security, after the partial improvement that came as a result of the Camp David Agreements between Egypt and Israel in 1979.
However, events were to prove such expectations unfounded. The failure of the tripartite Camp David summit that brought together Ehud Barak, Bill Clinton and Yasser Arafat in July 2000, the eruption of the Intifada at the end of September 2000, the failure of the Taba talks in late January 2001, and the killing of about 3,000 Palestinians and 900 Israelis, with thousands wounded on both sides, demonstrated that 10 years of Palestinian-Israeli negotiations and agreements had not only failed miserably to ensure a peaceful end to the conflict, but had also not engendered durable principles for establishing a peaceful relationship, in spite of the immense American, international and regional efforts expended. On both sides there remained people who had not absorbed the lessons of the past and still believed the conflict could be resolved through force.
The breakdown of Palestinian-Israeli negotiations and the election of Ariel Sharon in February 2001 dealt the peace process 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 broker, security coordination between the PA and the Israeli government broke down, and the killings and retaliations increased, contaminating the security environment in the whole region.
The scenes of killings, closures and house demolitions moved world opinion, and especially the Arab “street.” The Arabs voiced their support for their brethren, and the Palestinian question regained its Arab depth, leading to a further deterioration in regional security. Israeli society came to be seen by Palestinians and Arabs as a society that had not matured enough to build a balanced, peaceful relationship, was not yet ready for a historic reconciliation and remained unconvinced that peace bore greater strategic benefits than the temporary and limited ones gained by colonizing another people and occupying their land. European, Islamic and African governments, which had lent support to the peace process, placed the burden of responsibility for the collapse of regional security on the shoulders of the Israeli government.
As the Intifada escalated and more and more Palestinians were killed, many Palestinians and Arabs started calling for greater military action, holding up Hizbollah’s expulsion of the Israeli army from south Lebanon as the example to follow. Hamas, Islamic Jihad, the PFLP, the DFLP and Fateh all worked to escalate military operations against the Israeli army, settlers and civilians. They demanded an end to all negotiations, contacts and security coordination with Israel, and that “Jihad” be adopted as the only way of ending the occupation. They expressed their appreciation that Yasser Arafat had held out in the face of US pressure and Israeli blackmail. Arafat, in turn, 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 thus provided the opposition with ammunition in support of their arguments.
All in all, during this era of the second Intifada and Sharon, extremist ideas prevailed at the expense of more realistic approaches, and regional security destabilized. Relations between Israel and a number of Islamic countries cooled, and steps toward political and economic normalization with Arab countries ended as Arab officialdom revived the Boycott of Israel Bureau. Little by little 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 rubble of the Palestinian security offices. The cracks in regional security grew deeper. Sharon’s policy, in its hostility to peace and in its ongoing persecution of Palestinians, was damaging Arab-Israeli relations, in general, and Jordan’s and Egypt’s with Israel, in particular.

Dim Prospects

The breakdown of the peace process on the three tracks, and the hatred that has accumulated over the last three years, has brought Palestinian-Israeli and Arab-Israeli relations to a new stage still in a process of formation.
1. The Road Map drawn up by the Quartet to implement 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 ideas wasted by both parties. Though Sharon still talks about the importance of the Road Map, it is only to cover the obituary he prepared for it with his 14 reservations. The Bush administration, while maintaining that the Road Map is still alive, has contradicted itself by accepting 12 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 Road Map, after three Americans were killed in Gaza, only indicates that Wolf has followed the example of General Anthony Zini and withdrawn quietly from the mission. It is a mistake to believe the recent UN Security Council Resolution 1515 is sufficient to save the Road Map and bring back Wolf. This is not the first resolution, nor will it be the last, that Israel refuses to implement, defying the international community, while confident of complete American protection for its position.
2. There are no prospects for the revival of the peace process or for the birth of any alternative process in the Sharon era as long as the US administration continues to adopt the positions of the Likud, refusing to deal pragmatically with the elected Palestinian leadership, and appearing to accept the building of the separation barrier deep in Palestinian territory, as well as the killing of civilians and the demolition of their homes, as part of the war against “international terrorism.” It also seems 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 Israeli population, and thus that political thinking in Israeli society has not matured sufficiently to accept a true reconciliation.
In addition, the chiefs of the Israeli security establishment are aware that the days of “dependence on Palestinian security forces” (as Israel conceives it) are over, just as their Palestinian counterparts are aware that the days when the Israeli army dealt with them as the leaders of friendly forces are gone. 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 adopted after the Oslo agreements. The PNA has furthermore lost the necessary tools to dismantle the terrorist forces since Sharon destroyed its security infrastructure.
3. The Islamic opposition, as represented by Hamas and Islamic Jihad, has, during the Intifada, succeeded both in forcing the PLO factions to adopt their modus operandi, and in imposing their nihilistic positions on Palestinian public opinion. The Islamist factions and the Fateh organization, along with the PFLP and the DFLP, entered a race to militarize the Intifada and carry out suicide operations against civilians. These forces ignored the fact that military action was Sharon’s favored playing field, and that images of explosions and civilian victims only drove the Israeli public towards Sharon and the extreme right 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 refugees. The suicide operations made it easier for Sharon to destroy the Oslo agreements and Palestinian institutions, and to initiate the construction of the separation barrier, taking over extensive tracts 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 started boasting about their military capabilities, and highlighting every military action committed against the other party. Sharon took pride in the 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 threatened retaliation in kind, as both parties seemed to forget that not long ago they had come 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, wasting neither time nor 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 Hizbollah 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 they relate to the withdrawal from Palestinian and Syrian territories occupied in 1967.
The Hizbollah leadership, meanwhile, cannot retract its “Jihad” platform, which is its very raison d’etre, nor can it keep silent about its members in Israeli captivity. Its leadership draws encouragement from the Iranian position in support of Syria and will continue its support for the struggle of the Palestinians. Obviously, if Hizbollah carries out operations against Israel, it 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 Hizbollah, and they are threatening to attack Syrian troops in Lebanon and have already attacked targets in Syria. It is the same logic they have applied to the PA. When Hamas carries out military operations, Israel holds the PA responsible.
5. The most the Bush administration will seek to achieve during its involvement in Iraq and until the American presidential elections in November 2004 is: a) attempting 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 could escalate the situation, b) encouraging 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) cooling the political and military tension on the Syrian and Lebanese front, and pressure both governments to curb the actions of Hizbollah, 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 the separation barrier 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, however, the Sharon government did not take these criticisms seriously, realizing they would not evolve into serious differences or be followed by serious pressure.
Therefore, if there are no prospects of the parties stepping down from their positions, and no prospects of convincing the Bush administration to make Israel resume its negotiations with Syria from the point they stopped or to implement the Road Map, the logical conclusion is that the peace process, as the peoples of the region came to know it, has stalled and a third party will have to step in to separate the parties.
One thing is clear: Successive American administrations cannot be absolved from their responsibility for the collapse of the peace process and regional security, and the obstruction of the role of the UN. If President Clinton is blamed for failing to resolve the conflict, then President George W. Bush and his team stand accused of facilitating the spilling of innocent blood and prolonging the conflict, after dubbing Sharon “a man of peace” and allowing him to spread hatred and anger in the whole region.

The Geneva Document: A Glimmer of Hope

The Middle East has rarely been as turbulent: Declared wars, undeclared wars, chronic conflicts alongside new ones that could well escalate. Everything in the region is in flux and nobody can predict how things will turn out. 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 to both peoples and regional security as a whole if the Likud maintains a prolonged hold on power. Sharon has said on more than one occasion that Iran, Syria and Libya should be stripped of weapons of mass destruction. He will strive to make optimal use of the remainder of President Bush’s first term, and the preoccupation of the White House team with the forthcoming elections and the open-ended war in Iraq. It seems that Sharon is determined to leave politics only after having created irreversible facts on the ground. The best example is the separation barrier, but he has also extended Israel’s control over the territories of the West Bank, built more settlements and undermined any basis for the establishment of a Palestinian state, while escalating the situation with Syria, Lebanon and 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 Yasser Arafat and to destroy what remains of the PNA. At the same time, the continued control of Palestinian extremists over the internal situation will only bring greater disasters for the Palestinians.
Saving the security of the region should be a collective task shouldered by supporters of peace everywhere. Numerous international parties have voiced their concern about the inability of the two parties 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 centers and think tanks have focused their attention on 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, perhaps 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 ensure that both sides are meeting their obligations, and the time has come to make the presence of a third party a central priority.
In the same context, the Geneva Accord that the Beilin-Abed Rabbo group drew up, along with the Ayalon-Nusseibeh document, has created a glimmer of hope, demonstrating that saving the peace process is both possible and achievable. The interview with the four former Israeli intelligence chiefs in Yediot Ahronot, an Israeli mass circulation daily newspaper, 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 people of the region from greater turmoil? Or have they lost the initiative and are too weak to stand up to the extremists?