How to Sell a Peace Accord

Despite the gloom and doom, an actual agreement between Israel and the Palestinian Authority would prevail over all the opposition.

March 3, 2011 15:22
Wishful thinking

Wishful thinking 521 (do not publish again). (photo credit: Flash 90)

EVEN SUPERFICIAL FAMILIARITY WITH ISRAELI and Palestinian public opinion is enough to bring an observer to realize that the chances for a compromise based on territorial compromise are pretty slim.

In principle, a majority of both peoples is willing to agree to the establishment of two states – but there’s quite a distance between the principle and the practice. Israeli and Palestinian leaders have been meeting together for two decades, ever since the 1991 Madrid Conference – and they have achieved nothing. Any and all efforts to solve the issues of Jerusalem, the right of return for the refugees of 1948, and the settlements have failed.

Knowing this, it is interesting to ask: What could have brought Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and former prime minister Ehud Olmert to believe that they could convince their respective publics to agree to painful concessions? What were they thinking two and a half years ago during their meetings? Did Abbas really believe that the Palestinians would agree to give up the right of return? To cede entire sections of the West Bank to Israel for the sake of blocs of Jewish settlements? And did Olmert really believe that he could evacuate the tens of thousands of settlers who live outside those blocs? Did he think that the Jewish public would agree to concessions and to withdrawal for sections of Jerusalem? Or to a return of some of the refugees? Neither the dramatic events in Egypt or Tunisia, nor the tensions and fears that are building in the other regimes in the Middle East have brought any change to the bitter Palestinian-Israeli reality. Recently, Abbas has tried to preemptively quiet down the Palestinian streets: He has called for the establishment of a new government and he has announced that general elections should be held in September – but these steps do not amount to real change. The Palestinians will have the same Prime Minister, Salam Fayyad, and a few ministers, most of whom were anyway considered professional experts and not representatives of political parties, will be removed. And it’s doubtful that the elections will actually take place, since Hamas has already announced that it will boycott them, and without Hamas, elections are not worth very much.

So the need for a breakthrough in the muddled peace process remains urgent. But even if a miracle were to happen, and even if the Israeli and Palestinian leaders were able to reach a joint compromise – it would appear that they don’t have the slightest chance of convincing their peoples to accept a peace agreement.

Don’t they know this? Over the past few weeks, I have attempted to clarify that question by speaking with Olmert, Abbas and some of their confidants, in order to understand how exactly they thought they could convince (or perhaps, tempt) their respective publics into agreeing to these concessions.

But, in fact, it was Yasser Arafat who first thought about this problem and conceived its solution. Over the years, Arafat came to realize that he would not be able to convince the refugees to give up their ancestral properties in Israel, in Jaffa, Ramle and Haifa. In one meeting in 1998, I heard a spokesman for the refugees, Hussam Hadar from Nablus tell Arafat that his family’s home and orchard in Jaffa are not a political issue and that Arafat and his entourage had never received any power of attorney to represent him on this issue and certainly not to give away what had been his family’s property for some 500 years.

ARAFAT HAD A PLAN. AT THAT TIME, RESTORATIONS of the mosques on the Temple Mount were about to be completed.

The work had been going on for several years, involving renovation of the Al-Aqsa mosque, which had been set on fire in 1969 by Dennis Michael Rohan, a mentally-ill Australian Christian. Rohan had caused extensive damage and Muslim foundations from the entire Arab and Muslim world had participated in the efforts, contributing funds and sending in experts. The results were good: the third most important mosque in Islam had been returned to its former glory.

But one thing was still missing: the elegant prayer podium, originally made of intricately carved wood, which, according to Arab tradition, had been brought by the great warrior Saladin, who had captured Jerusalem from the Crusaders more than 800 years earlier. For generations, Muslim religious leaders had delivered their Friday sermons from that podium. Yet, despite the efforts in Cairo and Jordan to construct an identical copy of the podium, strangely, it took a very long time for the podium to make it back to Jerusalem. Each time I asked the officials at Al-Aqsa about the delay, they responded: “Ask Yasser Arafat.”

So I asked. I never got a straight answer, but I understood the basic principle. Arafat understood that he had to begin preparations for signing an agreement in Israel, in the framework of which he would receive control over East Jerusalem and, especially, the Al-Aqsa mosque.

There is no way that the Palestinians would give up control over the Islamic holy sites or establishment of their capital in Jerusalem. That’s the Palestinian red line. But Arafat also knew the Israeli red lines – especially that the Israelis would never accept the right of return of the refugees from 1948.

So Arafat acted like a professional theater director and set the scene: He planned his grand entrance into Jerusalem and Al-Aqsa. Although he never said so in precisely these words, Arafat made it clear that he intended to come into Jerusalem victoriously, like the legendary Saladin, carrying with him the magnificent carved prayer podium. Arafat saw himself surrounded by Arab and Muslim kings and princes as he returned the Al-Aqsa mosque to the heart of Islam.

But then, he thought, right in the middle of the pomp and majesty, someone like Hussam Hader from the refugee camp in Nablus would come up to him and demand, “Just one minute, Arafat! What about my family’s house and orchard in Jaffa? Have you given it away?” And Arafat would listen and rebuke him, “Aren’t you ashamed of yourself? I am about to enter the holy Al-Aqsa and all you are concerned about is some orchard in Jaffa? How much is your house in Jaffa worth – $100,000? You’ll get double that.”

In other words, Arafat was already thinking how he could minimize the problem of the refugees: he would make their cause insignificant, worthless, almost irrelevant when compared with the great achievement of resuming control over the holy sites of Islam in Jerusalem.

(By the way, after Arafat’s death, the podium was moved from Jordan to Jerusalem – without any particular pomp or ceremony. And the remains of the burnt podium can still be seen in the offices of the Muslim waqf in the Old city and in the Al-Aqsa Museum near the mosque.) Olmert and Abbas planned to follow a similar strategy after reaching an agreement over the difficult core issues of Jerusalem, the refugees, and the settlements. Both of them had devoted a lot of thought to what they would do with the agreement once they had both signed it.

While Arafat was never specific, I write from full knowledge regarding Olmert’s and Abbas’s plans, provided by sources that insist on their anonymity.

First of all, the sources tell me, Olmert and Abbas intended to present the agreement to the UN General Assembly and Security Council, thus turning their agreement into an internationally-recognized decision.

After that, the agreement would be presented to organizations such as the European Union, the Quartet, the Arab League and a long list of other organizations and international bodies. Abbas and Olmert would receive support from almost all the world’s leaders, presidents, kings, and prime ministers.

Alarge group of these world leaders would convene for a grand ceremony at which an agreement for regional peace would be signed – and the ceremony would most likely take place in Jerusalem.

The opponents of the agreement on both sides – who currently carry great weight – would find it difficult to maintain their opposition in the face of the support of the world. They would appear pathetic, weak, unimportant, narrow-minded.

THE OPPONENTS OF A PEACE AGREEMENT WIELD the power that they wield only because there is no agreement, because we are in a deadlock. In the absence of an agreement, no Israeli government can evacuate more than 100,000 settlers from the West Bank. But when there is a clear agreement, they surely can evacuate the settlers and establish new settlements for them, either within the blocs of settlement that will remain on the West Bank or within Israel proper.

The same is true for Abbas and the Palestinian Authority. In the absence of an agreement, the agreement’s opponents are very powerful.

Since all that the Palestinian public knows comes from the little that was leaked in a deliberate attempt to reveal the Palestinian concessions, the Palestinians responded so negatively that Sa’eb Erekat and his negotiation team resigned. In the absence of an agreement with the government of Israel, Abbas and his supporters look like a group of pathetic losers, maybe even corrupt pathetic losers, whose moderation has brought them nothing but disgrace. Hamas is at the height of its power, presenting itself as the organization that is ready and willing to struggle and sacrifice, the defender of Palestinian national honor.

Recently, Ashraf Al-Ajarmi, a member of Fatah from Jabalya, a large refugee camp in the northern Gaza Strip and a minister in one of the Palestinian administrations, spoke at a conference at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya. There’s no reason to be so concerned about the strength of Hamas and its opposition to negotiations with Israel, he told The Report. In his view, if Israel and the Palestinians ever reach an agreement, public opinion will turn around in an instant.

The public, which now sees only the disadvantages of such an agreement, would come to see its advantages, too – including greater freedom of movement, release of political prisoners and economic growth. Al-Ajarmi has no doubt that a done deal – which won’t be so different from the agreement that Abbas and Olmert had discussed – will enjoy wide support among the Palestinians.

This is even more likely if the agreement enjoys the support of the world. No right-wing extremists, ideological settlers, or zealous Islamists will be able to face down the entire world. Even against the backdrop of the changes in the Arab world and the destabilization of the old regimes in the Middle East, we can still be hopeful that an agreement between the government of Israel and the Palestinian Authority would prevail over all the opposition.

This is my optimistic conclusion, despite the gloom and doom that surrounds us.

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