Distrust and the reality of coexistence
One of the main impediments to resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the complete lack of trust between the two sides.
Fatah supporters at rally in Gaza City Photo: Suhaib Salem / Reuters
One of the main impediments to resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the
complete lack of trust between the two sides.
What makes the conflict
even more intractable is that neither side believes that its distrust can be
mitigated given the history of the conflict, their contrasting objectives, and
the day-to-day experiences reinforced by the constant maligning of each other
through their public narratives.
This results in an ever-diminishing
prospect for reconciliation which inhibits concessions and drives both sides to
resort to a zero-sum negotiating posture.
Moreover, due to their
respective public sentiments (hate and animosity toward the other), pessimism
and resistance to change, neither side wants to appear weak. As a result, they
refuse to show flexibility and in so doing, distrust becomes further ingrained
intellectually and emotionally, creating a vicious cycle which defies reason and
It is clear that if the Israelis and the Palestinians hold fast
to their positions, it will be near impossible to allay distrust, leading to a
permanent deadlock because distrust cannot be negotiated by simply agreeing to
establish a new, trusting relationship.
In fact, even if the two parties
negotiate and reach an agreement, such as the 1993-1994 Oslo Accords, there is
still no way to ensure such agreements endure given the embedded distrust that
both had and continue to harbor against one another, as neither side lived up to
their obligations as stipulated by the accords.
Israeli-Palestinian coexistence, in one form or another, is the only option, any
agreement reached must be based on certain provisions, mechanisms, logistics,
and a timeline designed to ensure compliance based on reciprocity that would
nurture trust, which is a prerequisite to lasting agreements.
and counter-claims by Israeli and Palestinian officials that distrust prevents
them from reaching a peace agreement are baseless, not only because they do
coexist and neither can change this reality, but because distrust cannot be
mitigated in a vacuum.
Their relationship must be established on the fact
that coexistence is irrevocable. Trust can then be nurtured not only as they
negotiate and reach an agreement that meets their principle requirements, but
through an agreement based on meeting each other’s obligations in a specific
For example, in 2000 and 2008- 2009, the Israelis and the
Palestinians were nearly able to reach an agreement on even the most contentious
issues, such the future of Jerusalem and the Palestinian refugees. Nevertheless,
they failed to reach a full and final agreement.
Upon close scrutiny, we
find that at play were biased and selective perceptions reinforced by historical
experiences and nurtured by distrust and concern over each other’s ability or
willingness to deliver.
THE ISRAELI withdrawal from Gaza in 2005 provides
a classic case that reaffirms the concept that mere withdrawal, which was viewed
by Israel as a major move to demonstrate its intentions to end the occupation,
failed to achieve Israel’s “presumed objective.” Instead of turning a free Gaza
into a prosperous area, building the infrastructure for an independent entity on
the way to statehood, Hamas, after wresting the strip from the Palestinian
Authority, used Gaza as a staging ground for launching thousands of rockets
For most Israelis, this was interpreted as a clear sign
that the Palestinians simply do not want peace and cannot be trusted. As a
result, Israel was discouraged from further evacuation of Palestinian
territories in the West Bank (as was articulated in the Kadima platform), and
most Israelis still believe that even if Israel were to withdraw from the West
Bank, the Palestinians would still seek the destruction of the state as Hamas
From the Palestinians’ perspective, however, the
Israeli withdrawal from Gaza was a tactical move. They insist that Israel simply
wanted to rid itself of the task of occupying a densely populated Palestinian
area which has no strategic value and is prohibitively
Furthermore, the Palestinians are convinced that the Israelis do
not consider Gaza an important part of their biblical claim to the entire
so-called “Land of Israel,” and that Israel has no intention of vacating other
occupied Palestinian territories, especially in the West Bank.
the Palestinians further argue that although peaceful coexistence has generally
prevailed between Israel and the Palestinian Authority in the past several
years, Israel continues to expand current settlements and build new ones, a fact
that cannot be denied.
For this reason, the Palestinians have no reason
to trust the Israelis, who presumably support the two-state solution while
continuing to act contrary to the logical and practical requirements to
effectuate such a solution.
The question before us then is, had the
Israeli withdrawal from Gaza been done differently, would the outcome have been
any different, or at a minimum, vindicated or repudiated the narrative of either
side? My answer is absolutely yes. The Israeli withdrawal from Gaza was
precipitous and unilateral with no coordination with the PA and without
assessing Hamas’ power, and entailed no phased withdrawal, with no new security
arrangement in place and no agreement on trade and commercial ties to foster
human-to-human relations that engender trust.
Thus, it can be argued that
had then-prime minister Ariel Sharon reached an agreement with the PA about
every aspect of the withdrawal, including the number of phases, the length of
time between each phase, specific reciprocal moves on the part of the
Palestinians, and tight security arrangements, the move would have nurtured
trust between the two sides. Surely, both sides would have known full well that
any violation of the specific agreed-upon arrangements would stop the process in
its tracks, an action from which neither side could benefit, regardless of their
IT SHOULD be recalled that it took three years for
Israel to complete its withdrawal from the Sinai. It is true that the difference
between the withdrawals from Gaza and the Sinai is significant in scope and
span; there should have been no difference, however, in the guiding
Had Israel followed the same pattern, it would be safe to
assume that Hamas might not have been able to overthrow the PA in Gaza or win
the elections in 2006. Indeed, the Israeli presence, after announcing its
intention to withdraw from Gaza, should have lasted long enough to allow the PA
to establish its own security apparatus, engage in economic development over the
transitional period, and develop a vested interest in the new peaceful
arrangements while fostering trust between the two sides.
The same can be
said about Israel’s abrupt and unilateral withdrawal from southern Lebanon by
former prime minister Ehud Barak, under cover of night without any agreement
with the Lebanese government, which gave Hezbollah the opportunity to
Could a prior agreement with an enforcement mechanism
in place have prevented the war between Israel and Hezbollah in 2006? The answer
may be speculative but the question remains valid.
cannot be fostered in an environment of hostility and mutual recrimination.
However, distrust is not set in stone; it can and should be alleviated,
especially under the circumstances that govern the lives of Israelis and
Palestinians. Israel must now learn from its experience with Egypt vs. its
experiences with Gaza and Lebanon and apply these lessons to the West
Israeli arguments against withdrawal, citing distrust and national
security concerns, are thus unfounded.
If these were the real reasons,
and not the further usurpation of Palestinian land, both concerns could be
mitigated by developing a comprehensive planned withdrawal from Area B, followed
by C, extending over a period of several years and based on reciprocity on the
part of the PA, while continuing and further enhancing security cooperation to
ensure an orderly transition. The PA has demonstrated that it has the ability,
capacity and the resolve to deliver and live up to its commitments, to which
many Israeli officials attest.
THE RECENT flare-up between Israel and
Hamas and the elevation of the Palestinians’ status to a non-member observer
state at the UN General Assembly have introduced a new aspect to the
Notwithstanding Israel’s military prowess,
Hamas was able to justifiably claim political victory, and the PA’s triumph at
the UN demonstrated how isolated Israel has become. Nevertheless, Israel remains
the pre-eminent power; the Palestinians and all Arab states must come to term
with this reality.
In the final analysis, guided by the imperative of
coexistence, genuine efforts can and must be made to mitigate distrust through a
peace process based on reciprocal and reinforced provisions, to which both
Israelis and Palestinians must commit to reach a lasting peace
The writer is an expert on Middle East politics and affairs,
specializing in peace negotiations between Israel and Arab states.