There is no alternative to negotiations. Following the successful disengagement of Israel from Gaza, many wishful thinkers, even leftist peaceniks among them, would like to believe that Israel can continue on a course of unilateralism in reshaping its relationship with the Palestinians. Some Israeli leaders have come to the conclusion that there is still no one to talk to on the Palestinian side and that we will have to wait until the next generation comes to power.
Prime Minister Sharon has apparently bought into the idea that there is still no need to talk with the Palestinians, staying away from any opportunity to talk with Palestinian Chairman Mahmoud Abbas. He has placed conditions on talking that make it nearly impossible to engage and thereby has enabled, once again, a situation whereby the spoilers - the opposition to peace - have the power to keep negotiations from getting back on track.
From an objective point of view one could judge Abbas's performance on fighting terrorism and easily declare, as Israeli spokesmen do daily, that he is not doing anything. On the other hand, the reality on the ground, albeit far from what is necessary, is one of reduced terrorism and aggression and almost a complete elimination of incitement and celebration of violence. From the point of view of declarations and intentions, there has never been a Palestinian leadership which has demonstrated more determination to reach a negotiated settlement with Israel.
The Palestinian Authority, through internal negotiations, delivered a peaceful disengagement to Sharon. Imagine how different the disengagement would have been if the thousands of troops, police and protesters had been fired on with a shower of Kassams and mortars. This did not happen because Abbas facilitated a period of relative calm the likes of which have not been seen since the beginning of the intifada.
While it is true that Hamas and Islamic Jihad did not use the period of calm for engaging in peace-building activities, preferring instead to arm and prepare themselves for the next round, Israel too did not rest. During these past months, tens of Palestinians have been killed by Israeli troops, including a substantial number of unarmed civilians, in the course of Israeli anti-terror operations. Israel has continued its aggressive program of arresting hundreds of Palestinian suspects and holding them for months in administrative detention without charging or convicting them of any crime.
Some Israeli security personnel have even suggested to me the notion that the Palestinians should be quite happy with Israel's arrest policy because Israel is removing potential candidates (who happen to be Hamas supporters) from the upcoming elections to be held in January 2006. That is an interesting approach to the implementation of democratic, free and open elections. Perhaps these same Israelis are uninformed that these people could run for election from prison, and that by sitting in prison their personal popularity with the voters will only increase.
What will Israel do with a group of elected members of the Palestinian parliament who are being detained in Israeli military prisons without being charged or convicted of any crime?
MAHMOUD ABBAS will never be the leader that Israel wants. He will never carry out the Israeli agenda; no Palestinian leader will do that. Abbas is not going to use force, as Israel would like, to disarm all of the Palestinian factions. He is not going to do anything of real substance on dismantling the infrastructures of terrorism, other than creating a different public atmosphere, until he feels that he has greater legitimacy from the public.
Today he is commanding an Authority that has almost no authority. The last elections were held in 1996 and the officials elected were supposed to rule over an interim authority until permanent status. No Palestinian believes that the members of the Legislative Council have any right to govern or that the members of the cabinet have any real authority or legitimacy. Elected officials don't even take themselves that seriously.
Abbas, on the other hand, was elected recently and directly and does have public legitimacy, and for the time being, both the international community and the Palestinian public do take him seriously and have great expectations from him.
However, the Israeli leadership has decided that Abbas cannot deliver and therefore he is irrelevant. This is a hasty assessment and one that does not serve the interests of Israel or the interests of creating a successful negotiated political process. Israel cannot continue to unilaterally divide up the land and construct barriers and roads that will undermine any future negotiations as it waits for the next generation of Palestinian leaders, all the while duping itself into believing that the Palestinians will sit idly on the sidelines.
I AM not suggesting that Israel capitulate to terror or desist from demanding that the Palestinians dismantle the terror infrastructure. I believe, however, that Israel must engage Abbas and those Palestinians who are with him. If, God forbid, there are terror attacks, meetings with Abbas and other Palestinian leaders should be scheduled, not canceled. How has the policy of not talking ever served Israel's interests? A summit meeting of leaders is not a reward to Abbas for good behavior.
Every time there is any kind of attack by Palestinians or the belief in the security forces that an attack is likely, Israel's knee-jerk reaction is immediate closure on the territories, cancellation of all permits, closing the economic lifeline of Gaza and canceling any planned talks. For the most part this process serves internal Israeli political needs - showing the public that the government and the security forces are taking action. In terms of practical effects, these policies do not provide more security. In fact, they create more tensions and frustrations that increase risks of future attacks. Collective punishment against the entire Palestinian public does not create goodwill as the outcome.
A policy of continuously humiliating Abbas, from calling him a chicken without feathers to canceling meetings, is not the way to develop a more peaceful future. Abbas is not Arafat and the situation today is not what it was in the first years of the intifada. The window of opportunity that arrived with Arafat's death and the disengagement is still slightly ajar.
It is time for Sharon to use his strength to push it open.