Encountering Peace: Looking into Palestinian political realities

The voices of moderation on both sides of the Arab-Israeli conflict are dissipating and the belief that peace is even possible is all but disappearing.

January 13, 2016 21:15
Marwan Barghout

Jailed Fatah leader Marwan Barghouti would win elections for Palestinian president according to a poll held in early summer by the Palestinian Center for Public Opinion.. (photo credit: REUTERS/BAZ RATNER)


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As Israeli society moves further away from supporting a deal with the Palestinians, Palestinian society is also moving further away. The voices of moderation on both sides of the conflict are dissipating and the belief that peace is even possible is all but disappearing. I have always said that what each side of the conflict says and does impacts the other. Neither side lives in a vacuum and each side’s discontent with the other has a direct impact across the conflict line. Each side also has the ability to positively impact the other. Recalling Egyptian president Sadat’s visit to Jerusalem, one can easily remember how public opinion in Israel on the question of returning Sinai to Egypt changed 180 degrees almost overnight. Both sides have the potential ability to positively impact the public opinion of the other, albeit given the current reality and the leaders in power, it seems very unlikely that even a very dramatic and unexpected act could change the course of negative events that we are facing. But it might be the only thing that could right now.

It is important for the Israeli public to understand what the Israeli security forces understand quite well: the continuation of total non-engagement concerning returning to negotiations and not creating a political horizon will strengthen the radicalization of the Palestinian public to a point that may become extremely difficult to reverse. In the meantime the one-state binational reality is becoming permanent in the mindset of Palestinians. Their unwillingness to acquiesce to the unending Israeli control and domination that deny their basic freedoms is a force that drives Palestinian public opinion to new extremes.

In addition to this, there are clear indications that the continued weakening of the Palestinian Authority, in addition to the non-existence of a peace process and any hope of its renewal, the economic decline in the West Bank and the lack of progress in internal Palestinian reconciliation are also fueling extremist attitudes among the Palestinian public in the West Bank. You don’t need opinion polls to show the shift in public opinion; it is enough to sit in any coffee shop there, to wander the streets of any town or village, to listen to any Palestinian radio station or to watch any Palestinian television station. Anti-Israel rhetoric and sentiment and support for violence against Israel and lionization of Palestinian terrorist attackers against Israelis as martyrs have spread wider and deeper than any point since the height of the second intifada in 2002.

While actual Palestinian participation in violence against Israel – often directed at the army and settlers – is not significant in terms of numbers, it enjoys broad Palestinian public support. The actions of the PA security forces to prevent the violence from taking place in areas directly under its control and the continued security coordination with Israel lacks public support and in fact is seen as one of the primary factors undermining the legitimacy of the PA itself. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has little legitimacy in the eyes of his public because of no longer having a democratic mandate, and because of his failure to deliver on his promises to end the occupation through diplomacy. Despite his lack of public support there is no clear challenge to his authority either. There is no apparent successor in the shadows or even in the public’s mind, yet it is clear to all that the battle for successor has begun.

At this point it seems, from an Israeli point of view, that any potential successor will be less likely to continue security coordination and to prevent the return to the armed struggle than Abbas himself. There are even talks of possible coalitions developing between political rivals.

One such coalition that I recently heard about includes Mohammed Dahlan, Salam Fayyad and Marwan Barghouti.

Dahlan is living in exile in the Gulf after being accused of plotting against President Abbas and stealing public funds. Fayyad fell out of favor with Fatah for stopping the flow of funds to them and because of his opposition of Abbas’s UN strategy of gaining statehood recognition and membership. Barghouti is clearly the most popular Palestinian politician, but he is serving five life sentences for murder in an Israeli prison. According to the plan of the coalition, Barghouti would be president, Fayyad would return to the prime minister’s office and Dahlan would be a kind of super minister in charge of security and other economic files.

Most analyst believe that if Palestinian elections were to take place today in the West Bank, Hamas would win a clear victory. The only candidate who consistently beats Hamas in the polls is Barghouti. He is also seen as the only Palestinian leader who can reunite the West Bank and Gaza. Support for Hamas in the West Bank does not stem from the Islamization of Palestinian society in the West Bank but rather from the success of Hamas in standing up to Israel and challenging it on the battlefield. Even after the devastation of Gaza in the summer of 2014, Hamas remains in power in Gaza and continues its rearming and reconstruction of tunnels and bunkers and, in the eyes of Palestinians, to stand up for Palestinian rights. Most of those who in the past years were willing to accept a Palestinian mini-state in the West Bank and Gaza on 22 percent of the land between the River and the Sea state that Israel rejected that possibility by continuing to build settlements and that therefore it is time for the Palestinians to reject it as well and return to their call for one democratic state on all of the land of Palestine between the River and the Sea.

The international community continues to support the two-state solution as the only way to resolve the conflict, but increasingly senior figures in foreign ministries and think-tanks around the world are beginning to put that option aside and search for other possibilities. The global shift away from supporting a two-state solution is not imminent, but failure to move toward that solution will lead to the adoption of the democracy platform – one person, one vote – no Palestinian nation-state and no Jewish nation-state. As time goes by and fear and hatred escalate among Israelis and Palestinians, life on both sides of the conflict will become increasingly intolerable and impossible.

It is not too late the turn the course – to make the shift that will bring us back from the brink. If my words above seem apocalyptic, it is because they are, and they correctly assess the direction that we are all moving in. I would suggest that if anyone contests what I am claiming, they are not looking accurately at the reality on both sides of the conflict. We are in a very dangerous situation – and “we” means both Israel and Palestine. The hour is late, but hopefully not too late.

The writer is co-chairman of Israel Palestine Creative Regional Initiatives, a columnist for The Jerusalem Post and the initiator and negotiator of the secret back channel for the release of Gilad Schalit. His book The Negotiator: Freeing Gilad Schalit from Hamas is available from The Toby Press.

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