Can Israel approach peace from the bottom up?

Link the peace process to a transformation of Palestinian society.

October 15, 2008 23:24
4 minute read.
Can Israel approach peace from the bottom up?

Olmert Abbas 224.88. (photo credit: AP [file])

Last month, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert gave an explosive farewell interview to Yediot Aharonot. In it, Olmert, not known for his reticence to criticize political and ideological opponents, chose to mention only one by name: Moshe (Bogie) Ya'alon, the former chief of General Staff and my colleague at the Adelson Institute for Strategic Studies, whose much anticipated book, The Long-Short Road, was published last month. It was fitting that Ya'alon should be singled out for criticism because the policy approach of these two men could not be more different. For Olmert, peace is decidedly a top-down affair. The entire Annapolis process, like the Oslo process it mimics, is based on strengthening a "moderate" Palestinian leader in the hope that he will be "strong enough" to make peace. How to strengthen the Palestinian leader? Among other things, by releasing prisoners, transferring money and making concessions in negotiations. For him, the health of the peace process is a function of the dynamics of negotiations. Are people meeting and talking? Are there summits of world leaders supporting the process? Are Arab leaders making the right statements? For Ya'alon, however, peace is a bottom-up affair. He believes that it must focus on transforming Palestinian society and on bringing Israeli and Palestinian society closer together. To him, the health of the peace process is a function of what is happening within Palestinian society. Are Palestinian security forces fighting terror? Are Palestinian leaders working to improve the economic and social conditions of Palestinian life? Are Palestinian media outlets inciting against Israel? Are Palestinian schoolchildren being educated to accept the legitimacy of Israel? Israelis can choose to support either of these two approaches. But one thing is certain: The top-down approach has been tried unsuccessfully by six different Israeli prime ministers and two different American presidents, working with two different Palestinian leaders. There is little evidence to suggest that it will succeed if tried by a seventh prime minister or third president. A SMARTER idea would be to try Ya'alon's alternative approach, and to link the peace process - Israeli concessions, transfers of money and authority, etc. - to a transformation of Palestinian society. This would indeed be a long-short road, and would no doubt take a number of years to implement. But given the disasters that have befallen Israelis and Palestinians over the last 15 years, it would be infinitely better than the alternative. Would a new US administration accept such an approach? After meeting with both of the candidates, I have no doubt that regardless of who wins this November, an Israeli government that would embrace this new approach would win the support of the White House. Barack Obama began his public career as a community organizer and argues persuasively in his books that true change comes from the bottom-up. For his part, John McCain has repeatedly expressed his view that a reformed Palestinian society is critical to any successful peace process. Moreover, either candidate would welcome an approach that would be different than the previous unsuccessful efforts. Indeed, the real question is not whether this new approach will be supported in Washington, but whether it will be supported in Jerusalem. In the past, initiatives that might have moved the peace process in a constructive new direction were left stillborn by passive governments. THE MOST famous instance was after President George W. Bush's historic June 2002 speech in which he argued for a bottom-up approach that called for a Palestinian state to emerge only after comprehensive reforms would make that state democratic and peaceful. Rather than seize the opportunity, the Ariel Sharon-led government of which I was then a part dithered. Within a few months, the State Department crafted a road map which paid lip service to this new approach but which was essentially based on the same old tired formulas. In particular, its call for elections to be held "as soon as possible" in an unreformed Palestinian society would snuff out any chance for ever reforming that society. A year later, Sharon embarked on a misguided unilateral disengagement plan, which initially caught the Americans by surprise and which further undermined any prospect for Palestinian reform. That mistake was compounded after the disengagement, when snap elections were foolishly held in Gaza, which not only killed the prospects for reform but, by bringing Hamas to power, also soured Israelis on the idea that Palestinian society was capable of being reformed. I believe that reform is possible and that such a reform will bring us closer to peace. But it will require the end of illusions of the type offered by those who argue that peace is only one meeting, one summit, or one concession away. It will demand policies based on the type of hard-headed pragmatism that Moshe Ya'alon offers in his book. It will demand that we let the evidence guide our judgment rather than our judgment guide the evidence. The writer is chairman of the Adelson Institute for Strategic Studies at the Shalem Center and the author of Defending Identity.

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