Critical Currents: Crossroads

Israel now is willing to invite outside actors to broker and oversee fragile understandings.

naomi chazan 88 (photo credit: )
naomi chazan 88
(photo credit: )
The results of military operations are measured less by their achievements on the ground than by their political consequences. The tenuous ceasefire declared barely a week ago is precisely that: a lull in hostilities which may either be the harbinger of more devastation and destruction or a hiatus that can bring about a permanent settlement to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. There are very few options between these stark alternatives. For this reason, Israel's Gaza offensive is likely to emerge as a veritable turning point in its history. This period may be simultaneously the most dangerous and the most hopeful since 1967. After three weeks of fighting the immediate results of the war have only exacerbated the polarization between Israelis and Palestinians. Official Israel may claim that it has restored its deterrent capacity, so seriously tarnished in the Second Lebanon War. It can declare a diplomatic victory for the agreement of key members of the international community (most notably the United States, the European Union and Egypt) to actively prevent the smuggling of arms into Gaza. It may demonstrate the depth of the illegitimacy of Hamas methods. And it can even boast of the high degree of public solidarity it created in the process. But it can hardly ignore the effects of its actions. The human cost of the Gaza offensive is horrific, the physical destruction unspeakable, the sheer misery profound. Israel's image has been severely tarnished. Whatever the provocation, there are limits to what the world is willing to see without reacting emphatically and vigorously. The gap between Israel's proclaimed values and its comportment has expanded exponentially (this is not only an external issue, it has penetrated deeply into the heart of Israel, as demonstrated so starkly in the immense chasm that has emerged between its Jewish and Arab citizens). In fact, despite the curtailment of the military capacities of the Hamas (if only temporarily), there is no evidence that it has been cowed politically. However much the Hamas has been criticized internally by many Palestinians, ironically, it has continued to receive public support precisely because so many civilians under its extremist aegis have been victimized. The fissures that have surfaced in the Arab world in recent days only highlight these trends. Thus, the outcome of the Gaza operation is nothing but indeterminate. The nature of the recent violence and its civilian-centered consequences both in Gaza and in Israel, tragically, has served to further exacerbate mutual hostility in ways unknown in the past. How the present ceasefire is handled therefore becomes ever the more important. This uneasy lull could either prove to be just another phase in a well-worn pattern of escalation or, alternatively, the catalyst to a comprehensive resolution of the conflict. This depends on whether, during the next few weeks, energies are directed only to the technicalities of monitoring border crossings and alleviating the humanitarian crisis or whether these efforts are contextualized within the broader context of the root causes of the conflict in general and the continued occupation in particular (which led to the rise of the Hamas and its entrenchment). THE INTERNATIONAL community plays a more critical role in this process than it may imagine. Following the precedent established in the wake of the Second Lebanon War, Israel's long-term reluctance to rely on active foreign involvement has been replaced by a willingness to invite outside actors to broker and oversee fragile understandings. The Livni-Rice Memorandum of Understanding signed in the last days of the Bush administration, coupled with the parade of European leaders in Sharm e-Sheikh are testimony to this shift. If the task of external actors, however, is limited to supervising the truce, patrolling the border crossings and providing for the massive rehabilitation effort needed in Gaza, then nothing has been done. Should these activities be linked - directly and consciously - to political moves aimed at achieving a permanent settlement, they may yet carry some long-term meaning. The next few weeks will give a clear sense of future directions. The funneling of funds for the reconstruction of Gaza is the key indicator. If these are channeled through the Palestinian Authority (with an understanding that some rapprochement will begin to take place with the political leadership of the Hamas in Gaza), then the foundations for a political process will have been laid down. Conversely, should these monies be transferred directly or through international agencies alone, they will have little impact in altering the present power calculus. In the same vein, the linkage of these efforts to the Arab Peace Initiative (whose viability is being vigorously debated within the Arab League) may confirm the centrality of this framework for regional stability and diplomatic progress; failure to do so will mean that no workable trajectory for resolution exists. Much of the burden of this careful crafting is being placed on the incoming Obama administration. Whether Barack Obama wanted to or not, he now must grapple with the Palestinian-Israeli conflict without delay. But the hopes put on the new president are misplaced: he will not bail Israelis and Palestinians out of their conundrum alone, nor will his just-appointed emissary, George Mitchell, be able to act independently of a coalition of other international and regional actors. What is nevertheless clear is that, just as the violence between Israel and the Palestinians has taken on regional dimensions, so too has the process of its resolution become internationalized. This may play out through the revival of negotiations under an international umbrella or through the external imposition of an end to the occupation. The present crossroads is both threatening and promising. The dissociation of a ceasefire from the history of the conflict is a sure ticket to another collision of even greater proportions which will prove self-defeating in every respect. It will distance Palestinians from their goal of self-determination and further fortify Israel's presence in the West Bank, ultimately paving the road to a one-state scenario. The careful connection between a truce and the political causes for growing violence can, indeed, point to a dramatic, permanent end to the occupation and the violence it fuels. The choice lies, to a large extent, closer to home. At the end of the day, Israel must now choose between cultivating a viable Palestinian state or, ironically, orchestrating its own demise as a democratic state with a Jewish majority. Naomi Chazan is a former MK and a professor of political science.