ENCOUNTERING PEACE: Palestinian turmoil and Israeli interests

Abbas’s position is threatened internally within Fatah and from the street.

A Palestinian man hangs a Palestinian flag atop the ruins of a mosque, during a snow storm in West Bank village of Mufagara (photo credit: REUTERS)
A Palestinian man hangs a Palestinian flag atop the ruins of a mosque, during a snow storm in West Bank village of Mufagara
(photo credit: REUTERS)
It seems that the Palestinian Authority is facing greater turmoil than ever before. The Palestinian street in the West Bank is simmering with anger and frustration. Teachers are on strike and university students are joining them. There are internal conflicts between the Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah who is supporting the teachers and Finance Minister Shukri Bishara who is apparently in open opposition to the prime minister. It seems that Hamdallah is also in direct conflict with President Mahmoud Abbas who is himself under fire from senior loud-mouthed officials and politicians within Fatah. There are new charges of corruption being brought up by everyone against everyone else. The PA government is in conflict internally.
Abbas’s position is threatened internally within Fatah and from the street.
Even though largely unchallenged on a personal level, Abbas, in the eleventh year of a four-year term with almost no political achievements (also thanks to Israel) to show has little legitimacy within his own society. The economy is in decline and unemployment, especially among youth, is on the rise. The internal conflict between Gaza and the West Bank is not close to resolution. Gaza remains in ruins with nearly two million people living in total poverty. A majority of Gazans would leave if they had any place to go, but they don’t. There is no political horizon offering the Palestinian people any hope. And on top of all this, the Palestinian issue is out of the consciousness of most of the Arab world and has hardly appeared on the radar screens of the American presidential race.
The internal Palestinian realities have to be of concern to Israel. The collapse of the PA is not immediately likely and should be considered undesirable both in terms of Palestinian and Israeli interests. Chaos with Israel’s immediate neighbors is not good for Israel, to say the least. There is a lot of middle ground between the current PA turmoil and collapse. No one can predict what will happen if the deterioration of political legitimacy and PA governmental efficacy continues.
Prior to Yasser Arafat’s death the predictions were of total collapse and chaos if Arafat were to suddenly disappear from the political map. That did not happen.
Abbas took over and together with Dr. Salam Fayyad stabilized the Palestinian political reality and marched forward toward advancing the feasibility of Palestinian independence and statehood.
Eventually the Palestinians will once again be faced with new elections and the Palestinian people will have to democratically decide their own future. Three times they have already proven their ability to conduct free and fair democratic elections (once for president and Legislative Council, one for president only and one for the Legislative Council only). It cannot now be known whether elections, once they take place again, will be held in both Gaza and the West Bank or solely in the West Bank. But when the Palestinian people are once again given the right and ability to determine their own future, the outcome of those elections will be determined by, among other factors, the state of relations with Israel and the chances of ending the occupation through a negotiated peace process. Palestinian elections held at a time of heightened animosity with Israel, violence, economic decline, no hope and continued settlement building will most likely produce results that will be bad for the Palestinians and bad for Israel. This is the fear currently felt by most Palestinians regarding conducting elections at this time.
The urgent need for an Israeli initiative toward ending Israel’s control over the Palestinian people goes beyond the existential requisite for Israel’s survival as the democratic nation-state of the Jewish people.
Even if the assessment in Israel is that there is no Palestinian partner for peace at this time, Israel has a key role to play in shaping a more positive reality in the Palestinian territories and not only because of immediate needs to combat terrorism being perpetrated by Palestinians against Israelis. In order to enable the emergence of a more positive Palestinian leadership in the future through the ballot box, there are substantial reasons why Israel should initiate a plan, including a declaration of intent regarding the desired future relations between the two peoples. No one can claim that they know what Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu wants to happen in the coming years vis-à-vis the Palestinians – perhaps not even Netanyahu himself.
Our prime minister surely cannot believe that the Palestinians will ever acquiesce to their current status and drop their demands for freedom and independence.
He can’t possibly imagine that the Palestinians will demand the right to be Israeli citizens and drop their demand for statehood. And if he can imagine that scenario, he surely can’t imagine that he and the majority of Israelis would agree to that demand. So what does Netanyahu really want? He probably doesn’t want to tell us, the Palestinians and the world what he wants because doing so would most likely create political turmoil within his own camp and he surely doesn’t want to drag Israel back into elections and to have to face the electorate once again after so little time. Does he want anything realistic beyond political survival? The almost 50-year binational reality must come to an end. The people of Israel have a right to know where its leader intends to lead. The policy of wait and see while doing nothing positive has an immediate negative impact on our neighbors next door. The turmoil in the West Bank can and probably will have impacts beyond that small territory. It is likely to impact on realities in Gaza and possibly in Jordan as well. The need for an Israeli political initiative toward our neighbors, regardless if there will be an immediate response there, is more urgent and strategically more important to Israel than ever before. Israel’s leaders need to look beyond the current state of affairs on the Palestinian side and begin to implement policies and declare its intentions toward a more positive tomorrow. Israel’s passive wait-and-see attitude and policy of responding to events rather than shaping them is directly against Israel’s own interests.
The author is the co-chairman of IPCRI, the 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 Freeing Gilad: the Secret Back Channel has been published by Kinneret Zmora Bitan in Hebrew and as The Negotiator: Freeing Gilad Schalit from Hamas by The Toby Press.