Panting after a phantom

An illusion of momentum can lead the int'l community to false hopes and to neglecting alternatives.

merkel 88 (photo credit: )
merkel 88
(photo credit: )
World leaders are panting to restart Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who assumed the presidency of both the European Union and the G-8 this month, pledged to make this a priority, and immediately persuaded US President George Bush to revive the international Quartet as a first step. US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who was here this week, has vowed to devote substantial time to this issue over the next two years. French President Jacques Chirac is pushing an international conference. And so forth. What remains obscure, however, is what these leaders hope to accomplish, given the unpromising reality on the Palestinian side: • The Palestinian Authority is controlled by Hamas, which openly advocates Israel's eradication. World leaders suggest circumventing this problem by dealing instead with PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas, whose Fatah faction lost last year's elections. That makes about as much sense as having opposition MK Yossi Beilin negotiate a treaty on Israel's behalf, or opposition MP David Cameron negotiate a treaty on Britain's behalf. You might (or might not) reach an agreement, but it will be meaningless, because the signatory has no authority to implement it. • Even the "moderate" Fatah's self-proclaimed minimum demands are unacceptable to any Israeli government. Just last Thursday, for instance, in a major speech commemorating Fatah's founding, Abbas declared that Palestinian refugees' "right of return" to Israel is "nonnegotiable" and rejected "any attempt to resettle the refugees in other countries." Fatah's most popular politician, Marwan Barghouti, echoed this on Saturday, saying that "the least" Palestinians can accept is a state in the pre-1967 borders, Jerusalem as its capital, freedom for all prisoners and the refugees' return to Israel. Since the "right of return" is a euphemism for eliminating the Jewish state demographically, even the most dovish Israelis reject it. Yet since Palestinian leaders, including "moderates" like Abbas, have told their publics for 13 years that any final-status deal will include it, no Palestinian leader is currently capable of signing an agreement that does not - his public would crucify him. • Violent Hamas-Fatah infighting has further undermined both factions' credibility among ordinary Palestinians. And this credibility was already shaky, since both factions, while in power, preferred divvying up the spoils to promoting the general welfare. Under both Fatah and Hamas, for instance, the health system received only 7 percent of the PA's budget, while the security services, which each faction packed with its own loyalists, received 24.3 percent. Similarly, after Prime Minister Ehud Olmert agreed to release $100 million to Abbas to alleviate humanitarian distress, Abbas aides told The New York Times that the money would mainly be used "to strengthen his Fatah movement and pay salaries to Fatah loyalists." This behavior spurred Palestinians to oust Fatah last year and is now damaging Hamas's popularity. Yet this lack of credibility makes it even less likely that Abbas, or any other Palestinian leader, could sell any agreement acceptable to Israel to his own people. • Any final-status agreement is supposed to grant Israel one main benefit: peace. Yet in fact, ever since the "peace process" began, Palestinian terror has soared: In the two and a half years following the 1993 Oslo Accords, Palestinian terrorists killed more Israelis than in the entire preceding decade; over the last six years, they killed more Israelis than during the entire preceding half-century. SIMILARLY, the August 2005 evacuation of the Gaza Strip resulted in some 1,200 rockets being fired at southern Israel from Gaza last year (according to Military Intelligence); this compares to about 300 rocket launches at Israel and the Gaza settlements combined in 2004, the last full year before the pullout. All this occurred despite no fewer than five signed agreements in which the Palestinians pledged to halt terror, plus repeated verbal cease-fire agreements. During the current "cease-fire," for instance, southern Israel has suffered dozens of rocket strikes. Nor do even "moderate" Palestinian leaders hesitate to encourage this. In last Thursday's speech, for example, Abbas told Palestinians that their "rifles should be directed against the [Israeli] occupation." He has also endorsed the Prisoners' Document, which explicitly calls for continued terrorism against Israel, and has repeatedly said that he will not use force to stop anti-Israel terror. Given the record of broken promises, the massive arms smuggling by both Hamas and Fatah and the urgings of both factions' leaders that these arms be used against Israel, any future agreement could easily produce a similar wave of anti-Israel terror. Thus, absent concrete evidence to the contrary, many Israelis will be reluctant to agree to major territorial concessions, which would put Israel's largest cities within rocket and even rifle range of the PA, in exchange for yet another unenforceable promise. Given all this, it is hard to see what "reviving Israeli-Palestinian negotiations" could accomplish. From Israel's perspective, there is nobody to talk with and nothing to talk about. In contrast, as The Jerusalem Post noted in Monday's editorial, Israel - despite broken promises on issues ranging from evacuating outposts to removing checkpoints - has proven that on the big issues, it is ready to deal. Unlike Palestinian leaders' refusal to prepare their public for conceding the "right of return," for instance, leaders of every major Israeli party have told their public for 13 years that sweeping territorial concessions, including in Jerusalem, will be necessary; as a result, most Israelis now support such concessions, whereas 13 years ago, a majority opposed them. Similarly, whereas the Palestinians have repeatedly failed to prove their willingness to halt terror, the disengagement conclusively proved Israel's willingness to evacuate settlements. Under these circumstances, "reviving negotiations" would be not merely pointless, but detrimental - because by trying to create an illusion of momentum, the international community is not only generating expectations that can only be disappointed, it is also neglecting alternative steps that could genuinely help. These steps, which I will outline next week, would not produce an instant solution; only the messiah could do that. But they would lay necessary groundwork for a solution down the road. And that seems far more productive than mere talk for talk's sake.