Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom said recently that if Hamas wins elections in Gaza he did not see how Israel could proceed with its unilateral withdrawal.
Later that day, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was asked by the press what he thought about Shalom's comment. He replied that the disengagement has nothing to do with Palestinian behavior, but rather was in Israel's interest irrespective of what the Palestinians do.
This was a critical explanation by Sharon because so many are forgetting or ignoring the fact that Sharon decided on his proposal more than a year ago not because Israel had a partner for peace but because Israel did not have a partner for peace.
He concluded that Israel was ill-served on many levels - international pressure, ruling over Palestinians, demographics, the growing idea of a one-state solution - by being trapped in Gaza as a result of the reality that there was no partner for peace and hence no peace negotiations.
The fact that Arafat died after Sharon came up with his initiative and was replaced by Mahmoud Abbas, a leader who offered the prospect of being a true partner for peace, led some to forget that Sharon was not counting on a peace partner in his plan to evacuate the area. Thus, when criticism followed about negative developments in the Palestinian camp under Abbas, Sharon answered with a logical consistency based on his original assumptions that that was irrelevant to the prospects for withdrawal.
Still too early for conclusions
Of course, there are legitimate arguments for and against the withdrawal, but one that doesn't hold water is this idea that the Palestinians are now behaving badly. It is exactly that bad behavior which led to Sharon's decision.
The comments of Silvan Shalom and others, while not making a dent in disengagement, do have true relevance in the ongoing question as to whether anything is fundamentally different in the Palestinian approach since the death of Arafat. Early on, there were factors that led to certain optimism, and some of that remains.
First, Abbas was not Arafat, the latter clearly a hopeless figure more interested in destroying the Jewish state than in building the Palestinian. Second, Abbas seemed to care about improving the life of his people; even as Prime Minister under Arafat he suggested that Arafat's decisions had brought the Palestinians down. Third, he rejected terror as a counterproductive weapon for the Palestinians; while not as good as denouncing terror as evil, at least it pointed to a leader who was thinking pragmatically.
Now, several months later there is no reason simply to dismiss these reasons for some optimism. It is still too early to come to definitive conclusions about the Palestinian leadership simply to turn gloomy once again.
However, there are enough indicators out there that resemble the miserable history of Palestinian hatred of Israel and self-destructive policies that cautionary signals are in order. Most noted is the stated unwillingness of Abbas to take on the terrorist infrastructure and to try to pacify them by inclusion in the political process. This is doomed to failure as long as Hamas maintains its ideology to destroy the Jewish state and its means to murder Israelis by holding on to its arms.
And then there is the rhetoric which seems more and more familiar to those who have observed such matters for decades. Just take comments by Abbas and his foreign minister Nasser al-Kidwa at the meeting in Brasilia between Arab and South American leaders.
Israel will proceed despite Palestinian change
In reaction to Israeli concerns about Hamas winning elections Abbas said, "Here I ask myself, what kind of democracy is this? What democracy do the Israelis believe in?"
Al-Kidwa said that Israel never lives up to its commitments.
Meanwhile, a meeting took place in the West Bank of the different Palestinian factions at which reportedly the major conclusion was nothing resembling efforts to bridge the gaps between the sides, but the old formula for disaster that there never can be peace with Israel without the full implementation of the right of return to Israel of millions of Palestinian refugees.
In other words, a call for continuing the struggle for Israel's demise.
Amid some early hopeful notes about the teaching of hatred in the schools and the purveying of hatred in the media, are recent signs that not all that much have changed. Israel is still the enemy, the legitimacy of the Jewish state is hard to find, and conspiracy theories about Israelis and Jews are still disseminated. Where is the commitment to reeducate toward a peaceful future?
So despite the passing of Arafat and the positive signs coming from Abbas, the drumbeat of Palestinian negativism, of revanchism which has hurt the Israelis through the decades but has hurt the Palestinians far more, continues. Hopefully, Sharon and Abbas will find a way in the months after the disengagement to get beyond this morass that has poisoned the region for so long.
For now, it is important that the media and international community understand that Israel will proceed with its withdrawal from Gaza, but not because of any Palestinian change toward moderation. And after disengagement, a renewed peace process can only happen if that change occurs.
Failing that, Israel will have to decide on its own, as it has done regarding Gaza, what policies will be in its own best interests.
- Abraham H. Foxman is National Director of the Anti-Defamation League and author of 'Never Again? The Threat of the New Anti-Semitism'