The realignment of Israel’s body politic as manifested in the recent elections represents an historic watershed in Israeli politics. For the first time since 1967, a conversion of several parties, representing a majority of the Israeli electorate, supports the withdrawal from most of the West Bank.
Having inherited Prime Minister Sharon’s mantra and mantle, Ehud Olmert, Kadima’s leader and the likely new Prime Minister, can now muster the political support he needs to achieve his objective of "convergence" through withdrawal and completion of the fence. Regardless of who heads the Palestinian Authority, it is critical that the second phase of disengagement improve, rather, than further aggravates relations with the Palestinians. To that end, three areas require special attention:
Ending occupation or 'good-will' gesture
First, although Israel’s withdrawal is primarily motivated by demographic considerations that have made continued presence in these areas unsustainable, withdrawal in any case will first reduce the occupation and then eventually end it. There should be no reason why the future Israeli government cannot speak specifically about its willingness to end the occupation rather than make withdrawal seem like a “voluntary gift,” especially if it is implemented unilaterally.
This may seem like a semantic distinction; but it matters because Israel and the Palestinians see the nature of the conflict through entirely different lenses. Even though the Israeli withdrawal could eventually bring an end to the occupation, which both sides seek, the Palestinians focus on the aspect of unilateral withdrawal, seeing it as a “recipe for more conflict."
In contrast, Israel characterizes withdrawal simply as a good-will gesture on its part. Olmert feels this especially, and said so in his victory statement: “We are prepared to compromise, give up part of our beloved land of Israel, remove, painfully, Jews who live there, to allow you the conditions to achieve your hope and live in a state in peace and quiet.”
Yet this statement belies the truth that Israel must face: It is an occupying power, and thus must remove the stigma of occupation. The psychological barrier between the Israelis and Palestinians symbolized by the occupation itself must be “removed”; otherwise, the two sides will continue to talk at cross purposes, when they generally agree about what ultimately must happen.
No collective punishment
Second, since Israel is determined to separate itself physically from the Palestinians and withdraw from most of the territories, the withdrawal process should also be accompanied by a policy of reconciliation to create good will and better human relations with the Palestinian people. Whereas the Israeli government should have zero tolerance for unprovoked acts of violence, it needs to refrain from a policy of collective punishment because this ends up causing tremendous pain and suffering to too many innocent Palestinians.
Such measures as mass arrests, demolitions of the houses of families of suicide bombers, severe restrictions on the movement of people and goods, property destruction, and annexation of lands to build the fence may help achieve certain immediate objectives, but they are largely counterproductive, fueling tremendous resentment and the burning desire for revenge.
The Israeli-Palestinian relationship will not end once the fence is completed and a full separation of the two peoples occurs. Efforts to build good relations between the two sides will circumvent the restrictions of physical and political fences. The Israeli government must bear in mind that Israelis and Palestinians must for better or worse coexist.
Third, the new Israeli government should not make demands that are impossible for Hamas’ leaders to meet. For example, demanding that, at this juncture, Hamas recognize Israel's right to exist creates serious obstacles that can only forfeit any opportunity for a dialogue, even with moderate Palestinians with whom Israel should engage.
Such a demand is not a prerequisite to the negotiations because Israel, if it wishes to negotiate at all, can negotiate with the Palestinian Authority’s President Mahmoud Abbas who has recognized Israel’s right to exist. Furthermore, Israel neither needs nor should it seek Hamas’ recognition to establish its legitimacy and to act in its own best national interests. Third, Hamas leaders know that sooner rather than later they must deal with Israel, so they can deliver on their promises to their own community.
What Israel should, however, insist on is that Hamas renounce support of terror and refuse to negotiate if under fire. In addition, Israel can insist that Hamas accept all PLO agreements with Israel, a demand that Hamas seems inclined to go along with.
Israel has never been more powerful militarily and economically than it is today, but while it can take unilateral actions and negotiate from strength, it must also demonstrate prudence and sensitivity toward the Palestinians in the exercise of its power. However he proceeds with his convergence plans, Mr. Olmert must do everything in his power not to further alienate the Palestinians in the process and to implement his program by building bridges rather than human walls.
Alon Ben-Meir is professor of International relations at the Center for Global Affairs at NYU and is the Middle East Project Director at the World Policy Institute, New York. He can be reached at Alon @alonben-meir.com