The establishment of a new government in Jerusalem enables the turning of a new page vis-à-vis the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Following decades of an existential conflict, today the State of Israel and the people of Israel understand that the solution to the conflict rests in the establishment of an independent democratic Palestinian state next to Israel that will live in good neighborly relations.
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is no longer an existential conflict; however, it is a continuing obstacle preventing Israel from fulfilling its full potential to reach prosperity and true serenity.
The entire world is fully aware that the policies being implemented in Jerusalem, Washington and even Brussels will inevitably lead to a humanitarian crisis in the Palestinian territories, suffering there is already on a steep incline. With the Palestinian Authority unable to pay the more than 160,000 salaries of its employees, more than 1 million additional people will be added to those living under the poverty line of having less than USD 2 a day per person.
The increase of poverty by such extreme dimensions will lead to a devastating blow to the private sector when people will have no money even to purchase basic goods. There is no doubt that such an increase in poverty will not lead to a love of Zion amongst Palestinians, and there should be large doubts whether or not these policies will lead to the Palestinian people to call upon their new government to accept the Israeli demands for recognition.
Most of the Palestinian public believes that the new Hamas-led government should moderate its positions and at least accept the Arab League peace initiative of 2002 which would grant conditional recognition of Israel in exchange for an Israeli withdrawal to the 1967 borders and an acceptable solution to the refugee problem.
Palestinian shadow government
Most Palestinians would be very happy to see their prime minister, Ismail Haniyeh, being hosted by Prime Minister Olmert for permanent status negotiations. But even if Haniyeh and Hamas do not moderate their positions, the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas is already creating, under his authority, a shadow government that will be able to govern and to negotiate with the Government of Israel.
At the recent meeting of donors in London, Abbas submitted a detailed budgetary support request for the Office of the Presidency for USD 260 million, including some 780 new employees, plus support for 2000 troops of the newly formed Presidential security guard. All of these employees will be under Abbas’ direct control. Paradoxically, during the Arafat era, Israel and the Bush administration applied extreme efforts to remove all governing content from the office of the president and created the office of the prime minister. Now the efforts are being exerted in the opposite direction to return all governing authorities back to the president.
Abbas may be speaking in a conciliatory voice towards Hamas, but at the same time, Abbas is working diligently to take away authority from the Hamas controlled cabinet. At the same time, Hamas recognizes that Abbas has the authority to negotiate with Israel. Mahmoud al-Zahar, Hamas' appointed foreign minister, has even recently said that Hamas has no objections to negotiations as long as they produce real fruits on the ground and even suggested that Prime Minister Haniyeh would sit alongside of Abbas in the negotiations.
Prime Minister Olmert’s determination to advance his convergence plan does not have to prevent the entry into negotiations with the Palestinians. In the end of the day, Olmert could always revert back to his plan to advance unilateral withdrawals from any Palestinian territory – the Palestinian will not oppose Israeli withdrawals.
The question facing Israel is: Is there someone or some governing body on the other side who can take control of the territories that Israel decides to withdraw from? The current policy of Israel of ignoring the Palestinians, closures and sieges on the Palestinian territories will only serve to promise that there will be such authority there to take control.
Recognize Abbas' leadership
The government of Israel is accelerating a process that will surely lead to total chaos in the Palestinian territories. This policy promises anarchy and an increase in hatred towards Israel. This policy will inevitably lead to an increase in violence and to new rounds of unspeakable bloodshed.
Even though the separation barrier is moving towards completion, there remain more than enough Israelis on the other side of the barrier – civilians and soldiers – that can be easy targets for attacks. We should also not forget the intolerable ease that potential terrorists can still move through the crossing points and other holes in the barrier on their way to explode themselves inside of the green line.
We cannot allow ourselves to say that what happens on the other side of the barrier is not our concern and that they – the Palestinians – should manage for themselves. We cannot simply say that we don’t have to care about what happens there. In the mirror image of what outgoing Defense Minister Mofaz has stated: if there is no quiet there, there will be no quiet in Israel.
Mahmoud Abbas has been pleading with us to recognize his leadership. His commitment to non-violence deserves recognition by Israel. His decisive actions to create an alternative governing authority should not be ignored. We cannot know how long it will be before there is another Palestinian leader who is so committed to the path of negotiations and diplomacy.
With that, it is wise not to deceive ourselves that Abbas is willing to concede on primary Palestinian national interests, but it is also equally unwise to view him as a “chick without feathers”. There is no guarantee that a return to negotiations would produce agreements that are worth more than the paper they are written on, but in the new situation that developed following the elections there, what is there for us to lose by entering into negotiations?
A new and positive direction of the new Israeli government can influence the chances of creating a new partnership to advance the political process. A policy of removing the closure and lifting the siege, opening the crossings for the movement of goods, releasing tax revenues to Abbas or to an acceptable international mechanism for this purpose, and the renewal of regular contacts between the two establishments, can create a different and positive atmosphere that could enable the implementation of an effective long-term mutual ceasefire.
No patience for empty statements
All other alternatives contain far fewer possibilities for success. Israel’s strategic situation will not be improved if we continue to totally ignore the Palestinians, their suffering and their aspirations. The opening of a new page with a positive attitude by the new government of Israel will not undermine the possibility of returning to unilateralism, if it chooses to do so. But turning to Abbas with sincerity for real dialogue and negotiations contains far fewer dangers to Israel and any other possible path.
Prime Minister Olmert has no security “baggage” weighing him down and preventing the opening of a new page. Olmert does not appear to the Palestinians to be a great warrior who is likely to hit them with horrendous blows of military might. Likewise, Abbas appears to the Israeli public to be a real moderate and a balanced statesman, perhaps too weak, but someone that we can do business with. None of us, or them, has any patience left for empty statements and a return to negotiations and dialogue will necessitate the taking of real courageous steps by both sides.
Can the new Prime Minister of Israel allow himself to miss another opportunity like this? Even though the Israeli public does not go to the streets to call on Olmert to invite Abbas to Jerusalem, inside the house of Israel there is a real desire to see us moving ahead, once again on the path of peace.
The two leaders, Abbas and Olmert, meeting and promising to do everything possible to advance real peace, answers the primary national interest of the State of Israel. The only way to promise Israel’s survival as a Jewish and democratic state living in calm and prosperity is to reach a permanent status agreement with the Palestinians, and Abbas is the best channel for doing so. The new government in Jerusalem does not have the luxury to sweep under the rug another opportunity to end the violence and to return to negotiations.
Dr. Gershon Baskin is the Co-CEO of IPCRI – the Israel/Palestine Center for Research and Information. Website: www.ipcri.org