VIEW: Rescuing Annapolis — Shlomo Ben-Ami
Israel must change its strategic objective in Gaza from toppling Hamas to rescuing the Annapolis process, and with it the last chance for a two-state solution. This requires not only a cease-fire with Hamas, but also a return to a Palestinian national unity government that alone can offer the peace process the vital legitimacy that it lacks today
The Israeli-Palestinian peace talks that began over three months ago at Annapolis do not suffer from a lack of ideas about how to address the conflict’s core issues. After years of frustrated attempts to reach a settlement, and with dozens of official and back channel peace plans at the negotiators’ disposal, there remains little room for creativity in producing an agreement.
But the deeper problem lies elsewhere, in the poverty of the leadership, and in the fragmentation of Palestinian politics. Indeed, the only man who could have made a peace agreement based on a two-state solution legitimate in Palestinians’ eyes, Yasser Arafat, took this legitimacy with him to the grave.
President Mahmoud Abbas was never an inspiring figure for Palestinians. With the loss of Gaza to Hamas, his political clout has been diminished even further. In fact, Abbas does not even control the militias of his own party, Fatah, which have been even more active than Hamas in staging terrorist attacks against Israel. The Palestinian Authority’s rule over the West Bank would have collapsed long ago if it were not for the Israelis’ daily incursions against Hamas and Fatah in areas under Abbas’ control.
Throughout history, nationalist movements, almost invariably consisting of radical and pragmatic wings, had to split in order to reach the Promised Land. Consensus is the negation of leadership and frequently a recipe for political paralysis.
Zionism is a case in point. If Menachem Begin’s ultra-nationalist Irgun had joined a coalition with Ben-Gurion’s pragmatic Mapai in 1947, Zionists would have rejected the partition of Palestine, and Ben-Gurion would not have been allowed to declare the Jewish state in May 1948.
Of course, this lesson should not be elevated to a dogma. In the Palestinian case, with the lack of the kind of leadership that Arafat provided, the radical wing, Hamas, cannot be discarded from the process leading to Palestinian statehood. Moreover, unlike in the case of Israel, the radical wing in Palestine represents the democratic majority, as it emerged victorious from the elections two years ago.
As a result, the question that dominates Israeli discourse nowadays is whether or not to invade Hamas-controlled Gaza. Locked in a self-imposed conceptual paralysis that does not allow for a non-military solution, Israel refuses to see that Hamas’s rocket attacks on Israeli territory are not intended to draw Israel into an invasion. Instead, they are an attempt to establish a new deterrent against Israel that would force it to agree to a cease-fire (Tahdiye).
It is self-deceiving to assume that those on the Palestinian side involved throughout the discredited Oslo process can still muster the necessary popular legitimacy to win support for a compromise with Israel that would require painful concessions on issues central to the Palestinian national ethos.
Nor is it at all clear that a major invasion of Gaza could bring end the attacks on Israel. Hamas, with the help of Iran, has been undergoing a process of Hezbollahisation. Its units are no longer simple terrorist cells; they are highly trained and well-equipped combat units, and its rockets, like those in southern Lebanon, are launched with timers from crude underground silos.
The traumatic experience of the Lebanon war in 2006 has made Israel’s leadership wary of yet another asymmetric war where a clear-cut victory can never be claimed, and where the arithmetic of blood is always bound to turn the casualties of the superior force, Israel, into a domestic crisis.
Israel must change its strategic objective in Gaza from toppling Hamas to rescuing the Annapolis process, and with it the last chance for a two-state solution. This requires not only a cease-fire with Hamas, but also a return to a Palestinian national unity government that alone can offer the peace process the vital legitimacy that it lacks today. Without the resurrection of the Mecca agreement, which put Hamas and the PLO in a coalition government, Hamas cannot expect to secure its control of Gaza and the PLO cannot deliver a peace settlement with Israel.
The notion, dear to the architects of the Annapolis process, that peace can be achieved only when a wedge is driven between Palestinian “moderates” and “extremists” is a misconception. A Palestinian national unity government would not impede a settlement for the simple reason that the moderates now negotiating with Israel must in any case strive for an agreement that the extremists could not label as a treacherous sell-out. Hence, the difference between the Palestinian positions in the current negotiations and those they may hold when a unity government is restored would only be very minor. – DT-PS
Shlomo Ben-Ami, a former Israeli foreign minister, is the vice-president of the Toledo International Centre for Peace and the author of Scars of War, Wounds of Peace: The Israeli-Arab Tragedy