Ismail Abdel Salam Ahmed Haniyeh and Mahmoud Abbas

Getting to the grassroots of the Middle East conflict

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Gershon Baskin claims that when Ismail Haniyeh stated that he wants to put an end to the conflict that has been going on for decades, it represented the first time a Hamas leader has spoken about the possibility of ending the conflict with Israel.

The new Kadima party’s election victory in Israel looks set to continue the comatose Ariel Sharon’s bid to impose a unilateral solution on the Palestinians. The evacuation of settlements is setting in motion a new and potentially positive dynamic, but continued one-sidedness could cause the situation to slip back into deadlock as usual. Israelis and Palestinians need to recognise that they have no political shepherds to guide them through the valley of the shadow of conflict. Ordinary people must seize the initiative from the political classes who lack the imagination and courage to make peace.

The Kadima (Forward/Vanguard) Party cruised to victory in a lacklustre election, while the party’s founder, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, lay in a coma – which he slipped into following a massive stroke on 4 January – in Jerusalem’s Hadassa Hospital. The election campaign was led by Sharon’s faithful minion Ehud Olmert, who defected with him from the then ruling Likud Party, which imploded at the ballot box, dealing a major blow to the settler movement.

Olmert, the unpopular former mayor of Jerusalem, has indicated that he will continue Sharon’s legacy. Last year, Sharon – the mastermind behind settlement expansion when he was housing minister – went against the will of many members of his rightwing Likud Party and pulled 8,500 settlers out of the Gaza Strip.

Despite the tears and pain of the settler movement, the decision resonated positively among a significant proportion of Israelis, who oppose settlements for a variety of security, economic and even idealistic reasons. Although Palestinians distrusted the motives of Sharon, whom they regard as a war criminal, most welcomed the move as a good first step.

Partial settlements
As one of the authors of the current article hypothesised in her 2003 thesis[1], settlements have the unique quality of being both one of the major stumbling blocks – alongside the status of Jerusalem and the right of return for Palestinian refugees and diaspora Palestinians – on the path to peace, while being unpopular amongst both Palestinians and Israelis. This means that uprooting some of them can only help to alleviate tension between the two parties and has the potential of being a good confidence builders.

Researched and written at the height of the second intifada – which began in 2000 – the thesis found that the best way out of the deadlock was “experimental, unilateral initiative taking”. The research suggested that there was a groundswell of support among Palestinians and Israelis for the idea not only of a settlement freeze but the immediate dismantling of certain troublesome settlements and the removal of ideological settlers, particularly those living in settlement outposts.

Such a gesture would play well amongst Palestinians who are fundamentally opposed to Israel’s settlements, which are illegal under international law and regarded by Palestinians as creating ‘realities on the ground’. Any Israeli pullout would suggest Israeli seriousness about the prospects of a Palestinian state.

For Israelis, their objections are much more varied. The leftwing peace movement is opposed to settlements on legal and idealistic grounds, i.e. that they are illegal under international law, require an oppressive occupation to maintain them and tarnish Israel’s image abroad. Progressive thinkers also have an instinctive distrust of fundamentalist settlers. For mainstream Israelis, their objections often revolve around the economic, human and security costs of the occupation, although many ordinary Israelis are also perturbed by the sway over their secular-leaning country held by the ultra-orthodox wing of the settler movement.

Given the bitterness of the situation, the thesis argued that: “The reasons for any party to take action would be mainly selfish, with the objective of preventing further harm to its own civilians. At the same time, the action should also be in the interest of the other side, in order to reduce the tension.”

Israel, being in the more powerful position, and with more cards to play, needed to make a clear gesture. The Israelis and Palestinians interviewed largely agreed that the “easiest option, and hence the most realistic one, would be to pull out the settlers in Gaza”.

The value of selfish pragmatism
Ariel Sharon did not shed his fervent nationalist skin overnight and metamorphose into a peacenik. He just awoke to the realisation that his strategic vision was failing. It had consisted of “dismantling the legacy of Labour: reversing the results of the Oslo process and reasserting Israel’s control over the occupied Palestinian territories, and reshaping the Israeli economy according to an extreme neo-liberal model”, according to Yoav Peled, a political science professor at Tel Aviv University.

All his militaristic attempts to crush the second intifada – which he helped spark by visiting the al-Aqsa Mosque complex in September 2000 with hundreds of soldiers – and reoccupy the Palestinian territories ultimately failed and the cycle of violence continued unabated. He also failed to distribute the fruits of Israel’s impressive economic growth equitably, not to mention the dismal humanitarian and economic situation in the Palestinian territories, where 30% of people are unemployed and nearly half of the population lives under the poverty line on less than $2 per day, according to the World Bank.

The Israeli wealth gap has widened so much that, according to Peled, 30% of economic income accrued to the top 10% of the population. Israel now resembles the stark socio-economic contrasts of its main sponsor, the United States, rather than the more socialist European ideals upon which it was founded.

Faced with his failure to deliver physical or economic security, the desperate premier – whose son was embroiled in corruption allegations – went against his natural instinct and borrowed two policy ideas originally thought up by Labour politicians: evacuating Gaza and building the separation wall.

“Sharon’s policy was not intended to make peace or even resume negotiations with the Palestinians. It was intended simply to make Israel’s occupation of Palestinian lands more economical, in terms of Jewish blood and money,” noted Peled.

Kadima’s manifesto confirms that Sharon did not change his stripes, he just become more pragmatic. It asserts that Jews have “national and historic right to the Land of Israel in its entirety”. However, in a reality check, it begrudgingly concedes that: “The balance between allowing Jews to fulfil their historic right… and maintaining the continued existence of Israel as the national Jewish home necessitates territorial compromise.”

Thus, although the Gaza pullout was motivated primarily by self-interest, the by-product for the Palestinian side was also positive.

The short-term virtue of dancing to your own tune
Kadima has been crowned to lead an Israeli coalition government, while a party set up by Hamas is leading the new coalition governing the dysfunctional and weak Palestinian Authority. With each party dancing in isolation to its own tune, there is potential, in the short term, either for mutually beneficial or mutually detrimental unilateralism. If Israel keeps up its counterproductive economic stranglehold on the Palestinians, this could force Hamas’s hand, leading the Islamist party to start talking and acting tougher. It would then re-spark the vicious cycle of violence and counter-violence, recrimination and counter-recrimination.

Alternatively, if Israel agrees to unfreeze Palestinian tax receipts and begins to deliver more evacuations, this could breed a virtuous cycle of unilateral goodwill gestures. Hamas has indicated its willingness to play this game. As hard-headed and nationalistic as Israel’s own religious parties and the Likud, Hamas has toned down its position since it won the election. Immediately after its victory, it said it was willing to call an indefinite truce, if Israel pulls back to its 1967 borders. “We can accept to establish our independent state on the area occupied [in] 1967,” Mahmoud al-Zahar, a top Hamas official and one of its last surviving founders, told CNN.

Ismail Haniyeh, the new Palestinian prime minister and leading Hamas leader, said encouragingly: “We don’t want a whirlpool of blood in this region. We want the rights and dignity of our people. We also want to put an end to this complicated conflict that has been going on for decades… Hamas’s presence in power marks the beginning of resolving the crisis.”

This announcement caused something of a stir in some circles.

“This is the first time a Hamas leader has spoken about the possibility of ending the conflict with Israel,” wrote Gershon Baskin, the Israeli co-director of the Israel-Palestine Centre for Research and Information, in the Jerusalem Post. “It raises serious questions regarding the wisdom of Israel’s policy of unilateralism.”

Olmert unveiled plans that, by 2010, Kadima will have settled Israel’s final borders. Whether he will be able to do it in the probable absence of the larger-than-life Sharon, and the narrow margin by which his party won the poll, is open to question. The West Bank wall will represent Israel’s eastern border, including Arab East Jerusalem, confirming earlier fears that the ‘security fence’ would, one day, serve the dual purpose of setting Israel’s main de facto frontiers.

Some West Bank settlements will be evacuated while others will be “converged” into three vast blocks, including some of the Holy Land’s richest farmland and water resources. There will be a permanent severance between the West Bank and Gaza. In addition, Israel will retain security control over the Jordan Valley. “It will only be a civilian disengagement, not a military disengagement,” Avi Dichter, former director of Israel’s Shin Bet security service and a top Kadima official, told Israel Radio.

But there’s seems to be disagreement amongst Kadima’s top brass about how to proceed. Dichter is a firm believer in the myth perpetuated by former Prime Minister Ehud Barak that there is no ‘partner for peace’ in the Palestinian camp. “Israel will have to define, by itself, its final borders,” he argued.

Kadima’s official position is that it will not impose but agree its final borders with Palestine. But even its acting leader is wavering: “We will try to achieve this in an agreement with the Palestinians… If not, Israel will take control of its own fate, and in consensus among our people and with the agreement of our friends in the world, especially US President George Bush, we will act,” Olmert said in a televised speech.

Speaking at the Arab League Summit in Khartoum, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas warned: “This [election] result will not change [anything] as long as the agenda of Olmert himself does not change and he does not abandon unilateral arrangements.”

Khaled Mesh’aal, the exiled head of Hamas’s political bureau, was more adamant in his condemnation. “The Zionist position, be it that of Kadima or others, is one that buries the peace process, negates its existence and does not give it a chance. That position is a declaration of war against the Palestinian people.”

What this underscores is that unilateralism has its limitations and, while it may buy time for a while, it will eventually breakdown if not complemented by a mutually acceptable and negotiated resolution. “We in the peace movement maintained that the end of occupation had to be the beginning of peace,” renowned Israeli novelist and peacenik Amos Oz wrote in The Guardian. “But what the Olmert government seems to hold out is not ‘land for peace’ but ‘land for time’.”

Also in The Guardian, columnist Jonathan Freedland wrote: “There are enormous problems with [Kadima’s unilateral] approach. First, it seeks to ignore the Palestinians completely; it aims to shove them out of sight, behind a high wall where Israelis won’t have to see or even think about them. The psychology that underpins both the wall and unilateralism is ugly.”

Against the will of the people
Ironically, this fixation on unilateralism swims against the current of popular opinion on both sides. An Israeli-Palestinian public opinion poll conducted by Harry S Truman Research Institute for the Advancement of Peace at the Hebrew University and the Palestinian Centre for Policy and Survey Research between March 16 and 21 showed that on overwhelming majority of people were in favour of a negotiated settlement rather than continued unilateral disengagements. “Three-quarters of the Palestinians (73%) and Israelis (76%) prefer to see further disengagements in the West Bank negotiated between the PA and Israel,” the institute revealed.

“The relevant fact is not the result of this poll, this week, on this issue. It is the increasingly clear, consistent trend over time, among both warring publics, towards a negotiated, fair, legitimate peace accord,” a 29-March Daily Star editorial argued. “Palestinian, Israeli and other Arab leaders should be morally bound – if not also politically enticed – to respond to such popular majorities that clearly prefer a negotiated peace to perpetual war.”

Sheep without a shepherd
Neither the Israelis nor the Palestinians appear to have a leadership with the courage and determination to fulfil the will of their war-weary and embattled peoples to reach a peaceful negotiated solution to the endless conflict.

Describing Israeli-Jews as “sheep without a shepherd”, Dan Bar-On, professor of psychology at Ben-Gurion University, wrote in an article for the Common Ground News Service: “We need another leadership… We need a leadership that can rid itself of a cheap sense of power… We need a rooted leadership that can act with ‘sensitivity and firmness’… A new leadership should talk differently to the Palestinians… We should learn how to talk to them as respectable partners, sharing the same pain-ridden land, sharing a long common tradition of family-oriented faith.”

Palestinians also lack an effective shepherd. The late Yasser Arafat failed to deliver them a homeland, compromised most of their rights, and established a corrupt and authoritarian ruling authority which, rather than improve life for the average Palestinian, often made it worse. The militant groups and their violent resistance have also been ineffectual against the occupation with its superior firepower and its dogged determination. This resolve is rooted in the fact that, unlike other colonial powers, the coloniser here has no distant homeland to return to once the temperature rises. Israelis and Palestinians are stuck in the same boat together, so it’s best for all concerned that they keep it afloat.

Walking and talking peace
It is high time for Israeli and Palestinian public to take matters into their own hands. The peace movement needs to get ‘militant’ and head for the safety of the moral high ground. Israelis need to oppose vocally and in large numbers the abuses visited on the Palestinians on their behalf. Palestinians need to declare openly and in large number that they will continue to resist occupation, but peacefully, without further bloodshed, and any Palestinian killed by Israeli fire would be Israel’s sole moral responsibility and cannot be passed off as a ‘retaliation’.

Both Israelis and Palestinians can organise campaigns of disobedience and mass public protest. They can organise, for instance, a simultaneous march on the separation wall, coming at it from both sides, and form a human chain that stretches from deep inside the Palestinian territories, over the wall and into Israel. Such a march may only draw small numbers at first but, with time, and if held at regular intervals, it can galvanise mass support.

Another attractive option is for grass-roots leaders from both sides, like ancient tribal chiefs, to negotiate a ‘people’s peace deal’. For too long, the talking has been left to diplomats, politicians and outsiders. Even the unofficial Geneva Peace Accords of 2003 were negotiated by top-level former Israeli and Palestinian politicians under the auspices of an international NGO. Now the time is ripe for ordinary Palestinians and Israelis to show that they can do better than their leaders.

Some might criticise these suggestions and argue that this is nothing more than fluffy peacenik talk that will appeal only to ‘bleeding heart’ liberals but won’t get you very far among ordinary, hardened people faced with the grim reality on the ground, not to mention the ideological chasm separating both sides. Contrary to what many might intuit, Orthodox Jews and Islamists are not necessarily the biggest obstacle to progress, given the right approach.

“We assessed, in 1999, an Israeli-Palestinian inter-religious dialogue held in Khan Unis, Gaza and found the most significant positive changes occurring among participants [who were the] most religious and considered most resistant to change,” wrote Ben Mollov, professor of political science and conflict management at Bar-Ilan University, in an article for the Common Ground News Service. “Why does this approach to dialogue – a cultural religious approach – seem to offer possibilities where other forms of dialogue and peace building might not? On a basic level one aspect is that of commonalty – no two religions are more similar in structure and practice than Judaism and Islam.”

Mollov noted that Jewish civilisation in the Holy Land took place long before the arrival of Islam, and that, for many long centuries, the Jewish people were not the dominant political force in the area. “Perhaps in such a dialogue we will begin to realize that each side will have in some way to make accommodation for the other in their narrative and worldview.”

Once people take their fate into their own hands and let the politicians squabble amongst themselves, they will hopefully arrive at the, at present, radical conclusion that the only feasible, long-term, sustainable resolution to their conflict in such a small land is to create a single bi-national state. A one-state solution, probably operating in a federal framework, would leave Israelis with their ‘Eretz Yisra’el’ intact and give Palestinians back their complete ancestral homeland – the only catch is that they need to learn to share it fairly between themselves. Together, Palestinians and Israelis can integrate this war-worn land into the region and turn it into a prosperous hub in the Middle East.

Khaled Diab

Khaled Diab

Khaled Diab is a Belgian-Egyptian journalist and writer who has been based in Cairo, Brussels, Jerusalem and Geneva. He has spent half his life in the Middle East and the other half in Europe.
Khaled Diab