The Madrid peace conference of 1991 marked the first time that the Palestinian-Israeli relationship changed from one of confrontation into peaceful negotiations. That bilateral relationship was sustained throughout the 1993 Oslo negotiations and subsequent interim arrangements, all of which were predicated upon the coming need for final talks on the major issues of refugees, Israeli settlements, Jerusalem and borders. That phase of negotiations climaxed at the Camp David summit last year, at which the Israeli side offered up an ultimatum, thereby taking the “process” out of making peace. Palestinians said then that more discussion might move the talks in the right direction and that further negotiation was necessary, but that position fell on deaf ears.
The way that the Camp David summit ended, with the Israelis saying “take-it-or-leave-it,” and the American administration pointing fingers at Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat as responsible for the failure, created a dangerous political vacuum and a growing tension on the ground. The Palestinian Authority and some peaceful elements within the Israeli government attempted to rescue events by continuing the negotiations in Taba, Egypt. But by that time, it was clear that a serious shift had taken place in internal Israeli politics and public. As new elections approached, the ruling Labor government demonstrated more and more weakness and the Taba talks lost their significance as it became clear that the right wing would win the Israeli elections.
To the rhythm of those beating war drums, and in an attempt to gain the sympathy of the strengthened right in Israel, the Labor government allowed its main political opponent to do something that no Israeli politician had ever done in the history of the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories. Arial Sharon was allowed to enter Jerusalem’s Al Aqsa Mosque, a statement of ownership that set off massive peaceful Palestinian protests, first in East Jerusalem and later in the rest of the West Bank, Gaza and among the Arabs in Israel. The brutal Israeli military treatment of civilian protestors, in which Israeli snipers shot and killed tens of young people, was the immediate cause for the eruption of ongoing Israeli-Palestinian confrontations.
During these 16 months of confrontation, especially early on, Palestinians tried as much as possible to maintain the popular and peaceful nature of the clashes. Those efforts were largely in vain, as Israeli measures kept pushing the relationship towards one of deeper, more brutal confrontation. The number of casualties is one indication of this trend. During the first half of the confrontations, nearly 500 Palestinians casualties were matched by some 30 Israeli deaths. Only later would the Palestinian engagement become more lethal.
Due to these changes in the Israeli government and public opinion, it has become clear that the negotiations era of the last ten years is one of the past. Early on in the changing climate, Israel decided to pursue a military option-and only a military option- against the Palestinian side. While Palestinians know that they can never match Israel’s military might, they have been driven towards military confrontation by Israel’s use of military force and campaign of killing, home demolition and the policy of closure. While Palestinians are facing hard times in the court of international opinion, in particular after the events of September 11, all history of this conflict has shown that increasing pressure, particularly military pressure, on the Palestinians only hardens their position. Indeed, that seems one of the objectives of the current Israeli government, whose sole achievement has been to deepen the hatred and hostility between the two peoples and push the chances for peace far into the distance.
As a result of these events, most Palestinians now feel that we are in a completely different strategic relationship with Israel. We are now on a downward slope, rapidly moving away from the circumstances necessary for historic compromise, and towards a place with little room for give and take.
Mr. Ghassan Khatib is a Palestinian political analyst and director of the Jerusalem Media and Communications Center.