Peace process reduced to rubble

Ariel Sharon’s disengagement plan has an important side effect. It forces the Israeli and Palestinian governments to tackle their respective rejectionists. Last week, as Israel’s police and military forces blocked the settler march toward Gush Katif, the Palestinian Authority’s security organs confronted their Hamas rivals in Gaza. For both sides, it has been an important new development.

The lack of domestic confrontation was a major weakness of the 1990s Oslo process. Successive Israeli governments preferred to nurture the settlements and turn a blind eye toward expressions of settler lawlessness rather than curbing the settlement enterprise. At the same time, the PA allowed the development of militias and terrorist groups that took the lead after the outbreak of hostilities in September 2000, instead of imposing "one law with one gun". Both sides recognized the extremist danger following Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination and the subsequent wave of Palestinian suicide bombings in Israeli cities. But their efforts to rein in rejectionist elements were short-lived and, in retrospect, failed to change the dynamics of a crumbling peace process. It became more convenient for the two sides to fight one another.

Sharon’s disengagement offers a fresh opportunity for Israelis and Palestinians to put their houses in order. Its unilateral nature frees Sharon and his Palestinian counterpart, Mahmoud Abbas, from the need for mutual compromise and quid-pro-quos. It provides a time out from serious negotiations, which should be used for consolidating power and legitimacy through new elections to both parliaments, expected several months after the Gaza withdrawal. The negotiations impasse resolves the inherent contradiction between electoral needs that dictate tougher positions on outstanding issues, and diplomatic demands that mandate mutual concessions.

Disconnecting withdrawal from diplomacy allows the Palestinians and Israelis to keep their blame game going without jeopardizing the main effort of settlement evacuation. Sharon and Abbas are able to hold totally opposing views regarding the way forward on "the day after"–with Abu Mazen calling for a quick move to final status negotiations, which Sharon would like to avoid indefinitely–without halting the current movement. Under the umbrella of pending disengagement, Israel has gained badly needed international applause, while Abbas has become the new hope of American Mideast policy.

This delicate balance was seriously shaken by the renewed eruption of violence, beginning with the Netanya suicide attack of July 12. For several days, it appeared as if the war was back. Nevertheless, Abbas and Sharon managed the gravest crisis of the post-Arafat era successfully. With American and Egyptian assistance, they preventing the fire from spreading, focusing instead on dealing with their domestic opponents.

The violence brought American Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice back to Jerusalem and Ramallah, to ensure that Sharon’s withdrawal is implemented as planned and to promote Israeli-Palestinian dialogue. International public opinion favors summit meetings over unilateral dictates, and America is no exception. Criticized at home for lack of involvement and for giving Israel virtual control over regional policy, Rice prodded Sharon to meet Abbas, but he balked. Her aides explained later that "disengagement coordination" is in fact "negotiations" and announced a coming agreement on removing the rubble from demolished settler houses in Gaza. They apparently failed to notice any irony in the fact that the peace process had been reduced to negotiations over rubble.

Rice’s main concern was a Hamas takeover of post-evacuation Gaza. She called on Israeli leaders to prevent this by strengthening Abbas through security assistance and freedom of movement in and out of Gaza. But at the end of the day, she had very little leverage over Sharon. Given the poor state of the Bush administration’s policies elsewhere in the Middle East, Israel’s premier appears as the best candidate to deliver credible results. This allows Sharon to be the eventual arbiter on Israeli-Palestinian matters.

Sharon’s unilateralism has many advantages in the short run, but its major drawback is negligence of confidence-building with the other side. This may help Sharon win the Likud nomination against Binyamin Netanyahu, and even give Abbas more credibility for his criticism of Israel before the PA elections. Eventually, however, all summer breaks reach an end. After its elections–probably next spring–Israel will face enormous pressure to resume the peace process and move forward to a West Bank solution. It would be a pity if the lack of mutual trust prevails then and derails the diplomatic efforts.