The current, second, Palestinian rebellion against Israeli occupation in the past decade is six months old and still ongoing, and it is difficult to determine the balance of gains and losses by both sides. We would do well to separate different factors that often get confused together, such as: a) the current cycle of mutual violence by Israeli and Palestinians vs. the long-term prospects for negotiated peace-making, b) the local and global public perception of who is to blame for the current situation vs. the actual political, economic, and military balance of power in the Arab-Israeli conflict, and, c) what is politically desirable and what is currently realistic in terms of achieving a permanent, comprehensive peace accord.
The situation now is much more complicated and gloomy than it was six months ago, when Israel was headed by a Labor-led government that was deep in negotiations with the Palestinians, with active American participation. Those talks failed because both the Israelis and Palestinians were not prepared to make the tough decisions and painful, historic concessions needed to resolve this issue. Diplomatic prospects today are rather dismal. Israels government is now headed by Ariel Sharon, whose declared outline of a peace accord with the Palestinians is a chilling recipe for long-term conflict, and falls well below the demands of the international consensus as enshrined in U.N. resolutions. He proposes returning less than half the West Bank and Gaza to the Palestinians, maintaining all Israeli colonies built since 1967, and keeping Jerusalem totally under perpetual Israeli sovereignty.
Yet, Sharon holds talks in Washington this week in a public opinion environment that broadly supports Israeli positions. A public opinion poll commission by American-Jewish organizations last week showed that about two-thirds of Americans view Israel favorably, and by a margin of 3 to 1 Americans blame Palestinians more than Israelis for the current violence. Yet, interestingly, a small majority of all Americans supports dividing and sharing Jerusalem, and a majority of Americans, including Jewish-Americans, supports dismantling some or all of the Israeli colonies and settlements.
The poll findings reveal an important dichotomy between current events and future peace prospects: Americans tend to support Israels analysis of the current violent confrontations (i.e., the Palestinians started the violence, are using children and hiding behind them, and Arafat can stop the violence at once with a snap of his fingers), while Americans are closer to the Palestinian-Arab position on long-term peace-making concessions (i.e., Israel must share Jerusalem, leave the occupied territories, and dismantle most settlements in the West Bank and Gaza). This reflects the fairness of the American public, but also its susceptibility to media imagery manipulation and political spin-doctoring by Israeli professionals.
So how do we reconcile the two conflicting views that generally blame the Palestinians for the current violence but also demand that Israel change its occupation policies for long-term peace to prevail? Many Arabs, Israelis, Americans, Europeans and others are working diligently these days to explore how we can, 1) analyze the true causes and significance of the Palestinian uprising, 2) accurately apportion blame where it is due in Israel and Palestine, 3) understand fully why the Camp David II and Taba negotiations between Palestinians and the Barak-led government failed, 4) seek means of reducing the violence that is practiced and endured by both sides, and, 5) return to negotiations for a permanent peace accord.
This is an urgent but impossible list of tasks. Sadly, war will win out in the short term. The current fear and anger on both sides will promote further Palestinian attacks against Israel and its occupation, as well as continuing Israels political and military brutality against the occupied, encircled Palestinians. Yet, both sides will also keep exploring how to achieve their mutual desire for a negotiated agreement. The two processes are mutually contradictory, and cannot be realistically pursued simultaneously. Either the Palestinians and Israelis make war, as they do now, or they make peace, as they tried unsuccessfully since 1991.
Its clear that both sides refuse to lose face, back down unilaterally, or make the tough compromises necessary for a comprehensive accord. In such circumstances, perhaps the best chance for movement forward is a secretly negotiated agreement that achieves several short-term goals that are meaningful for both sides: a) simultaneously, Israel reverses its brutal, choking encirclement of and attacks against Palestinian self-rule areas, and the Palestinians stop their military attacks against Israelis; b) both sides negotiate an interim agreement for Palestinian sovereign statehood in the areas vacated fully by Israel; c) agreement is reached on an international force to separate the two states during the interim stage, and on a global economic reconstruction program for Palestine; d) working through a revived Madrid-style forum, Israel and Palestine launch ironclad diplomatic mechanisms with international guarantees to keep negotiating to resolve the three outstanding final status issues of refugees, Jerusalem, and an end to the conflict, with agreed-upon new terms of reference.
Its difficult to see any movement towards a full peace agreement in the current circumstances, yet the prevailing situation is also intolerable for both sides. A significant interim agreement might be worth considering again, if it cements the gains that Palestinian and Israeli negotiators have achieved to date, and locks into a process that promises to fairly resolve the remaining enormous issues in the coming years.