The Israeli-Palestinian peace process was always marred with contradictions: mutual dependence with mutual rejection; a desire for separation with an inertia of occupation; necessary compromise with traditional dogmas. Today’s most blatant paradox is that both Israeli and Palestinian public opinion, fatigued by conflict, understanding that nothing will be resolved by force, now accept far-reaching compromises that were unimaginable when the Oslo process began.
Most Israelis would now accept a Palestinian state more or less within the 1967 boundaries, even if that includes some compromise over Jerusalem and a major withdrawal of settlements, if they knew that the other side would finally end the conflict and if this would guarantee an end to terror and violence. Most Palestinians would espouse peaceful coexistence with Israel and eradicate terrorist organizations such as the Hamas and the Jihad, if they thought Israel was honestly ready to grant the Palestinians independence and end the occupation.
What keeps the conflict alive and dangerous are therefore not fundamental positions of mainstream society, but an inherent suspicion about the real intentions of the leadership of the other side. Palestinians believe that peace for Israel is another means for the continuation of occupation. For most Israelis, Palestinian peace means only the continuation of conflict and the implementation of the right of return.
Both sides have therefore finally come to the right conclusion about their basic positions, yet are haunted by misguided suspicions about the other side. This is exactly the point where the leadership needs to create a bridge of trust. This is exactly the juncture where both Palestinian leader Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Sharon are missing a tremendous, historic opportunity. Rather than demonizing the other leader, they should begin a dialogue to create the needed trust, as nothing will be solved by conflict and we will both deteriorate into a situation of futile bloodshed.
Today there is a new opportunity. The Peres-Abu Ala understandings create the necessary framework for a political process which is based on the incremental eradication of terrorism and the establishment of a Palestinian state, with ongoing negotiations on the permanent status issues within a given time framework, supported by the international community. If Sharon and Arafat (as well as the American interlocutors) do not use these understandings as a platform to recreate dialogue instead of solutions by force, they will neither reflect the needs of their respective people, nor their fundamental desires.
This is how the people, as well as history, will ultimately judge them. If both or either of them are guided by the easy track of populism and demagoguery, a possible and necessary historical peace will be missed, Israel will be defeated by its own occupation of Palestinian territory and Palestine will be defeated by its own tolerance of fundamentalist violence.
The “Peres-Abu Ala test” is related not only to how we will live together side by side, but also to what our identities will be. The two leaders and our American friends will have to answer these questions, based on the existing concrete proposal, over the next few weeks, if not days.
Uri Savir is President of The Peres Center for Peace. Previously he was Chief Negotiator of the Oslo Accords, Director General of the Israel Foreign Ministry, and a member of the Knesset.