Tuesday, September 2, 2008

A New Strategy for the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

These are excerpts from a Jerusalem Issue Brief written by by Lt.-Gen. (ret.) Moshe Yaalon for the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs. Many other Jerusalem Issue Briefs may be found on the JCPA web site, as may the full version of this article.

A New Strategy for the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

Lt.-Gen. (ret.) Moshe Yaalon

Former Chief of Staff, Israel Defense Forces

Solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, says mainstream public opinion, and the rest will follow. But the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is only one of many afflicting the Middle East, and it is by no means the dominant one.

The Palestinian leadership continues to evade accountability. Today the watchword is "weakness." The image of political impotence has become a precious asset in the Palestinian strategy. The problem is not Abbas' actual capabilities. The problem is his unwillingness and lack of determination to create and govern a viable and accountable state.

The central conflict of the Middle East is not territorial but ideological; not about borders but about Islamic Jihadism and Western liberty.

From Oslo to Annapolis, we have engaged in a top-down strategy. We aimed to reach a political horizon or a final settlement agreement with the Palestinian leadership, hoping that political reform among Palestinians would follow. I propose we replace this approach with a bottom-up strategy in which the PA first proves its willingness and ability to govern.

Current efforts to achieve a final settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are based on a number of deeply flawed assumptions. These have in turn produced an erroneous paradigm and a manifestly failed strategy for seeking peace and security which is preventing us from moving forward.

Another myth is that at the core of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the "occupation." This term refers to the territories conquered by Israel in the Six-Day War of 1967.

The Palestinians have maintained a posture of implacable hostility to Israel's most fundamental and inalienable rights. The PLO, for example, existed and launched terror attacks against Israelis before 1967 when the West Bank and Gaza were not yet occupied by Israel. The PLO's pre-1967 raison d'etre has not magically disappeared in the meantime. Both Fatah and Hamas continue to maintain charters denying Israel's right to exist as an independent Jewish state. We find the rejection of Israel forms an integral part of the Palestinian ethos, and is expressed in no less than the founding documents and actions of the largest and most important Palestinian factions.

Rejectionism, far from being a "mere" matter of official policy or posturing, reaches the rhetoric of the Palestinian national leadership (including Mahmoud Abbas), the educational curriculum, and the Palestinian media. It deeply informs Palestinian strategy and policy. During the preparations for the Annapolis conference, it was demonstrated in the Palestinian refusal to make a basic declaration of their belief in "two states for two peoples." Instead they spoke only of "two states," avoiding explicit recognition of the Jewish people's right to an independent state. This quibbling over words is only the tip of an iceberg.

If the solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict were a territorial compromise within Mandatory Palestine, I have no doubt we would have reached this long ago. Instead, from the dawn of Zionism to the present day, the Palestinian leadership has rejected every partition plan proposed, and has reacted violently to all political initiatives seeking a settlement along those lines. This occurred in 1937 in response to the Peel Commission, in 1947 as a reaction to the UN partition plan, and in 2000 when the Palestinians rejected former Prime Minister Barak's proposal at Camp David.

Attempts by Israel at peace through territorial concession have been met, again and again, with violence by Palestinians. The core of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not the "occupation" according to its meaning in Western discourse. Rather it is the "occupation" in the Palestinian sense: The relentless refusal of the Palestinian leadership to recognize Israel's right to exist as an independent Jewish state. Professor Bernard Lewis put it succinctly in the Wall Street Journal on November 28, 2007, a day before the Annapolis Conference: "'ÄòWhat is the conflict about?' There are basically two possibilities: that it is about the size of Israel, or about its existence....If...the issue is the existence of Israel, then clearly it is insoluble by negotiation. There is no compromise between existing or not existing, and no conceivable government of Israel is going to negotiate on whether that country should or should not exist."

Do the Palestinians Want a State?

It is often said that the Palestinians desire and are capable of establishing a state that will live in peace alongside Israel. Those who believe this is so must explain why the Palestinian leadership, from the implementation of the Oslo Agreement in May 1994 through to the present, have failed to take even the first baby steps toward establishing a state - this in spite of overwhelming and unprecedented international support.

Arafat and his cronies brazenly violated every agreement they signed with Israel.

Arafat has since been replaced by Mahmoud Abbas, yet the Palestinian leadership continues to evade accountability, according to a modified version of Arafat's strategy. Today, the watchword is "weakness." The image of political impotence has become a precious asset in the Palestinian strategy. Western politicians, as well as many Israelis, believe that Mahmoud Abbas is the only alternative to a far more extreme Hamas. They believe, therefore, that he should be strengthened economically, and equipped with additional weapons and ammunition. This approach has not and will not pay dividends because the problem is not Abbas' actual capabilities. The problem is his unwillingness and lack of determination to create and govern a viable and accountable state.

Mahmoud Abbas is not weak.

A third prevailing misconception in the Western understanding of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict relates to the economy.

Although the PA has received no less than $7 billion from donors in recent years, neither Arafat nor Abbas has managed to improve the basic living conditions of the Palestinian people in any significant way. On the contrary, the Palestinian economic situation began to deteriorate precipitously from the moment Arafat rose to power in 1994, and continues to do so under the regime of cronyism he instituted.

In light of historical experience, there are some fundamental questions we have to ask ourselves. Can we trust that a future Palestinian entity in the West Bank will not become Hamastan, as occurred in Gaza? Could such an entity, even according to the 1967 borders, be economically viable? Would the Palestinians be satisfied with those borders as a final settlement? Would it bring stability, peace, and tranquility to the region? Are these borders defensible for the State of Israel?

A Palestinian Entity in the 1967 Borders Threatens Both Israel and Jordan

I believe, in light of the Palestinian leadership's behavior since its inception, and especially since Oslo, that the answer is an unequivocal "no." As things stand today, a Palestinian entity according to the 1967 borders would present an existential threat to Israel, to the stability of the region, to Western interests, and to Jordan.

The paradigm of the "two-state solution" within the boundaries of former Mandatory Palestine under the present status quo is both irrelevant and dangerous. It is irrelevant because today there is no Palestinian partner willing to accept it as a final settlement. It is dangerous because it fosters illusions which undermine our resolve and embolden our enemies. Ultimately, the "two-state solution" paradigm, at this juncture, threatens the security and stability of the region.

What is worse, the mistaken paradigm and conceptions regarding Jihadism and the Middle East prevent the emergence of a new strategy. While the pundits and the public continue to debate "the solution," the problem has slipped from their view. The problem is Islamic Jihadism and Palestinian rejectionism towards Israel's most basic rights. Whoever realizes this, realizes also that what is needed is not a solution based on failed paradigms and wishful thinking. What is needed is a long-term strategy based on realistic assumptions culled from experience.

Begin with Changes in Palestinian Political Culture

Let me briefly outline a new strategy for dealing with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. From Oslo to Annapolis, we have consistently engaged in a "top-down strategy." We aimed to reach a political horizon or a final settlement agreement with the Palestinian leadership, hoping that political reform among Palestinians would follow. This approach was based on the mistaken paradigms outlined above, and failed. I propose we replace this approach with a "bottom-up strategy" in which the PA first proves its ability to govern. Real gains in stability and security on the road to peace can then be consolidated through political agreements. Experience teaches that political agreements which precede real changes in Palestinian political culture are useless, or worse.

The process of change in Palestinian society can and should be supported by Israel and the West, but most of the burden will necessarily fall on the Palestinian leadership to assume the responsibilities of good government.

The key to all other reforms is educational reform. During the implementation of the Oslo Accords we were forced to confront a Palestinian educational system designed to inculcate hatred of Israel. It sought in a variety of ways to undermine Israel's right to exist as an independent Jewish state. It took pains to deny every connection between the Jewish people and the Land of Israel, called openly for our annihilation, and promoted terrorism and Jihadism. While the Palestinian leadership was negotiating with Israel, it was educating its young for a war of annihilation. This must change before there is any chance for the Palestinians to reach a final settlement with Israel.

An entire generation of Palestinians has already been educated according to this curriculum. Change will not come quickly. It is clear, however, that demanding Palestinian educational reform is the only path to solving the conflict which will not require Israel to relinquish the idea of a Jewish homeland, and in which Islamic Jihadism will not be unwittingly strengthened.

At the same time, there is no need to wait for the end of this process before dealing with the refugee issue, as is sometimes argued. The refugee issue should, in fact, be dealt with as soon as possible and in parallel to educational reforms in the PA.

The Challenge for the West

The Iranians, the Syrians, and their proxies must be punished by the international community for funding terror and challenging the international order. They have been allowed to nurture international terrorism, develop WMD, and instigate the Second Lebanon War. This would not have been possible without the lack of clarity and determination in confronting them shown beforehand by the international community.

The confrontation between Muslim moderates and extremists around the world crosses borders and threatens societies from within. There is no society in which everyone is a Jihadist. There are always those who prefer democracy and human rights over tyranny, freedom over oppression, and life over death. More and more people in the region are realizing that the culture of Jihad is a culture of death and self-destruction. The West must directly approach and strengthen those elements in order for them to gain the political strength necessary to undertake reforms in education, politics, and the economy.

It is true that this process is likely to be a long one. The challenge for Western leaders is to convince their constituencies that there are no instant solutions, and to educate their publics to patience. Western leaders cannot promise quick solutions and should not be tempted to do so. What they can do is develop a viable strategy.

The struggle against Islamic Jihadism is, in many ways, a contest of wills. As our values and way of life are challenged by Islamic Jihadists, and our legitimacy as a Jewish state is challenged by Arab nationalists, we in Israel must consolidate our belief in our path and its righteousness.

The "solution," when it comes, will be only half our doing. For us, the quest for stability in the Middle East requires moral clarity, vision, and a long-term strategy based on realistic assessments. Ultimately, the long way is the shortest way and I believe the right one which will lead towards a better future for all the peoples of the Middle East and the free world.

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Lt.-Gen. (ret.) Moshe Ya'alon is a former Chief of Staff of the Israel Defense Forces and is a Distinguished Fellow at the Adelson Institute for Strategic Studies at the Shalem Center. This Jerusalem Issue Brief is based on his presentation at the Institute for Contemporary Affairs on June 24, 2008.

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