Clueless In Gaza

By Terrell E. Arnold
Since the death of Yassir Arafat--Uri Avnery of Gush Shalom thinks by poisoning--the Middle East peace process has been on a dual track. One track is apparent motion toward progress. The other is real movement toward chaos. Reading the signs of these two concurrent motions is sometimes like interpreting tea leaves, but recent events reveal a hardening reality.
Ariel Sharon added a strange warp to the situation with his address to the United Nations General Assembly on Wednesday. Not generally well-received there, this time he spellbound his audience. "The Palestinians", he said, "will always be our neighbors. We respect them and don't aspire to rule over them. They also deserve freedom and a sovereign national entity in their own country." All of those widely held truths came from the man who has done more than any other individual Israeli to liquidate or dispossess and expel the Palestinian people from Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza. Reflecting the amazement generated by this pronouncement, hardly any delegation walked out except Iran.
Reactions to this bombshell were all over the map. Benjamin Netanyahu, who sees himself as Sharon's successor, accused Sharon of totally abandoning his "roots". Sharon was further accused of moving to the extreme left and joining the peace camp. But Palestinians saw nothing of substance in the statement, and subsequent events surely prove them right.
In a statement hardly more than travel time and distance away from his UN address, Sharon reportedly told an academic group in northern Israel that he rejected Israeli withdrawal to the 1967 borders--the so-called "green line"; he rejected the idea of any Palestinian capital in East Jerusalem; and he opposed any right of return for Palestinians. Sharon also said that his position was accepted by the United States. Last year George W. Bush wrote a politically well-timed letter to that effect to Sharon. The letter was blessed by a Congressional resolution.
Meanwhile, Mahmoud Abbas and the Palestine Authority are moving toward an election to be held early next year, and they are struggling to tame their extremists: Hamas, the al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, Palestine Islamic Jihad and three or four other groups. The Authority has three choices:
(1) Leave them as spoilers outside the peace process and cope with the effects of their violence against the Israelis;
(2) Encourage them to put down their guns and join the political process; or
(3) Eliminate or neutralize them.
Sharon and Israel's Likud, as well as others concerned about suicide bombers and stray missiles, have made any peace agreement contingent on shutting down the violence. While Israelis generally have not dictated to the Palestinians how they should do that, Likud leaders have always pursued solution number three.
Any realistic observer of the Middle East situation knows that the first solution is not tolerable, and the third is not doable so long as the Israelis continue to persecute the Palestinian people. That leaves the middle ground, and that is where Mahmoud Abbas and his team have been trying to move the outcome, with the upcoming January 2006 election as the first opportunity to bring the extremists in from the cold.
The task is not simple. None of these groups trusts either the Israelis or the United States. Some of them have numerous problems, e.g., arrests of group members, incompetence, and corruption, within the Palestine Authority.
Further complicating this landscape, reportedly Israelis fear that if Hamas were to field candidates they could garner 40% of the vote in Gaza and perhaps the West Bank. Such a vote would demonstrate that there remains great nervousness and/or strong opposition among Palestinians to any peace deal so far offered. The kinds of proposals that have been floated in the past by the Israelis and blessed more or less automatically by the United States and others simply have no standing with these groups. Nor do those proposals stand up in the face of growing Israeli settlements and the intrusive wall in the West Bank, despite the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza. Sharon's recent statements to academics cited above can only harden such objections.
Sharon himself seems bent on making the cheese more binding. According to The New York Times, Sharon met with journalists in New York on Friday and took a categorical position. If Hamas fields candidates, Sharon said "we will make every effort not to help them." He then cited actual obstructions to any Palestinian election by suggesting that roadblocks and checkpoints would not be removed, thereby actively interfering with the vote. With these statements, Sharon has made crystal clear what was obvious in the last election: Elections in Palestine are fine, so long as the candidates are approved by the Israelis, and of course by the United States.
As reported in The New York Times, a spokesman for the US National Security Council went even further. He declared that "Hamas is a terrorist group" which is actually not in dispute, although insurgent group appears more accurate; he then reiterated the long-standing US position against talking to terrorists but added a twist: "We will not talk to any elected officials who are members of a terrorist group." With that in mind, one can muse over the number of former Stern, Irgun or Haganah terrorists who have been elected to public office and received at the White House, including Sharon, Begin and Shamir, all of whom appear to have remained barely reconstructed.
It is obvious that Mahmoud Abbas and the Palestinian Authority cannot move forward without the insurgents in the van. They must somehow be brought on board or no Palestinian government and certainly no peace agreement with Israel will be stable, even if it were possible. The Palestinians already knew that candidate selection in the previous election was rigged. Had it not been, the most likely candidate, Marwan Barghouti, a former leader of the al Aqsa group who continues to reside in an Israeli prison, may well have won hands down. But he and al Aqsa, like Hamas and the other groups, stand on the wrong side. He and they are simply not likely to accept the slippery and substantively deferred kinds of promises they have heard before.
The tragedy is that the Israelis and the United States are forcing the Palestinian leadership situation into its worst possible form. That assures some pattern of continuing attacks against Israel, sustains a continuing Israeli occupation in the West Bank, and makes it likely that peace simply is not attainable. It has been said that Sharon needs the Palestinian terrorism to keep his game going. That may not be literally true, but he certainly has been working hard this week to make it so. This has to be deliberate, or we must assume that both Sharon and the Bush team are wandering clueless in Gaza.
The writer is a retired Senior Foreign Service Officer and former Chairman of the Department of International Studies of the National War College. He is a frequent contributor to He will welcome comments at



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