Shimon Peres famously remarked at the outset of the Oslo process that the entire enterprise depended on a leap of faith: the belief that Yasser Arafat had changed his spots and would actively fight Palestinian terror. That leap of faith turned out to be a jump off the cliff.
Today a similar euphoria has seized large segments of the Israeli population and the world community in the wake of Arafat’s death and in anticipation of the Gaza withdrawal. Once again difficult questions are being avoided with a leap of faith, sometimes in ways eerily reminiscent of Oslo.
At the outset of Oslo, for instance, Israel armed 9,000 Palestinian security personnel. Eventually that force grew to 40,000, the largest police force per capita in the world. By 1996, with the opening of the Temple Wall Tunnel, the guns of Palestinian security personnel were trained on Israeli soldiers and civilians. The current four years of warfare began with a Palestinian policeman shooting in the head his Israeli counterpart, with whom he was on a joint patrol. And members of the Palestinian security forces have participated in a very high percentage of the terrorist attacks since then.
Despite this dismal history, the Gaza withdrawal proposal once again calls for the training of a Palestinian security force. The British, who are to oversee much of the training, have already said that they will not vet those who are being trained, and the plan is to incorporate into the framework of the official Palestinian security forces private militias, like the Al Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigade, which has vowed to continue its attacks on Israel.
Once again Israeli security concerns are being given short-shrift by the international community. The World Bank recently unveiled a $4.5 billion aid program for Gaza after the Israeli withdrawal. (The Palestinians have already received far more aid per capita than any people in the world, but most of that went to line Arafat’s coffers.) The World Bank’s optimistic economic assumptions are all predicated on the assumption that Israeli security restrictions on land, sea, and air movement in Gaza and along the border with Israel will be removed. Given the potential for smuggling more lethal weapons into Gaza, which would threaten some of Israel’s major cities and ports, that supposition seems far-fetched at best.
Egypt’s release of long-time Israeli prisoner Azzam Azzam and various purrings coming from Gaza have convinced many in Israel that Egypt can be trusted to patrol the Egyptian-Gaza border, including the Philadelphia Corridor. Prime Minister Sharon himself was prepared from the beginning to leave the Philadelphia Corridor, and only abandoned that idea under pressure from the security echelons. Meanwhile the Justice Ministry has strongly urged withdrawal from the Philadelphia Corridor in order that the international community no longer hold Israel responsible for the fate of the Gaza Palestinians.
Egyptian or international patrols may, however, prove a slender reed of protection. Even the most highly motivated and dedicated force will have great difficulty detecting and destroying every underground tunnel through which weapons are smuggled, as Hamas’s recent success tunneling under an IDF guard tower, over a period of months, and detonating a massive bomb, which killed five Israeli soldiers, demonstrates. And, as Evelyn Gordon has pointed out, Egypt’s past record shows no inclination to interdict smuggling into Gaza. While Jordan has effectively sealed its 400-kilometer border, Egypt has completely failed to slow down the flow of contraband along its 13-kilometer border.
In addition, Hebrew University professor Emmanuel Sivan argues that the positive signals from Cairo are more for American than Israeli consumption. After very publicly dissing President Bush’s Middle East democracy initiative, Mubarak wants to show the Americans that Egypt can still play a major role in the disengagement process in order to justify the more than $2 billion in annual aid from the United States.
Most ominously, from Israel’s point of view, are those voices in the international community arguing that with Arafat dead and the Palestinians about to elect a prime minister the stage is set for the resumption of direct peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians.
The significance of Arafat’s belated death and of the upcoming elections, however, is grossly overstated. Since the signing of the Oslo Accords, the Palestinians were whipped into paroxysms of hatred. Palestinian society needs a long period of detoxification to purge it of the poisons of the last 12 years. Dismantling of the refugee camps, which have been maintained for over fifty years to provide a steady source of terrorists against Israel, would be a good place to start.
No one is more associated with the idea that only a democratic Palestinian entity can ever be expected to live in peace with Israel than Natan Sharansky. Yet in his new book The Case for Democracy: the Power of Freedom to Overcome Tyranny and Terror, he argues forcefully that elections must come at the end of a process of democratic development not at the beginning.
The bright line dividing the world between free societies and fear societies for Sharansky is not elections, but the ability of each citizen to proclaim his views in the town square "without fear of arrest, imprisonment, or physical harm." Without that freedom, elections are likely to repeat the pattern "one man, one vote, one time." As Sharansky puts it in his epigrammatic style: "One can rely on a free society to create a moderate, but one cannot rely on the moderate to create a free society."
It took four years, Sharansky points out, before post-War West Germany was prepared for elections, and there is little reason to envision a shorter time span for the Palestinian Authority. Until free speech and a free press develop, elections are pointless because "they will be held in an environment of fear and intimidation. [T]hose elected in that type of environment will have absolutely no interest in reform."
The current Palestinian election campaign has done nothing to belie Sharansky’s gloomy predictions. Those elections are being conducted in an atmosphere full of fear. The New York Sun reports that voters are afraid even to be seen with the campaign material of any candidate other than Mahmoud Abbas, Fatah’s hand-picked candidate and the presumptive winner of the January 9 election.
Abbas, aka Abu Mazzan, has wrapped himself in Arafat’s mantle, and promised not to compromise on the Palestinian "right of return," on full Israeli withdrawal to the 1949 Armistice Lines, on Palestinian sovereignty over the Temple Mount, or on Jerusalem as the Palestinian capital.
Most tellingly, Abbas has said that he will never turn Palestinian guns against any of the terror groups. He has not forgotten the shots fired in his direction at Arafat’s mourning tent, one of which killed a bodyguard, and has actively courted the armed militias. On a campaign stop in Jenin, Abbas was hoisted onto the shoulders of Zakaria Zubeidi, leader of the local cell of the Al Aksa Martyrs’ Brigades, which have pledged to continue attacks on Israel. In short, power in the Palestinian Authority continues to reside at the end of a gun.
The significance of Abbas’s campaign statements will be downplayed on the grounds that he must say these things to be elected. In a similar vein, the international community urged Israel, throughout the Oslo process, to show "understanding" of Arafat’s repeated failures to keep his promises to reign in terror and incitement. Insistence on compliance would only weaken Arafat and endanger his life, Israeli leaders were told.
How a process based on avoiding any steps towards peace could hope to achieve peace no one ever bothered to explain. And similarly today, so long as uncompromising hatred towards Israel is necessary to be elected by Palestinian voters, there will be no peace.