The Economist published a letter by American Jewish Committee Executive Director David A. Harris regarding its August 9th editorial on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The editorial is pasted below David’s letter.
A modest ambition, August 11, 2007
In your leader, you assert, speaking of the prospects of Israeli-Palestinian conflict resolution, that “the flaw of the interminable peace process has long been that word ‘process.’ For the past 20 years, as Israeli settlements have continued to spread in the West Bank, Palestinians have come to see negotiations as all process and no destination.”
In other words, you place the entire onus of responsibility at Israel’s doorstep. How convenient! There is only one problem: The facts belie the contention.
First, the leader ignores Israel’s peacemaking efforts over the past two decades, indeed over the past seven decades, dating back to the British-led Peel Commission and its recommendation of partition of Mandatory Palestine, a proposal accepted by the Jews and rejected by the Arabs. Or, more recently, the efforts of Prime Minister Ehud Barak and American President Bill Clinton to offer a two-state deal to a duplicitous Chairman Yassir Arafat that included, among other far-reaching proposals, the shared capital in Jerusalem that you call for. Or the subsequent support by Barak’s successors for a two-state deal and the tangible gestures that have accompanied the language.
Secondly, the leader largely overlooks any Palestinian responsibility for the failure to achieve a peaceful settlement. There is a certain condescension, if not infantilisation of the Palestinians in such an approach. Palestinian rejectionism, corruption, terrorism, and incitement are essentially missing from the equation. To skip over them is to let the Palestinians off the hook for their predicament and does a disservice to the historical record.
Will the new situation on the ground create a chance for Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and President Mahmoud Abbas to achieve progress on the West Bank? Possibly. Both leaders, commendably, are determined to try. But their efforts would be better assisted if emphasis were placed on the responsibilities of both sides, and not just one.
David A. Harris
Executive Director, American Jewish Committee
A modest ambition
August 9, 2007
From The Economist
What George Bush should do for the Palestinians in the final phase of his presidency
On the principle of better late than never, the energy that George Bush and his secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, have at last started to devote to peacemaking in Palestine is welcome. After Ms Rice’s tour of the region last week comes talk of a peace conference in America in the autumn. The Americans have just promised more economic help for Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president. And this week Ehud Olmert, Israel’s prime minister, made a rare trip to Jericho, inside the West Bank, to talk to Mr Abbas about “the establishment of a Palestinian state…as soon as possible”.
Do not expect the man on the Ramallah omnibus to rejoice just yet. Conditions have seldom looked less ripe for peace. Both sides’ leaders are fragile and risk averse. Two months ago the Palestinian leadership snapped in half, with Hamas kicking its Fatah rivals out of the Gaza Strip and Fatah’s Mr Abbas refusing to have anything to do with “those murderers”. Mr Olmert is at least the prime minister of a functioning government, but thanks to his mishandling of last summer’s Lebanon war he is one of the least popular in Israel’s memory. That war also buried the big idea-unilateral withdrawal-on which the new Kadima party he inherited from Ariel Sharon was elected. Israelis have since learned in Gaza and Lebanon that when they pull out of occupied territory without a peace deal rockets and fighters pursue them across the border.
Having evacuated all of the Gaza Strip, and with unilateral withdrawal no longer acceptable to its voters, Israel’s only remaining option, apart from sitting still, is to negotiate an agreement with Mr Abbas under which it can leave the West Bank and so make room for the independent Palestine that Mr Olmert claims to be impatient to establish. At first glance, this might look easier now that the rejectionists of Hamas have been booted out of the Palestinian Authority, leaving negotiations with Israel in the newly unfettered hands of the moderate Mr Abbas. The truth, as Mr Bush and Ms Rice, as well as Mr Olmert and Mr Abbas, certainly know, is starkly different.
Hamas may be subject to an international diplomatic boycott but it is not out of the picture. No peace deal has much chance of being brokered, let alone of lasting, without its consent. Hamas won last year’s legislative elections and remains popular not only in Gaza but also in the West Bank. Nothing in the career of the timorous Mr Abbas suggests that he would dare to make a final deal with Israel that Hamas opposed. Even if he did, Hamas could swiftly sabotage any such peace by mounting violent attacks against Israel or against him.
So long as Hamas remains excluded, expectations of what is achievable at Mr Bush’s autumn meeting had therefore better be modest. And, behind all the speechifying, it seems that they are. The Americans are hoping to coax Mr Olmert and Mr Abbas into some sort of declaration of principles setting out what a two-state solution might look like. They then want the rest of the world, notably including the Arab states, to throw its weight behind the declaration too. Saudi Arabia has hinted that it might participate-provided the meeting had real substance and was not just a photo opportunity designed to help America boost its reputation in its jostle with Iran.
This modest aim may be the most that Mr Bush can realistically have in his presidency’s final year and a half. The flaw of the interminable peace process has long been that word “process”. For the past 20 years, as Israeli settlements have continued to spread in the West Bank, Palestinians have come to see negotiations as all process and no destination. By forcing Mr Olmert to give Mr Abbas a clear promise of what and where an independent Palestine will be, the Americans and their Arab partners may be able to restore a modicum of Palestinian enthusiasm. This means writing down some detail on borders (Mr Olmert was reported this week to be offering to leave 90% of the West Bank), refugees and Jerusalem. Since no Israeli prime minister will ever accept the right that Palestinian refugees claim to return to homes now in Israel, Mr Olmert will have to compensate by offering a shared capital in Jerusalem. That would be hellishly controversial in Israel but would play well with the Arab states, and especially the Saudis.
Words and deeds
There may be gestures, too, such as the evacuation of some Israeli outposts. But in the end, a declaration of principles is just a declaration. No grand bargain will be implemented against Hamas’s will. Nor, paradoxically, could such a deal be negotiated with Hamas on board-not, at least, while it continues to reject the very principle of permanent peace with Israel.
While Hamas is excluded, the world should avoid the temptation to punish the Palestinians of Gaza economically for their leaders’ obduracy (see article). At some point, however, Mr Abbas needs to win Hamas over to an historic compromise with the Jewish state. That will be hard. But it will be a lot easier if America, Israel and the Arab states have endorsed a set of detailed principles showing the Palestinians that they can then expect an independent state worthy of the name.