Getting to the grassroots of the Middle East conflict

By Khaled Diab and Katleen Maes

The new Kadima party’s election victory in Israel looks set to continue the comatose Ariel Sharon’s bid to impose a unilateral solution on the Palestinians. The evacuation of settlements is setting in motion a new and potentially positive dynamic, but continued one-sidedness could cause the situation to slip back into deadlock as usual. Israelis and Palestinians need to recognise that they have no political shepherds to guide them through the valley of the shadow of conflict. Ordinary people must seize the initiative from the political classes who lack the imagination and courage to make peace.


March 2006


Part II: The end of the road for unilateralism?


The Kadima (Forward/Vanguard) Party cruised to victory in a lacklustre election, while the party’s founder, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, lay in a coma – which he slipped into following a massive stroke on 4 January – in Jerusalem’s Hadassa Hospital. The election campaign was led by Sharon’s faithful minion Ehud Olmert, who defected with him from the then ruling Likud Party, which imploded at the ballot box, dealing a major blow to the settler movement.


Olmert, the unpopular former mayor of Jerusalem, has indicated that he will continue Sharon’s legacy. Last year, Sharon – the mastermind behind settlement expansion when he was housing minister – went against the will of many members of his rightwing Likud Party and pulled 8,500 settlers out of the Gaza Strip.


Despite the tears and pain of the settler movement, the decision resonated positively among a significant proportion of Israelis, who oppose settlements for a variety of security, economic and even idealistic reasons. Although Palestinians distrusted the motives of Sharon, whom they regard as a war criminal, most welcomed the move as a good first step.


Partial settlements

As one of the authors of the current article hypothesised in her 2003 thesis[1], settlements have the unique quality of being both one of the major stumbling blocks – alongside the status of Jerusalem and the right of return for Palestinian refugees and diaspora Palestinians – on the path to peace, while being unpopular amongst both Palestinians and Israelis. This means that uprooting some of them can only help to alleviate tension between the two parties and has the potential of being a good confidence builders.


Researched and written at the height of the second intifada – which began in 2000 – the thesis found that the best way out of the deadlock was “experimental, unilateral initiative taking”. The research suggested that there was a groundswell of support among Palestinians and Israelis for the idea not only of a settlement freeze but the immediate dismantling of certain troublesome settlements and the removal of ideological settlers, particularly those living in settlement outposts.


Such a gesture would play well amongst Palestinians who are fundamentally opposed to Israel’s settlements, which are illegal under international law and regarded by Palestinians as creating ‘realities on the ground’. Any Israeli pullout would suggest Israeli seriousness about the prospects of a Palestinian state.


For Israelis, their objections are much more varied. The leftwing peace movement is opposed to settlements on legal and idealistic grounds, i.e. that they are illegal under international law, require an oppressive occupation to maintain them and tarnish Israel’s image abroad. Progressive thinkers also have an instinctive distrust of fundamentalist settlers. For mainstream Israelis, their objections often revolve around the economic, human and security costs of the occupation, although many ordinary Israelis are also perturbed by the sway over their secular-leaning country held by the ultra-orthodox wing of the settler movement.


Given the bitterness of the situation, the thesis argued that: “The reasons for any party to take action would be mainly selfish, with the objective of preventing further harm to its own civilians. At the same time, the action should also be in the interest of the other side, in order to reduce the tension.”


Israel, being in the more powerful position, and with more cards to play, needed to make a clear gesture. The Israelis and Palestinians interviewed largely agreed that the “easiest option, and hence the most realistic one, would be to pull out the settlers in Gaza”.


The value of selfish pragmatism

Ariel Sharon did not shed his fervent nationalist skin overnight and metamorphose into a peacenik. He just awoke to the realisation that his strategic vision was failing. It had consisted of “dismantling the legacy of Labour: reversing the results of the Oslo process and reasserting Israel’s control over the occupied Palestinian territories, and reshaping the Israeli economy according to an extreme neo-liberal model”, according to Yoav Peled, a political science professor at Tel Aviv University.


All his militaristic attempts to crush the second intifada – which he helped spark by visiting the al-Aqsa Mosque complex in September 2000 with hundreds of soldiers – and reoccupy the Palestinian territories ultimately failed and the cycle of violence continued unabated. He also failed to distribute the fruits of Israel’s impressive economic growth equitably, not to mention the dismal humanitarian and economic situation in the Palestinian territories, where 30% of people are unemployed and nearly half of the population lives under the poverty line on less than $2 per day, according to the World Bank.


The Israeli wealth gap has widened so much that, according to Peled, 30% of economic income accrued to the top 10% of the population. Israel now resembles the stark socio-economic contrasts of its main sponsor, the United States, rather than the more socialist European ideals upon which it was founded.


Faced with his failure to deliver physical or economic security, the desperate premier – whose son was embroiled in corruption allegations – went against his natural instinct and borrowed two policy ideas originally thought up by Labour politicians: evacuating Gaza and building the separation wall.


“Sharon’s policy was not intended to make peace or even resume negotiations with the Palestinians. It was intended simply to make Israel’s occupation of Palestinian lands more economical, in terms of Jewish blood and money,” noted Peled.


Kadima’s manifesto confirms that Sharon did not change his stripes, he just become more pragmatic. It asserts that Jews have “national and historic right to the Land of Israel in its entirety”. However, in a reality check, it begrudgingly concedes that: “The balance between allowing Jews to fulfil their historic right... and maintaining the continued existence of Israel as the national Jewish home necessitates territorial compromise.”


Thus, although the Gaza pullout was motivated primarily by self-interest, the by-product for the Palestinian side was also positive.


The short-term virtue of dancing to your own tune

Kadima has been crowned to lead an Israeli coalition government, while a party set up by Hamas is leading the new coalition governing the dysfunctional and weak Palestinian Authority. With each party dancing in isolation to its own tune, there is potential, in the short term, either for mutually beneficial or mutually detrimental unilateralism. If Israel keeps up its counterproductive economic stranglehold on the Palestinians, this could force Hamas’s hand, leading the Islamist party to start talking and acting tougher. It would then re-spark the vicious cycle of violence and counter-violence, recrimination and counter-recrimination.


Alternatively, if Israel agrees to unfreeze Palestinian tax receipts and begins to deliver more evacuations, this could breed a virtuous cycle of unilateral goodwill gestures. Hamas has indicated its willingness to play this game. As hard-headed and nationalistic as Israel’s own religious parties and the Likud, Hamas has toned down its position since it won the election. Immediately after its victory, it said it was willing to call an indefinite truce, if Israel pulls back to its 1967 borders. “We can accept to establish our independent state on the area occupied [in] 1967,” Mahmoud al-Zahar, a top Hamas official and one of its last surviving founders, told CNN.


Ismail Haniyeh, the new Palestinian prime minister and leading Hamas leader, said encouragingly: “We don’t want a whirlpool of blood in this region. We want the rights and dignity of our people. We also want to put an end to this complicated conflict that has been going on for decades… Hamas’s presence in power marks the beginning of resolving the crisis.”


This announcement caused something of a stir in some circles. “This is the first time a Hamas leader has spoken about the possibility of ending the conflict with Israel,” wrote Gershon Baskin, the Israeli co-director of the Israel-Palestine Centre for Research and Information, in the Jerusalem Post. “It raises serious questions regarding the wisdom of Israel’s policy of unilateralism.”


Part II: The end of the road for unilateralism?



ă2006 K. Diab. Unless otherwise stated, all the content on this website is the copyright of Khaled Diab.

[1] Talking settlements – reviving the Israeli-Palestinian will for peace by Katleen Maes, 2003, Katholieke Universiteit van Leuven.