Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” How many times have you heard that one, seriously? If there is a list out there of the top-ten-most abused quotes in history, this one by Spanish essayist George Santayana would certainly rank near the top. While I am a bit hesitant to use it here, I have raked my brain for the past several hours to find anything else that could better contextualize contemporary movements towards an Palestinian-Israeli peace. It has been a vain attempt.
Like most Americans, I continue to hope that the Annapolis meetings between Mahmoud Abbas, Chairman of the Palestinian Authority, and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert will succeed in charting a course towards peace. What troubles me, however, is the persistence of a seeming gap between high-level policy rhetoric and the situation on the ground in both the West Bank and Gaza. This point was driven home this past week when I attended a lecture at the Wilson School by Sallai Meridor, the current Israeli ambassador to the United States.
In no uncertain terms, Ambassador Meridor made clear that the Israeli government was ready to intensify its disengagement efforts–that is, removing Israeli settlers from the West Bank and Gaza, a policy that dates back to the administration of former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. When the policy was announced in 2005 it drew virulent criticism from former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other members of the Likud party in the Israeli Knesset. For Netanyahu and others, this move constituted a significant betrayal by the Israeli government of its responsibility to protect both the territorial integrity and security of the Israeli state. Netanyahu feared that allotting the Palestinians territory in the disengaged zones would be tantamount to providing them with a base within Israeli territory from which to launch future terror attacks.
To his credit, Meridor himself admitted that the idea of sectioning off Israeli territory is a difficult concept to accept for many Israelis. And as Meridor himself admitted, the frank reality remains that, absent a serious dialogue about the creation of an independent Palestinian state, the Israeli and Palestinian governments can do little by way of ensuring a stable peace for future generations. What I found missing from Ambassador Meridor’s speech, however, was any discussion about the challenges that both the Israeli and Palestinian governments will encounter once, if ever, it comes time to put a peace accord into action.
For the Israelis there is a certain political time frame in which to act. Recent international polling data suggests that. were the Israeli parliamentary election to be held today, a coalition led by Netenyahu’s Likud party would win a majority of seats within the Knesset. This would inevitably spell the end of Olmert’s disengagement strategy, thus significantly reshuffling the rules of diplomacy between Israel and Fatah. Furthermore, the very logistics of moving thousands of settlers will also require that the Israelis provide a more exacting time frame for disengagement, and would of course take its own political toll during the closing days of the Olmert government.
While it may be too early to talk about the logistics of peace from an Israeli perspective, the relative silence on all fronts regarding the inability of Fatah to live up to the terms of a peace agreement should be of great concern. Put quite simply, Fatah may not be the best people to be dealing with. While the United States and the European Union have recognized Mahmoud Abbas as leader of the Palestinian Authority, the reality on the ground suggests that he may be ill-prepared to live up to the terms of a peace agreement. Among Palestinians, Fatah has largely come to be viewed as corrupt and ineffective, and largely incapable of conducting substantial reform. Furthermore, beyond matters of public perception, Fatah members no longer hold a majority of seats within the Palestinian National Assembly; many have swung to the political wing of the Islamist group Hamas. As such, Abbas is not in a position to effectively fight terrorism, which is the chief obstacle to peace. If Israeli forces withdraw from the West Bank, there is a considerable risk that Abbas and his Fatah followers would be defeated by Hamas, as they were in Gaza.
Raising questions about Abbas’ ability to enact a peace accord would however be tantamount to granting Hamas legitimacy as a player in the Palestinian-Israeli peace process, something that neither Israel nor the United States is willing to do any time soon. So, as has been the case so many times before, the global community again finds itself at an impasse in terms of reaching a peaceful solution in Palestine. While we can all hope for the best, the reality on the ground suggests that it may yet be a while before a lasting peace is achieved.