Israel Report

NovDec 2003         

Concessions Don't Help

By Barry Rubin - December 9, 2003
There are seemingly endless meetings, speeches, and ceremonies aimed at solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But underneath it all, nothing changes. Why this is so can be understood in terms of two disproved propositions:
Israel must keep offering the Palestinians more until they accept a deal. This is the only way to achieve peace.

If Israel keeps offering more concessions it will win international support and sympathy.

Both these ideas seem logical. This is how international relations often works and conflicts are resolved. And this set of ideas was the basis for the Oslo peace process. Moreover, this approach has basically governed Israeli policy during the last decade.

The problem is: In this specific case the formula does not work. On the contrary, it is road map for disaster. Several thousand people have died partly because of a well-intended but misconceived acceptance of the concessions strategy.

This is not a matter of ideology or Left and Right. Comprehending the situation is a matter of analysis, experience, and observation. We must put aside our preferences and wishful thinking in order to see the reality that is all too apparent.

The propositions of concessions and international sympathy might hold true if the sole Palestinian grievance were Israeli rule over the West Bank, Gaza Strip and east Jerusalem since 1967, and their sole goal were to gain an independent state in which Palestinians can prosper and live in peace.

Unfortunately, this is not the case.

Things would probably be different if there were a Palestinian leadership which educated its people toward more moderate goals and was ready to fight extremists. The current leadership, however, presses a hard line; schools, media, mosques, and the overwhelming majority of political organizations all push against moderation.

I have joked that if Israel were to offer Yasser Arafat all the West Bank, Gaza Strip, and east Jerusalem (plus billions of dollars in compensation money), his response would be, "OK, now let's talk about the return of all refugees."

The affair of the so-called Geneva Accord has proven this jest to be an accurate assessment of the situation.

A central problem is that Arafat is not a nationalist whose appetite would be assuaged by the creation of a state. He cares nothing for the kind of social, educational, economic, and other systems he could put in place as leader of a country. Palestinian living standards and welfare are a matter of indifference for him.

Arafat is basically a combination of old-fashioned Islamist, who believes that God is on his side and that compromise is sinful, and romantic revolutionary, who does not want the battle to end and would view its termination as a betrayal of everything he stands for.

While there are many moderate Palestinian elements they do not affect policy.

What has instead happened is that the Palestinian appetite grows with the feeding. The more Israel offers, the more Palestinians demand.

Experience has taught the Palestinian leadership that as it refuses compromise, Israelis who claim to speak for Israel offer more concessions.

There is also a psychological and ideological gap regarding the implications of continued concessions. In the West, moderation and generosity are taken as proofs that one truly wants to settle a dispute; in the Middle East they are taken as signs of weakness and of knowing that one's cause is unjust.

Yet even in the West, the strategy of giving more and more concessions has been taken as proof that Israel is at fault and the occupation (along with settlements, the fence, and so on) is the central problem in the conflict.

INSTEAD, OF course, the central problem is a Palestinian refusal to settle for anything but everything, either immediately or in stages. The use of terrorism as the main strategy of the Palestinian movement (and of the sponsoring Arab states) both reflects and deepens the problem.

I do not write these words lightly. This is the result not of a predetermined ideology but rather of experience, along with a careful reading of what is actually said and done by the Palestinian leadership and opinion-makers.

These are not people whom Israel will persuade by concessions.

Ironic and controversial as it may be, it is nonetheless true that Israelis are more eager to withdraw from the territories and to see an independent Palestinian state established - as long as it has the prospects of being stable and peaceful - than is the Palestinian leadership.

This is neither a colonial problem nor the mere result of an oppressive occupation. It is an ideological issue on the Arab side, one of how the conflict is defined and the methods deemed worthy of pursuing it.

By continuing to insist that the problem is that Israel has not offered enough, Israelis do not prove their goodwill but rather seem to suggest that they are the guilty party. This is also part of the reason for the world's hostility.

These unfamiliar concepts for the West should be becoming more familiar from having to deal with such Middle Eastern phenomena as the Iranian revolution, Saddam Hussein, Osama bin Laden, and radical Islamism.

Previous generations supposedly learned such lessons in dealing with fascism and communism: Not everyone is a pragmatist eager for conciliation with those who prove their good intentions, willingness to make concessions, and kind natures.

These are hard words to say, but they are needed to explain why this conflict has gone on for endless decades, bred so much hate, and cost so many lives.

The writer is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center of the Interdisciplinary Center, and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal.

©2003 - Jerusalem Post

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