Israel Report

February 2003         

In Palestinian Hands

February 3, 2003
It has been widely noted that the Labor Party has no idea why it was so soundly defeated, again, at the ballot box. But there is another party that seems equally impervious to the messages being sent by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and the Israeli majority: the Palestinians.

The Palestinians could not vote, of course, but there could hardly have been a more intimate participant in this election. Sharon would not have had a prayer of being elected in 2001 if the Palestinians had not refused Israel's offer at Camp David and launched their deadly offensive in late 2000. It is also hard to imagine Sharon sailing to reelection absent the terror campaign that has continued now for more than two years.

Before the election, the Palestinians could not contain their support for Labor candidate Amram Mitzna. As Yasser Arafat's close advisor, Muhammad Dahlan put it, "Since [Yitzhak] Rabin's murder, there has not been a leader as courageous as he. If he is elected, there will be a peace agreement within a year." Translation: We are ready to accept your surrender at any time; it is what we have been waiting for.

Arafat himself, who reportedly called Sharon "the last bullet in the barrel of the Israeli rifle," stumped for Mitzna with a last-minute call for a cease-fire.

But things did not go according to plan. Instead of blaming the worst year of terrorism on Sharon, and demanding to sue for peace, the Israeli electorate felt that the only thing worse than the failure to crush terrorism was to give in to it. What did the Palestinians make of this?

Palestinian spin-meister Saeb Erekat claimed the election shows that "Israelis are preparing themselves for more violence and escalation, not for a peace process." "The election did not open a road to hope; we are going in the direction of fire," said Dahlan, in a similar vein.

"The Israeli people have not understood that the policy of force will not bring security, and elected Sharon yet again. We have no choice but to continue the intifada," said Hussein a-Sheikh, a Fatah official. Not to be out done, ubiquitous Hamas spokesman Abdel Aziz Rantisi claimed, "The new government will strengthen the path of jihad and warfare."

Now it could well be that all of this is bluster, and that the real Palestinian conclusion from Sharon's reelection is the mirror image of what they are saying, namely that force will not produce Israeli concessions.

The Palestinians radicals further know, whether they admit it to themselves or not, that if Saddam Hussein is ousted in Iraq they will have lost one of their most powerful political and financial backers.

But even if there is a realization at some level that the terror war has reached a dead end, a fair distance remains between that understanding and actual reality. The irony is that if Palestinians were half as forthcoming as Israelis have tried to be, especially during the period of Ehud Barak, the pressure on Israel to make concessions both internal and external would be enormous.

The Palestinians, it seems, are still living in the 1950s, when no one recognized them as a people, let alone contemplated giving them a state. At that time, perhaps it was arguable that only force would get the world's attention, and that Israel only responded to force.

Even then this was not really true, and the Egypt-Israeli peace treaty was proof, if any were needed, that even supposedly hard-line Israeli leaders would deliver the world in exchange for a sincere offer of peace.

Back in the late 1970s, when Israel had elected Menachem Begin, its first Likud leader and even Labor leaders were no pushovers the Palestinians might have been excused for thinking they had no partner on the Israeli side. But how can they argue this today, when former right-wing icon Ariel Sharon is defending the possibility of Palestinian statehood within the Likud?

Since the election, the case that Sharon is serious about keeping the door to negotiations open has only strengthened. The only governing coalition that he has ruled out, even at the price of going to a new election, is one that relies on right-wing parties that reject a Palestinian state under any circumstances.

At the same time as Sharon is shunning the right-wing, he has been chasing after Labor, knowing that being dependent on it might well entail compromises on both the military and diplomatic fronts. Again, is this a leader who is running away from the diplomatic horizon?

The good news for the Palestinians is that a peace deal is theirs for the asking. All they have to do is stop attacking us, and do so in a way that convinces Israelis that they are not just pausing to reload, but have made a strategic choice for peace. This entails changing their current leadership, but that too can only benefit the Palestinian people.

©2003 - Jerusalem Post

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