Israel Report

July/August 2003         

Pragmatism's Pitfalls

July 21, 2003
What is the difference between Oslo and the road map? No, this is not the beginning of a new joke, though sometimes we might wish it were. There are indeed some important structural differences between the two, but in the main, the latter tries to pick up where the former left off.

The real difference, we are told by Israeli and American officials, is not so much in the recipe but in the cooks. George W. Bush and Ariel Sharon are not Bill Clinton and Ehud Barak (or his Labor predecessors). The difference between Oslo and the road map, presumably, is that this time Bush and Sharon mean it when they say that terrorism must stop and its infrastructure dismantled.

A major mistake of the Oslo era, even its proponents agree, was to take Palestinian violations of the agreement too lightly. In particular, it is now widely seen to have been a mistake that the Palestinians were not pressed to end incitement and to confiscate illegal weapons, as required by multiple Oslo-era agreements.

It is in this context that we are feeling a disturbing sense of deja vu. In the first years after the famous handshake on the White House lawn, we were told that Yasser Arafat cannot be expected to end what was termed "rhetoric" for the masses, that we should not be concerned that the Palestinian Authority had more than double the "police" permitted, and that he did not use them to shut down terrorist groups. We were told, in effect, that Arafat was too weak to implement the agreement he had signed.

Now the US is admitting that the Palestinians are not dismantling the terrorist infrastructure. There have been no significant arrests or confiscation of weapons, and both PA leaders and Hamas say there will not be. The terrorists are regrouping, not disbanding.

There is not even a significant reduction in incitement from the PA-controlled media, including the glorification of suicide bombers. On Thursday, for example, Al-Ayyam took the trouble to note the graduation of 100 girls from a summer camp "named after the Shahida [female suicide bomber] Wafa Idris" near Kalkilya.

The Palestinians, as in the past, have started making extraneous demands before implementing what they have just agreed to, in this case for the release of prisoners. The US, as in the past, is reflexively parroting these demands regardless of what the current framework, the road map, says, under the rubric of "helping Mahmoud Abbas." Actually, it does not "help Abbas" or anyone else to play into excuses for inaction and violation of commitments. The Palestinian Authority, not surprisingly from its perspective, will implement as little as possible and demand as much as possible.

There is no natural limit to the demands, nor minimum level of implementation - both are defined by what the US and Israel will tolerate.

US officials say they are simply pressing both sides to fulfill their commitments. How is Israel committed to prisoner releases when the subject does not appear in the road map? Sharon committed to Bush at Aqaba to release prisoners, we are told.

Once again, we see that what is on paper is worthless and what matters is what the Palestinians are demanding at a particular moment. The "street" wants prisoners, so the street must be appeased. We want to help Abbas, don't we? We don't want Hamas, do we? And so it goes.

Attempts to stand on principle, fairness, or logic are brushed aside in favor of the supreme guide: pragmatism. But here's the rub - tossing principles aside in this manner is not pragmatic, but a sure path to failure.

The United States should not be pressuring Israel to release prisoners, because there is no limit to the Palestinian appetite for more releases. Thus raising expectations and attempting to fulfill them is an endless process.

So is the process of raising other extraneous demands, such as halting construction of the security fence. Why should Palestinians stop raising such demands if the US dutifully places them on Israel's doorstep?

The responsibility here is not all on the American side. It is unfortunate that the Bush administration is repeating the mistakes of its predecessor, but it is ultimately in Israel's hands to persuade the US to behave otherwise. It is a mistake for the US to simply press the party that seems most flexible, regardless of merit or the precedent it sets. But if this is the US modus operandi, Israel must show some inflexibility as well.

If the US responds by increasing pressure on Israel, the whole process will unravel, since the pressure on the Palestinians will dissolve and they will deliver even less. But if we continue giving into Palestinian excuses and demands and go quietly along with American mistakes, the process will unravel as well. If we, the US and Israel, repeat the mistakes of Oslo, we should not be surprised when we achieve the same result.

©2003 - Jerusalem Post

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