Israel Report

May 2003         

A Roadblock to Mideast Peace

by Neill Lochery - May 5, 2003
Before we enter the fantasy world of the road map peace plan for the Middle East it, is worth reminding ourselves the everyday reality of the violence Israel faces.

Those of us who have been warning about the rise of radical Muslim groups in Britain can take little satisfaction at having been proved right following Tuesday nights horrific suicide attack on a Tel Aviv bar. The fact the bombers were British Muslims introduces a whole new dimension to the war in Israel. There has been growing evidence for some time that Hamas has been actively attempting to recruit would-be suicide bombers in Britain -- where the freedom of movement of radical Muslims is far greater than in the United States. Hamas, robbed of its best operatives after the countless successes of the Israeli military -- and embarrassed by its suicide bomb success rate (Israel catches 90% before detonation) -- have turned to the fertile ground of disenfranchised British radical Muslims.

Equally chilling was the statement released by the leadership of Hamas to coincide with the publication of the road map peace plan for the Middle East. In essence, the statement -- as well as rejecting the plan -- argued that Hamas must destroy all efforts at dialogue with Israel. There had been some recent signs of moderation by Hamas such as the promise not to attack U.S. targets during the Iraq war. This was, of course, only tactical. Hamas's hatred of Israel and the United States remains as strong as ever.

So, will the road map end the violence? And does it have any chance of long-term success?

The answer to the first is no. Even before the statement by Hamas secular militant Palestinian groups -- some close to Yasser Arafat -- concluded that they would continue with the violence as well as the political dialogue. From their perspective this is easy to understand. Why change a winning formula? The United States, Russia and Europe have, in effect, rewarded the Palestinians for two years of murderous violence, much of it directed against innocent Israeli civilians. In Ireland we refer to this as the bomb and the ballot box strategy, and in Israel, the suicide bomb and political concession strategy. In a perfect world there would be no room for any of these killers at the negotiating table.

Ignoring the moral issue of dealing with killers, the road map has little practical chance of being implemented. Just like the dumb schoolboy who makes the same mistakes time and again so the U.S. State Department (the main framers of the plan) continue to fail to learn the lessons from the disastrous Oslo peace process.

Even the most strident supporters of Oslo now accept that interim stage agreements are a bad idea, given that there are rejectionist forces such as Hamas at large who thrive on derailing timetabled agreements -- particularly one where progress from one stage to another depends on "performance" (a ludicrous U.S. phrase) at the previous stage.

To call a new international conference as the road map proposes is foolhardy when we are still trying to get over the last one, held in Madrid in 1991. In Madrid, the parties almost came to physical blows when the Syrians accused then-Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Shamir of being a terrorist. Imagine the scene this time around presuming, as appears highly likely, Ariel Sharon leads the Israeli delegation into the conference room. Palestinians waving their Sabra and Shatilla banners shouting killer and fascist. With all this showboating going on there will be little chance of real progress.

So what is the alternative to all the shiny suit school of State Department diplomacy?

We are already seeing the alternative at work (or rather we are not). Both Mr. Sharon and Mahmoud Abbas the new Palestinian Prime Minister, have had a working relationship for some time. Indeed, their contacts can be traced back to the pre-Oslo period when it was illegal for Israelis to meet with PLO officials. Today, both are keen to talk in private, and to agree on solutions to the key issues before presenting them to the outside world. Both Mr. Sharon and Mr. Abbas for domestic reasons prefer secret diplomacy. The key to progress, however, remains Mr. Abbas's ability to rein in Hamas and its international network of bombers and financiers.

So both parties will welcome U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell to the region later this week for a photo opportunity. Both parties will sign up to the road map. The real diplomatic action, however, will be taking place in private meetings at Mr. Sharon's official residence in Jerusalem where Mr. Abbas has been a regular visitor.

Perhaps the greatest contribution of the road map will be to help provide a smokescreen, and a safety net, to direct talks between the Israelis and Palestinians. In the meantime, Israel must be given all the necessary international support to destroy the increasingly international infrastructure of Hamas and other radical Palestinian groups.

Neill Lochery is director of the Centre for Israeli Studies at University College, London.

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