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Israel and the Palestinians: A New Strategy

By Moshe Yaalon

The former IDF chief of staff proposes a different approach to dealing with an old conflict.


The anti-Israel and antisemitic propaganda in the Palestinian press is an alarming phenomenon, but the incitement that pervades the Palestinian educational system is a greater cause of concern. Textbooks widely used in Palestinian schools over the past fifteen years, supervised and endorsed by the PA Ministry of Education, encourage obsessive hatred of Israel and murderous violence against Jews. Instead of endorsing mutual recognition along the lines of the Oslo peace process, these texts indoctrinate students with an ideology of jihad against the “Zionist entity.”43 Young children are taught that suicide bombers are heroic figures who should be praised and emulated. These textbooks—used not in Hamas-controlled Gaza but in the supposedly more moderate PA-controlled West Bank—deny Israel’s right to exist and describe its creation as a colonialist crime and an “unprecedented catastrophe in history.” Moreover, they present the conflict with the Jewish state as a religious struggle to liberate Muslim land from the oppression of infidels. It goes without saying that this type of education does not leave much hope for resolving the conflict on the basis of territorial concessions.44
In this manner, the Palestinians continue to ensure that the cycle of violence and conflict—not to mention their own misery—will continue. The leadership that has led them from one misfortune to another has buried their hopes for independence and prosperity. Instead of state-building, the Palestinians have been led into a treacherous quagmire of violence and corruption. Instead of forsaking terrorism, they have chosen to intensify their war against Israel, thus condemning themselves to self-destruction. Caught between a dysfunctional Palestinian Authority and a radical Islamic regime in Gaza—between Fatahland and Hamastan—the Palestinian people are currently at one of the lowest points in their history. To leave them there, festering in their own pain and anger, is a recipe for disaster both for the Palestinians and for their neighbors. If Israel seeks stability in the region, it must do something to improve the situation. The only question is, what?
 
IV
The Oslo doctrine failed because it put the cart before the horse. The Palestinians received political concessions without ever proving their willingness or ability to bring about order and stability in the territories handed over to their control. True, Israel demanded again and again that the PA stand up to its commitments and take the necessary steps to dismantle the terrorist infrastructures in the West Bank and Gaza. Nevertheless, the fact that these demands were not met did not prevent Israeli statesmen from negotiating with Palestinian representatives over a permanent-status agreement. The ongoing farce reached its pinnacle at the Annapolis summit in November 2007, when the Israelis and Palestinians announced their plans to reach a permanent-status agreement by the end of 2008—despite the fact that Abu Mazen does not have the power to enforce so much as a rental contract in Gaza City.
It is easy to understand why Israeli politicians prefer to soar into the heights of the “peace process” rather than to trudge through the swamp of reality. The optimistic rhetoric of Oslo, which reached messianic proportions in the 1990s, continues to enchant a sizable portion of the Israeli public. Even today, after years of disappointments, a politician can gain instant and widespread popularity—in the Israeli media, at least—by promising to do everything within his power to bring the conflict with the Palestinians to a close. On occasion, these promises can salvage even the most tainted public image.
Nevertheless, any attempt to get to the heart of the problems mentioned above, let alone to resolve the difficulties preventing mutual understanding and coexistence between Israel and its neighbors, requires a change of strategy. If Israel wishes to avoid repeating its mistakes, it must adopt a more sober policy vis-a-vis the Palestinians. There is no panacea for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It must be treated as a chronic disease that requires lengthy, sustained therapy. Fortunately, the chances of success for such a treatment are now slightly better than before, due to the fact that the main obstacle, Yasser Arafat, has passed away, and many Palestinians have come to realize that they have no other option.
In order to execute the strategy laid out in this paper, there is no need to turn back the clock to the period that preceded Oslo or even the disengagement from the Gaza Strip. Indeed, the more Israel is spared the need to rule the Palestinian people, the better. It would be an understatement to say that the hurried disengagement from the Gaza Strip was an unwise strategic move, but now that it has been done, it should be carried out to completion. The local Gazan population should be slowly weaned off its dependence on Israeli goods and services, and the Egyptian border should serve as Gaza’s gateway to the world. On the other hand, Israelis are not yet able to ignore the situation in Jenin, Nablus, and Ramallah, which are no more than a few kilometers from their own cities. They must act both directly and indirectly to encourage the Palestinians to implement necessary reforms and offer them any assistance required.45 Since assistance offered by a perceived enemy may be greeted with distrust and even hostility, it need not always be active. Often, it is enough to refrain from interfering.
The primary challenge that the PA leadership faces today is to salvage the Palestinian economy and extricate its population from acute poverty. Its achievements in this realm have been far from impressive, to say the least. Nonetheless, there are some hopeful signs. Salam Fayyad, Abu Mazen’s prime minister, is an economist of international renown who has so far demonstrated commendable integrity and courage in standing up to the tide of corruption and extremism in Palestinian society.46 At the Paris Donor Conference, Fayyad managed to persuade the donating countries to pledge billions of dollars to the Palestinians after he presented them with a plan to reconstruct the PA’s economy.47 On paper, it is indeed a very promising plan. The Palestinians have pledged to use the funds efficiently and responsibly and to adopt advanced standards of management and transparency. They announced their intention to gradually reduce the PA’s menacing deficit, to reform the public sector, and to increase collection of taxes and customs revenues. No less important, Fayyad stressed the need to empower the private sector in an effort to develop a Western-style market economy.48
This is undoubtedly encouraging, but past reforms initiated by Fayyad when he served as the PA’s minister of the treasury between the years 2002 and 2005 were only partially successful. Israel has a vested interest in the success of Fayyad’s plan, especially if it will lead to the recovery of the downtrodden Palestinian middle class. History has shown that the middle class is an engine not only of economic growth, but also of a strong civil society. Israel can thus offer assistance by removing obstacles that impede small and midsize struggling businesses, as well as by recruiting foreign and local entrepreneurs interested in investing in the Palestinian economy. A welcome initiative of this sort was the establishment of a Jewish-Arab venture capital fund in May 2008, devoted to supporting the Palestinian high-tech industry. This fund is the first of its kind in the Arab world, and it will hopefully spur the creation of others. If successful, it will offer new hope to thousands of young Palestinians with technological education who would otherwise be unable to find adequate employment to match their qualifications.49 Another, more significant example is the British investment fund “Portland Trust,” headed by Sir Ronald Cohen, which promotes economic development in PA-controlled territories by supporting local businesses and investing in low-cost, quality housing and infrastructure projects.50
Business cooperation can contribute to improving relations between the two peoples, but Israel’s primary influence on the Palestinian economy is its control of roadblocks and checkpoints. Loosening restrictions on the movement of the Palestinian population will have an immediate positive effect on living conditions in the West Bank. Now Israel is obviously unable to remove all roadblocks or refrain entirely from imposing closures. Were it to do so, it would bring upon itself a new wave of suicide terrorism. However, Israel can probably do away with some of the obstacles faced by Palestinian workmen and merchants by improving and expanding key checkpoints that serve a large number of workers and shipments of goods.51 In addition, it can relax (or at least standardize) the criteria for supervising this traffic. These steps demand great caution, and Israel will need to watch the Palestinian reaction carefully and adjust its policies accordingly. Bearing in mind that terrorist organizations will be quick to exploit any opportunity to attack the Jewish state, Israel should clarify to the Palestinians that its willingness to ease their movement is contingent, to a large degree, on their active contribution to neutralizing the threat posed to Israeli security.
For this to happen, the Palestinians must increase their efforts to reorganize the various PA security forces, a process which they began some time ago. As early as 2005, Abu Mazen announced the unification of Arafat’s myriad security apparatuses into three forces: National, Interior, and Intelligence.52 This necessary reform faced numerous obstacles, especially the reluctance of certain armed groups to cooperate with the proposed reform. Nevertheless, due to the assistance and support of the United States, which assigned the task to General Keith Dayton, as well as the European Union, Canada, and Jordan, which jointly undertook to recruit and train Palestinian security forces, the PA has managed to achieve several operational successes over the past months.53 Hundreds of Palestinian police officers, re-stationed in Jenin and Nablus, have arrested Hamas operatives, clamped down on institutions identified with radical Islamic organizations, exposed explosives workshops, and returned a modicum of security to the streets.54 Although these activities have not gone without occasional mishaps, and it is too early to evaluate their long-term effects, they nevertheless attest to the PA’s renewed determination to enforce law and order in the areas under its control.


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