The current peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians is yet another reminder that nothing is certain or predictable in Middle East politics. Previous peace negotiations began with hope and ended in disappointment. The current effort to achieve a peace agreement began in Annapolis last November [2007]. Six months later, there are no indications that this attempt will be any different. The longest and most ruthless conflict in Middle East history appears once again to be resisting a successful conclusion.
Despite the fact that Israeli and Palestinian negotiators have held more meetings than in any previous negotiations, there is little room for optimism. Hundreds of hours have been spent at the negotiating table. There have been bi-weekly meetings between Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, but, thus far, the talks offer no sign that the two sides can reach a peace agreement by the end of this year.
One of the Palestinian negotiators has flatly stated: "There is no significant progress on any of the six core issues the two sides agreed to discuss: Settlements, water, security, Jerusalem, borders and refugees. The one area where progress has been made is security. The negotiator asks, "Why security? The answer is obvious; security is the only issue that is of interest to Israel."
In contrast to the Palestinian negotiator's bleak view, Israeli negotiators paint a far more optimistic picture of their negotiations with the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) leadership, an optimism which is designed to direct the world's attention away from what is happening on the ground in both the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. The truth is, to date, there is no progress. Time is running out for the three leaders, U.S. President George W. Bush, Abbas, and Olmert, each of whom promised a successful conclusion to these negotiations by the end of this year.

Negotiations but Not Implementation

After nearly 18 years of peace talks between Israel and the PLO, it becomes clearer each day that Israel is interested in negotiating, not implementing, agreements. Israel is content to participate in an endless peace process with the Palestinians, so long as that process is limited to words without action. Palestinians, on the other hand, cannot afford an endless peace process that comes to no definitive action by the end of 2008.
Israel and its supporters deny the assertion that Israel does not want peace, pointing to many peace offers Israel made to the Palestinians in the past, all of which were rejected. They also insist that the Palestinians do not want peace. A closer look at recent history reveals that the Israelis have never made the Palestinians an offer they expected the Palestinians to accept. Nor has Israel ever accepted any Palestinian offers.
Why the absence of successful offers to either side? The answer is simple: Israel does not want to sign a peace agreement with the Palestinians because many Israelis continue to believe that the dream of "Greater Israel" - a land extending well beyond the historical borders of Palestine - can still be realized. No Israeli leader wants to be the one who gives up this dream for a peace agreement.

United by a Common Enemy

Israeli society is broken into many factions: American Israelis, Russian Israelis, African Israelis, Middle Eastern Israelis, European Israelis, and others. A large majority of Israeli citizens are secular, which means they do not have a common religious bond. One thing that unifies these factions, besides their Jewish ethnicity, is that they share a common enemy. Their unity is rooted in a common enemy, and no Israeli leader wants to risk giving up that single unifying bond by reaching a peace agreement with the Palestinians.
In May, Israel celebrated its 60th anniversary. Less noticed by the outside world, Palestinians marked the 60th year of the Nakba, the catastrophe that struck them in 1948, when the creation of Israel in western Palestine drove Palestinians from their homes and towns. These people became refugees, and many of them are still alive. Under international law, any peace agreement reached between Israel and the Palestinians would obligate Israel, at the very least, to allow refugees born in what was called Palestine before 1948 to return to their home area.
Israel stands strongly against this right of return, primarily for demographic reasons. The population balance between Israeli Palestinians and Israeli Jews is shifting strongly toward the Palestinian citizens of Israel; returning refugees would add to this shift. It is difficult to believe that any Israeli leader would be willing to increase the number of Palestinians living inside Israel in exchange for a peace agreement with a Palestinian leadership currently weakened by internal divisions.

Unquestioning Western Support

If a peace agreement were to be reached, leading to a new Palestinian state, Palestinians would immediately enjoy international legitimacy. With that legitimacy, the outside world would become aware of stories the Western media has ignored for decades. These stories would reveal the truth about the true nature of the Israeli occupation and the Nakba of the Palestinian people.
Israel has always dreaded the creation of a Palestinian state, which Israelis see as a threat to Israel's security. The unexamined truth about the current occupation and the Nakba is that a failure to end the occupation and to resolve the problems created by the Nakba poses a far greater threat than any future military threat to Israel's security. The Israeli leader who signs a peace agreement giving the Palestinians a state and worldwide legitimacy would expose the 60-year Israeli propaganda denying the occupation and the Nakba. This would bring a scrutiny that the Israeli public is unwilling to accept.
Israel has enjoyed tremendous Western support over the past 60 years, especially American support, which has expanded since 1967. The support focuses on the pretext of protecting Israel's "right to exist." From the perspective of the Western world - a perspective created by Israel and promulgated by a compliant Western media - Israel has been under constant threat since it achieved its independence in 1948. This danger, as perceived by the Western world, led to a strong conviction, especially in the United States, that the world is morally obligated to provide Israel with unconditional and unlimited support.
Israeli leaders are fully aware that if they sign any peace agreement with the Palestinians, they would almost certainly lose this unparalleled level of support. They are not willing to trade that support away by reaching a peace agreement with a divided Palestinian population. The Western media's version of the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians leaves an impression that life is almost unbearable for Israelis. The truth is that life is good inside Israel. Many Israelis live in complete ignorance of what is happening in the occupied territories, where daily life is filled with injustices. Life for all Palestinians in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip is extremely hard.
Rockets launched into Israel from Gaza affect very few of the citizens of Israel, but because the attacks represent a danger to Israeli civilians, they should be deplored and stopped immediately. The Western media report on these attacks as a great danger to Israel, but the truth is that Israel remains the most secure country in the world. Israelis do not need a peace agreement to make them feel more secure.

Facing the Possibility of Failed Negotiations

Given these assessments, it is time for the three leaders involved in these peace negotiations, especially Abbas, to face reality and start preparing for what will happen when the peace process collapses. Preparations are needed to confront a cycle of violence like the one that erupted in the aftermath of the failure of the 2000 Camp David negotiations.
According to sources close to the Palestinian president's office, the Palestinian leadership has been looking into options to deal with the potential failure of the peace process. They are considering "radical decisions" to deal with the ramifications of yet another "no agreement." Options for the Palestinian leadership are limited, and they are diminishing daily.

Two Options for the Palestinians

Two of the most drastic decisions facing the Palestinian president are: 1), the dismantling of the Palestinian Authority (PA), established after the 1994 Oslo Accords; and 2) declaring a new non-violent popular uprising in the Palestinian territories and Diaspora. These actions would obligate Israel to assume responsibility for its continued role as the occupying power in the West Bank and Gaza. Israel would also be forced to face the harsh implications of the apartheid system that it has created in the occupied territories. With no significant accomplishments or changes on the ground after 18 years of failed negotiations, Palestinians would have no choice but to consider a new non-violent uprising in order to protect the unity of the Palestinian people and the future of Palestinian identity.
These actions carry high risks. They should be used only as a last resort. Since the death of the former Palestinian President Yasser Arafat, the PLO and, more specifically, the Fateh movement has suffered from a lack of leadership and the growing popularity of Hamas in both the West Bank and Gaza.
Without a strong and unified Palestinian leadership, the possibility exists that Hamas could take over the West Bank, placing all of the occupied areas under Hamas leadership. This could turn a non-violent uprising into a violent one. If Israel continues with its excruciating policy of procrastination, denying the Palestinian people their rights, confiscating Palestinian land, demolishing Palestinian homes, uprooting Palestinian trees, exploiting Palestinian resources, invading and shelling Palestinian neighborhoods, and starving and oppressing an entire population, the eventual takeover by Hamas could become the only option remaining for Palestinian leaders.

A Possible Hamas Takeover

The takeover of the West Bank by Hamas may be legally inevitable. According to the Palestinian Basic Law, when the president's term ends, the head of the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC) could become - under certain circumstances such as resignation, incompetence, and death - a transitional president for three months until a new president is elected directly by the entire population. Currently the PLC is controlled by Hamas, including the speaker.
If there is no agreement by the end of this year, Abbas will resign or be asked to step down, because his term will be up by the end of this year, and Hamas will be in total control of the entire Palestinian territories, at least for three months. During this time, the interim Hamas president will have full authority to even dismantle the government led by Prime Minister Salam Fayyad and supported by the West.
The Fateh party, led by Abbas, will confront a dangerous stalemate. If the Fateh leadership refuses to go ahead with the transition according to the law, a civil war and the darkest time for the Palestinian people and the Palestinian liberation movement would follow, most likely before the end of this year. If the Fateh leadership agrees that a Hamas member should become the country's president for three months, no one can predict what decisions he will make to seize power and remove Fateh as a viable political entity.

Needed: "Radical and Painful Decisions"

No one can predict what the coming six months will hold for Palestinians and Israelis, but these next six months will definitely be crucial for the future of the region. If no agreement is reached by the end of this year, the consequences will be felt beyond the borders of 1948 and 1967. The entire region will be affected by the failure of the current peace process. Radical groups in the region will grow; internal conflicts in Lebanon, Gaza and the West Bank will spread; a regional war will become more likely; and violence between Israel and the Palestinians will intensify.
Recently, Israeli officials have stated that Israel will have to make "painful decisions" to make peace with the Palestinians. So far, we haven't seen anything but pain for the Palestinians. It is time for both sides to make "radical and painful decisions" if they expect to find peace by the end of this year.

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