The great challenge facing the Palestinian leadership is to prove that its participation in the peace process, through the Oslo agreements, was not a historic mistake. Indeed, growing criticism of the implementation of the peace process is being heard everywhere in the Palestinian territories and on all levels.
The goal of the peace talks was to start a process of transferring powers and authorities from the Israeli military and civil administrations to the Palestinians, leading to an end to Israeli occupation and enabling the Palestinians to rule themselves by themselves. The reference was UN Resolution 242, which posits the principle of the exchange of land for peace.
Israel, for its part, tried from the outset to undermine this principle and to block the road to any possibility leading to the establishment of a Palestinian state. The principal instrument used to achieve this end was the Jewish settlements and their infrastructure in occupied Palestinian land. Continued settlement activity, mainly in the so-called Greater Jerusalem area, as well as the closure and total isolation of the West Bank from East Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip, in response to the January and February [1996] suicide attacks against Israel, brought the peace talks between Israel and the PLO to a halt.
Signed agreements were put aside. Meetings and follow-up activities were forbidden. Shimon Peres, who in February 1996 decided to delay redeployment from Hebron (slated for March 1996), froze all joint committees, safe passages between Gaza and the West Bank, the release of political prisoners and the resumption of negotiations over final-status issues, originally scheduled for May 1996. He did not know that by so doing he was killing his own dream - the "new Middle East." All this he did to assure his winning the Israeli elections of May 1996, succumbing under the pressure to total political blindness. Unfortunately, Peres had failed to realize that his was the peace camp and that, no matter how hard he tried to please the right-wing, he would not gain their confidence. They would still vote for their natural candidate, Binyamin Netanyahu, the Likud leader.
In fact, Peres was preparing the ground for an easy transfer from the concept of "peace for land" to that of "peace for security." By this he made his successor's job much easier. Netanyahu inherited a very comfortable situation: Contacts at all levels had been discontinued by the Peres government since February 1996. The huge network of bypass roads, fragmenting the West Bank and separating west from east and north from south, had almost been completed. The door for further settlement activity had been left wide open in about 73 percent of the West Bank in what is known, according to the Cairo agreement, as area "c."
Netanyahu opted for the same course. Conciliating statements about peace and security were made, but there was no serious effort to resume the implementation of Israel's signed commitments to the Palestinians. As every activity has been frozen by his predecessor, any move on Netanyahu's part can be interpreted as a positive development. Accordingly, he has started his contacts with the Palestinians on the lowest level, dispatching his political advisor with oral messages.
His defense minister is relaunching negotiations over redeployment from Hebron. The major changes he suggested proved unsatisfactory to Ariel Sharon, the settlers' protagonist. The latter felt slighted when he failed to get the defense ministry and was left hanging in uncertainty about his ministerial prospects. Now Sharon, as well as other hawkish ministers like Rafael Eitan, are trying to set a new precedent by renegotiating the redeployment in Hebron. Such a precedent will enable the Netanyahu government to withdraw from any uncomfortable commitment made to the Palestinians by the Labor government, wreaking havoc on the peace process.
For the moment, the Netanyahu government is enjoying a political vacation. They see no urgency in dealing with the Palestinians, as long as Israel is not subjected to pressure by the American administration, presently involved with the upcoming presidential elections. Netanyahu himself is still learning how to switch from being in opposition to being in government, how to create problems for his allies and how to solve them, and how to raise fears of a future war with Syria and how to dispel them.
From a Palestinian perspective, Israel succeeded in the past to establish the principle, introduced by the late Yitzhak Rabin, that dates and timetables are not sacred. Consequently, all signed agreements have been dragged behind schedule. This dangerous precedent will be further underscored if the Netanyahu government succeeds in reopening the Hebron file and changing the agreement pertaining to it. The two principles: "timetables are not sacred," and "agreements are not sacred" will then become the ruling procedure. Such a situation will lead to an open-ended process where Palestinians will barely be able to obtain an administrative ┬Čautonomy for the people but not for the land. It will also allow Israel to continue changing the geographic and demographic character of the Palestinian land, eventually making separation between Palestinian and Israeli land and people impossible.
Under the Likud government, the so-called peace process appears to be heading in the direction of an administrative autonomy to be imposed by Israel on its Palestinian partners. In fact, it seems a likely development. On the other hand, it is quite unlikely that the Palestinian leadership or people will accept an imposed administrative autonomy. Consequently, it should come as no surprise were the region to sink again into even greater violence and bloodshed than it had witnessed before. Is this what the average Israeli citizen wants? Certainly not.
Continuing the process as was originally planned might lead to a historic compromise between Jews and Arabs in Palestine - a Palestinian state alongside Israel. A new Middle East. Unfortunately, this does not seem to be the case.
By aborting the current peace process, Israel will in the final analysis be the loser. Imposing an administrative autonomy and creating an apartheid regime, similar to the former South African one, will only lead to struggles in human and civil rights. It will ultimately pave the way to a binational state, a democratic one for Jews and Arabs (Muslims and Christians) in Palestine. This will be the end of the Zionist dream of a Zionist state. The irony in such a historic development will reside in the fact that its foundations will have been laid by the very same people who have fought for a "Greater Israel." <