Last week, Aug. 21, when Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman sent a letter to the Quartet (the nations and international entities involved in mediating the Middle-East peace process: US, Russia, EU and UN; Tony Blair is their current envoy) in which he urged them to set a date for elections in the Palestinian Authority and attacked Chairman Mahmoud Abbas, quite a few Israelis probably scratched their heads in consternation trying to remember what this was all about. Palestinians? The “obstacle to peace” (one of Liberman’s famous nicknames for Abbas)? Remind me — why do these words sound familiar?
It’s been almost a year since anyone has even pretended to be interested in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Ever since the “diplomatic tsunami” that wasn’t, it seems that everyone has come to terms with the current reality: There is no peace process. “Ground-up state development” and “economic peace” are code-names for relinquishing attempts toward any political solution; few people on either side still believe in it. The only index for Israelis is terrorist attacks; these are being prevented by virtue of IDF (Israel Defense Forces) and Shin Bet (Internal Security) control of the territory and coordination with (Palestinian) Authority forces under Abbas. The Palestinians, on the other hand, measure the situation by construction in the settlements and this parameter is advancing nicely, now that you ask. “This struggle has been decided already (in our favor),” Yesha Council’s Chairman Dani Dayan (the umbrella organization of multiple councils of Jewish Settlements in the West Bank) told me about a year ago, and Dayan is usually a cautious fellow by temperament. It is doubtful whether anyone argues the point with him.
Against this background, it is even more important to listen to something said by a very high-level IDF officer in a private conversation. “Everyone is occupied with Iran, but in the long run our fate will be determined by the Palestinian issue more than the Iranian one. The situation is not stable, and is not headed in the right direction. If there will be no change, then the next eruption is only a matter of time.”
The Authority is getting tired and worn out, they say in the IDF. On the lower levels, the coordinated work still continues. The mutual interests vis-à-vis Hamas still exist, and there is no sign that Abu Mazen (Mahmoud Abbas) and Salam Fayyad (PM of the Palestinian National Authority) are changing their minds regarding their fundamental opposition to armed struggle. But the longer the Palestinians see no diplomatic achievements on the horizon, and the longer their economic circumstances deteriorate, the more the shared interests become worn away and pressure from the grass-roots strengthens. The end result of this trend will be: either the dismantling of the Palestinian Authority or an outburst. Even if the outburst does not begin the same way as the Intifada (September-October 2000), it is likely to deteriorate to the same place.
The economic crisis in the world and in Israel naturally has an especially strong effect on the Palestinian Authority due to its (small) size and its sparse independent sources of income. Last month (July) Israel transferred funds to the Authority earlier than usual, in order to facilitate payment of salaries towards the Ramadan. Nonetheless, the Authority’s employees still received only about half of what was due them.
Israeli generosity is reserved mainly for token gestures. Even if these gestures alleviate the Authority’s financial pressures somewhat, they have the bitter aftertaste of charity. In other arenas, Israel is much more of a cheapskate. For example: although the IDF recommended increasing the number of Palestinian workers who receive work permits in Israel, the political echelon only gave partial consent. The number of permits was increased by 5,000 — less than what was requested by the (Israeli) Coordinator of Government Operations in the Territories. (COGAT is the unit in the Israeli Ministry of Defense that engages in coordinating civilian issues between the Israeli Government, the PA and international organisations.)
The hand clenches even tighter regarding the kind of actions that would help the Palestinian economy develop on its own steam — the real solution to the economic problem. Instead, Israel continues to make it difficult for the Palestinians to use sections of Area C that dissect the territory under official control of the Authority. (According the Oslo accords, for the interim agreements’ period, Area C, under Israeli civil and security control, contains all the Israeli settlements and buffer zones.) Here is an example: A long, winding road leads to Rawabi, a city being built north of Ramallah. The road is so narrow that in many cases, only one large truck can pass at a time. We explored there around a year and a half ago: Raviv Drucker (Israeli journalist — commentator with Channel 10), myself, and the businessman-entrepreneur building the city, Bashar Masri. He showed us a shorter, more convenient route that could greatly increase the efficiency of the construction work. But since about a kilometer of it runs through Area C, no alternate access road to the building site has been authorized to date.
No wonder that the Authority is weakening and wearing out, while Hamas is strengthening — in people’s hearts, if not in political power that could be realized at this point in time. In the IDF they say that Hamas are the ones attempting to prevent elections from taking place, elections that should have taken place long ago. But when one pays close attention to what is happening on the ground — so says my high-level officer informant — Hamas’ voice is very confident: They claim that it is a done deal. The Palestinian future is theirs.
One state, two states — who cares, anyway?
In order to exemplify the trend, one only has to look at the recent poll taken by Khalil Shikaki, Director of the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research in Ramallah that for years has provided a reliable picture of the way the wind blows on the Palestinian street. The poll taken in June shows a clear increase in public opinion for Hamas. The reasons are both external and internal. The Palestinian Authority is perceived as weak, corrupt, and that oppresses individual freedoms: 34% of the respondents said that there is freedom of the press in the Gaza Strip, versus 21% who said freedom of the press exists in the West Bank. This is the result of arrests of journalists and the blocking of internet sites by the Palestinian Authority. More people in the West Bank expressed anger over their living conditions than in Gaza, and satisfaction with Ismail Haniyeh’s (PM of the Hamas government in Gaza) government in Gaza was 38% as opposed to 36% received by Salam Fayyad in the West Bank. The economic situation may be different in reality than expressed in the polls, but it is clear that economics is only one part out of many that causes people to support the existing government.
On the personnel level: Although Abu Mazen received a much higher score than Fayyad for his overall functioning (49% positive), the “personal preference” scores for both men were closer than ever: in the choice for President, Abu Mazen wins over Haniyeh by 49% versus 44%, respectively. Incidentally, the prisoner Marwan Barghouti (a member of the Palestinian Council regarded as the leader of the First end Second Intifada; sentenced by an Israeli court to life imprisonment in 2002.) beat Haniyeh by a score of 60% to 34% and also wins unconditionally in a three-way race. Thus it is clear, according to Shikaki’s poll, that the nation is not with Hamas — but it is very disappointed with the existing Palestinian Authority.
The Palestinian nation also no longer believes in the two-states-for-two-nations solution. The Palestinian and Israeli states of mind are mirror images of one another on this issue: even at the height of the Second Intifada (roughly between 2000 and 2005), a solid majority of both camps still believed that the only solution was US President Bill Clinton’s Roadmap (guidelines for Permanent Status Agreement for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, elaborated by Clinton in 2000, with a Two States solution in mind), though few believed that it would be realized in the near future. Now, by us (as we saw in Maariv’s October 2011 poll) and by the Palestinians, the despair over the actualization of the only possible arrangement, leads to the abolishment of any faith in it at all on both sides.
In Shikaki’s poll, the pros and cons for the two-states-for-two-nations arrangement is divided exactly equally: 49% in favor, 49% against. Meanwhile, 55% think that it is no longer possible due to the settlements and Israel’s stance. Interestingly, 65% oppose the solution of one state: instead, all thoughts regarding a solution have been replaced by despair.
Introducing you to The Wolf
It is impossible to know how it will happen, says another high-placed officer. These are not the days of Arafat, when there was someone clearly in charge — even though Israel attributed more control to Arafat than really existed, at the beginning of the Second Intifada. Even the members of the middle generation — activists like Barghouti or Hussein Al-Sheikh (PA Minister of Civil affairs) whose rebellion against the stagnation of the Palestinian Authority under Arafat was an important element in the eruption of the Second Intifada — are already neither young nor very influential.
But it can begin, for example, with disintegration of law and order. It can also definitely begin from Jewish acts of terror such as burning mosques or shooting incidents on the roads. And incidentally, Israeli military decrees (and administrative orders) that removed several major activists/players from the West Bank are due to expire very soon. From the current (low) activity-level (of terrorism), it is clear that we have sent away the right people, says the officer — but if they return, things might heat up again.
We also do not know what form the deterioration may take. The current security situation does not resemble that of 2000. The IDF and the Shin Bet continue to control the territory and the “lawn-mower” of arrests and restraining orders continue to be effective. But the current trend is clear, and it does not look like anyone is doing anything to prevent it.
Minister (Moshe) “Bogie” Ya’alon, who as a member of the political leadership (Vice Prime Minister and Minister of Strategic Affairs) has certainly heard these voices from the army, does not get too worried about it. The current situation is clearly not stable, he says, but there is no basis for the concrete claim that we are heading down a slippery slope. We are taking steps to alleviate the economic pressure, maybe we’ll do more. The Palestinians may return to the diplomatic route, this time to the United Nations General Assembly (Sept. 26, 2012) and not its Security Council (as in September 2011). But they will wait for the UN voting after the elections in the United States. Ya’alon says that the Palestinians hope that Obama will be more forceful towards Israel in his second term of office.
This picture is an abbreviated history of the recent years: Army officers living their daily lives ask questions about where all this is going. The political echelon, on the other hand, feels no external or internal pressures to act and does not accept army men’s concerns and worries. All raise their eyes to Washington, to the man sitting there who is supposed to save us and them from ourselves. We have seen this movie so many times, we have heard the cries of “wolf” so often, that the question arises: How will we recognize the "real" wolf, when he finally appears?