|Arafat and the Anatomy of a Revolt (cont.)|
Outside parties sense that something fundamental has changed since the failure of the Camp David summit and the subsequent outbreak of the intifada in autumn 2000. Yet, for the most part, their responses still focus on immediate crisis management and damage limitation, in the hope of somehow resuming the peace process in the short-term (that is, within a year if not less). In spring 2001, the PA leadership seemed to conclude that its salvation lay in bringing down Sharon’s national unity government. To the extent that any further thinking went into this approach, it consisted of the assumption that the fall of a Likud-led government would naturally bring a Labour-led coalition back into power. This view was not entirely without substance – opinion polls showed that a majority of Israelis still supported negotiation, and even evacuation of settlements as part of a peaceful resolution of the conflict – but it did not grasp the depth of the shift in Israeli politics and public opinion in other, key respects. General elections under present circumstances would probably strengthen the Israeli right and broaden its scope of action against the PA domestically. No less importantly, a broad political alliance (if not a quasi-merger) may be forming around a Labour-Likud centrist core that is more similar than disparate in its view of the contours of a final peace deal with the Palestinians (as well as sharing a secular outlook and espousal of free-market social and economic policy).11
To help bring about any other outcome would require the PA to exercise greater self-discipline and political vision than it has done previously. To do so would in turn require Arafat to take charge in a manner alien to him, but failure would only encourage Israel to seek his removal and possibly the dismantling of the PA. Against this background, events could follow one of three trajectories.
Scenario 1: Palestinian guerrilla campaign
By spring 2001, Fatah seemed to be attempting to develop a more carefully targeted guerrilla campaign focusing on settler and associated IDF targets in the West Bank and Gaza. Arafat’s insistence since 1993 in portraying PA autonomy as equivalent to sovereignty has helped obscure from Israeli and international audiences the extent of continued Israeli control over all key levers affecting every facet of Palestinian life: security; external and internal trade; residence and travel abroad; land use outside the boundaries of established Palestinian municipalities; access to natural resources, especially water; and primary legislation. However, the Israeli political establishment and society in general have yet to grasp the lesson that South African President F.W. de Klerk drew in 1991: that the system of control could not be indefinitely prolonged through limited modification in ways that always left the white minority with ultimate veto power in all key domains, and simply had to go. It may be that only after further loss of life and misery on both sides, will Israel come to a similar conclusion, something its political leadership was not yet ready to countenance at Camp David in July 2000. But a Palestinian guerrilla campaign could only hope to have such an effect, at best, if it were closely coordinated with Palestinian civilian resistance and accompanied by a clear and constructive political message to Israel, containing a frank definition of the terms of permanent status peace.
Scenario 2: Israeli destruction of the PA
Any Israeli government would feel unable to tolerate systematic and sustained low-intensity military pressure indefinitely, even if it privately distinguished between settler casualties and victims of terrorist attacks inside Israel proper. What might nonetheless push matters to a head is the deterioration of present friction between armed settlers and the IDF into firefights, or, no less importantly, the disintegration of Sharon’s base of support within Likud. There are signs of both prospects, and indeed the more militant settlers might well undertake deliberately escalatory action with the precise aim of either forcing Sharon to destroy the PA or else bringing him down, thus paving the way for the return of Netanyahu, who was already comporting himself by summer 2001 with the air of prime minister in-waiting.
However, an Israeli invasion and wholesale dismantling of the PA would prove futile and counter-productive. Clearly, it would remove the prospect of facing an opponent able to mobilise and coordinate (however poorly) political and material resources on a national scale and to invoke international diplomacy, but this would only be a short-term gain. The Palestinian population has acquired political, organisational, and military skills it lacked prior to 1993, so Israel would soon either face a more bitter resistance than in 1967–93, or else be obliged to resort to far more draconian measures than before – including prolonged mass internment and expulsions. This would threaten the national security and internal stability of neighbouring Arab states – above all Jordan’s – in ways they could not afford to ignore, and could trigger the sort of international intervention that both Israel and the principal outside powers have always sought to avoid. Such considerations may be precisely why Sharon has been so reluctant, contrary to type, to approve significantly greater use of Israeli military force against the PA.
He has, however, revived plans originally prepared by Barak for the establishment of a buffer zone (comprising walls, trenches and manned outposts) to separate Israeli and Palestinian population centres. The overall purpose seems to be to place Israel politically, and the IDF militarily, in a position where it retains all options, including the ability either to ‘hunker down’ or to conduct an invasion swiftly, with least political cost regionally and internationally. The result could be a protracted political deadlock and a military stalemate on the ground, with none of the local or external factors present that are necessary to provide an exit. Fear of further deterioration could even prompt principal outside powers to acquiesce tacitly in the replacement of Arafat by another PA figure, if not actively encourage forces inside the PA to engineer such a development, thus bringing about the very nightmare scenario that he has long sought to avoid.
Scenario 3: PA collapse
Prolongation of the crisis will not place Israel alone under pressure. The PA has been under strain since the start of the intifada, and could disintegrate under the combined impact of its own dysfunctionality and Israeli counter-measures. Indeed, Arafat has used the spectre of a Hamas take-over in the event of the PA’s collapse, to mobilise international diplomatic and financial support to help shore up the PA. Yet here, as elsewhere, reality is more mixed. On the one hand, the PA has never functioned as a system of government at any point since 1994, with the curious consequence that its near-total paralysis as a civilian administration since the start of the intifada in autumn 2000 has made relatively little difference to people’s lives. Local society has resorted to its own devices and networks, developed during 27 years of direct Israeli occupation, in order to maintain trade and eke out a living wherever possible. This means an imperceptible and implicit restoration of links with Israeli administrative authorities and businesses, but also indicates a capacity for resilience and survival under adverse conditions that blunts the utility of Israeli measures intended to coerce the PA by punishing its civilian population.
On the other hand, the developments that might alter the picture more seriously are internal to the PA, even if affected by external conditions. An important element of the PA’s success in maintaining cohesion has been its continued ability to pay salaries to well over 120,000 public sector employees, including 40,000 police personnel, and to provide indirect subventions to thousands of Fatah activists. Funding pledged by the Arab states and (separately, and more modestly) by the EU has helped postpone the crunch to autumn 2001, and might be spun out beyond that, but any serious shortfall could erode the remarkably high level (given the general atmosphere of violence) of law and order and basic social civility that still obtain in PA-controlled areas. What makes this prospect possible, and therefore worrying, is the fragmentation of Fatah – which has become a mere coalition of lightly-armed fiefdoms based in city neighbourhoods and refugee camps – and the unspoken rivalry between heads of PA security agencies who have their sights implicitly set on the post-Arafat succession. Somali-style disintegration is not yet likely, given the countervailing effect of nationalist sentiment and societal constraints, but the IDF’s parcelling of PA-controlled areas into dozens of isolated pockets may encourage a centrifugal effect should PA structures start to crumble (especially in the event of Arafat’s passing). This does not mean that the conflict with Israel would end, only that it could get uglier, with little hope of finding a valid Palestinian negotiating partner.
The Israeli nationalist right would probably celebrate the collapse of the PA as heralding the ultimate victory of the Zionist project in Palestine, not least by clearing the way for final expansion and consolidation of Jewish settlement in the West Bank and East Jerusalem (and, secondarily, Gaza). The Palestinians, whose right to statehood was acknowledged in the UN Partition Plan of 1947 (General Assembly Resolution 181), would have missed the post-Cold War opportunity to make the transition to statehood, and would find themselves no closer to statehood than the Kurds. If this course of events were to occur, Arafat’s misjudgement in autumn 2000 would have been of historic proportions. At best, Arafat’s choices since autumn 2001 rank beside the two most important strategic mistakes of his previous, long political career: confronting Syria in Lebanon in 1976, and siding with Saddam Hussein in 1990. On this occasion, too, there is a price to pay and it will take several years to recover, if the lessons are learned, by which time Arafat may no longer be leading the Palestinians.
There is little that concerned outside powers can do in the short-term to reduce political risks. The medium-term does not offer fundamentally different options, but it allows a perspective to develop on the positive impact that certain contributory measures could have if applied consistently and with unity of purpose by the international community. Most immediate to hand is the so-called ‘Mitchell Report’, with its emphasis on leading methodically from confidence-building – including the freeze on all Israeli settlement activity – to resumption of permanent status peace talks. The report’s emphasis on protecting civilians from the effects of conflict (even though it omits the Fourth Geneva Convention) could further be used to prevent collective punishment of the Palestinian civilian population, ensuring its freedom of movement and normal economic activity (crucially including external trade), and thus encouraging a shift of the battlefield back to the negotiating table.
The principal contribution that the international community can make is to help ‘hold the line’, in the hope of preventing further deterioration along any of the three trajectories discussed above and affecting the cost-benefit calculation of both Israel and the PA. But it remains incumbent on both the latter parties to restructure their relationship. Outside powers can encourage political movement on the Israeli side by raising implicit recognition of East Jerusalem as the future Palestinian capital in response to accelerated settlement activities inside its Arab neighbourhoods, and by extending de facto recognition of the PA as a state-in-waiting. These positions would establish a political bottom-line with Israel, while leaving all other substantive issues for negotiation. Finally, nothing that has happened so far absolves the Palestinian leadership of its own contribution to the current situation, its obligations under international law and its duty to its people to secure an independent state, based on the rule of law, through negotiation with Israel.
1 The ‘Green Line’ is the 1949 Armistice Line that defined the effective border between Israel and the neighbouring West Bank (including East Jerusalem) and Gaza Strip until 4 June 1967.
2 The term intifada (uprising) is used by Palestinians to describe their confrontation with Israel since autumn 2000. I do not regard it as an accurate or appropriate description, given the marginality of civilian resistance and unarmed mass protests, and use it here for convenience only. For an example of Israeli accounts of Arafat’s behaviour, see ‘Sharm El-Sheikh Fact-Finding Committee, First Statement of the Government of Israel’, 28 December 2000, paragraphs 21 and 22 (inter alia).
3 The term ‘Oslo framework’ refers to the series of interim agreements, protocols, and memoranda of understanding signed between the Palestine Liberation Organization and Israel, starting with the Oslo Accords of September 1993.
4 The notion that Arafat could not bring himself to sign peace with Israel is curious, given the historical record: in pursuit of a negotiated settlement with Israel, Arafat persuaded the PLO to adopt diplomacy as a central strategy in 1974, fought a civil war launched by hard-line opponents of his diplomacy in 1983, signed the Oslo Accords and recognized Israel formally in 1994, and took decisive action against Islamist groups following the bombings inside Israel of spring 1996. I have studied this evolution elsewhere, in Armed Struggle and the Search for State: The Palestinian National Movement, 1949–1993 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1997).
5 The relaxed rules of engagement concerning use of live and rubber-coated ammunition formed part of the IDF’s ‘Field of Thorns’ operational plan for quick suppression of stone-throwing protests.
6 By summer 2000, there were growing calls in Israel for precisely such a wholesale onslaught. Leaked reports (such as ‘The Israeli generals’ plan’, Foreign Report, 12 July 2001) suggest that the IDF expected reoccupation of all PA-controlled areas to cost 100-300 Israeli and at least 1,000 Palestinian deaths, and to be accompanied by the mass internment of PA police and some civilian personnel and expulsion to neighbouring Arab countries of the PLO ‘returnees’. Rightwing Israeli politicians have suggested re-installing Israeli military governors in every Palestinian city or town, to rule through local civilian administrators.
7 Sari Nuseibeh, head of the Jerusalem Open University, gave rare public confirmation of PA abdication of its responsibility towards East Jerusalem in a speech commemorating Faisal Huseini on 17 July 2001.
8 The mass turnout and informal provision of law and order by PA security agencies for Faisal Huseini’s funeral showed, for one day, what could be done to assert the Palestinian claim to East Jerusalem peacefully.
9 The fact that this failing was mirrored on the Israeli side by no means exonerates the Palestinian leadership for its own shortcomings.
10 Notable exceptions include roundtable discussions and public petitions organized by Miftah, the NGO headed by former Palestinian spokeswoman Hanan Ashrawi, and a panel discussion among four left-of-centre figures published in Majallat al-Dirasat al-Filastiniyyah (Beirut), Summer 2001 (no. 47), pp. 42-59).
11 The contours of such a peace deal might well be identical to the so-called Beilin-Eitan Agreement (National Agreement Regarding the Negotiations on the Permanent Settlement with the Palestinians), published on 22 January 1997. Drafted by a leading figure of the Labour left and the then-head of the Likud parliamentary faction (with then-prime ministerial candidate Netanyahu’s blessing), its main elements and guiding principles resurfaced almost exactly in Barak’s Camp David proposals.