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THE OTHER ISRAEL

[The following editorial overview is extracted from the August 2003 issue of The Other Israel.]

HUDNA

An Editorial Overview

Will it go down in history as a turning point, to be remembered and commemorated? Or is it just one more intermezzo, yet another of the failed efforts leaving behind only more bitterness and despair.

The Arabic word "Hudna", which denotes a cease-fire for a fixed duration, dates back to the time of The Prophet himself. Throughout the centuries since, it has come up again and again in the annals of the wars waged by Muslims — with each other as well as with those of other religions.

The Israeli public first became aware of the concept in late 2001, through an initiative launched by the maverick businessman/peace activist Eyal Ehrlich. On a visit to Jordan, Ehrlich chanced to observe a Hudna being declared to calm down a local bloody conflict in a country town, and conceived the idea of applying that proceeding — so deeply rooted in Muslim tradition — to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

He managed to get the support of Israel's president Moshe Katzav — whose position is purely titular but who wields a considerable moral authority — and who was to launch the Hudna via a conciliatory speech to the Palestinian Legislative Council in Ramallah. The plan was scotched by a firm veto of PM Sharon, which Katzav dared no defy (see TOI-101, p.5). The aborted Hudna was followed by some of the most bloody and terrible months in the course of the conflict.

Still, the idea of Hudna kept occasionally cropping up in commentaries and the speeches of politicians, on both the Israeli and the Palestinian side. Moreover, the idea was taken over by the European Union, whose emissaries made strenuous efforts to gain the support of all Palestinian factions. This was almost achieved in September 2002 — but precisely an hour after the inter-Palestinian agreement was signed, an Israeli fighter plane bombed the house of Hamas leader Salah Shehadeh in Gaza, killing not only Shehadeh but also 14 Palestinian civilians, half of them children. Once again, the Hudna was swept off the agenda for a considerable time. It took nearly a whole additional year, with all its bloodshed and suffering, before it would emerge again.

What ultimately made it possible to translate the Hudna from theory into reality was the convergence of the increasing war-weariness in both societies with the Iraq War and its wider consequences.

*****

More than a year of harsh Israeli reoccupation of the Palestinian cities conclusively failed to eliminate suicide bombings, and made clear to Israelis that there were few if any military options left. IDF generals ceased to make confident predictions of "the Palestinians on the verge of breaking down" or proclaim such grandiose war aims as "burning into Palestinian consciousness the fact of defeat."

The curfew in the Palestinian cities was gradually phased out — not only as a goodwill gesture, but also simply because enforcing it strained the army's available manpower to the breaking point. (An attempted increase in the annual term of military reserve service was hastily scrapped when it threatened to provoke a widespread reservist mutiny, going far beyond the hard-core of the politically conscious refuser movement.)

Meanwhile, the Israeli economy was in shambles, with hardly any tourism or foreign investment left, and unemployment climbing. Economists and business people were virtually unanimous in asserting that cease-fire and renewal of a peace process were a precondition for economic recovery.

For its part, the Palestinian economy was of course in an incomparably worse state, with the Israeli roadblocks cutting the West Bank into hundreds of isolated enclaves and making even the most elementary economic activities into an ordeal. Only a trickle of international aid and the extremely strong ties of extended-family solidarity kept masses of Palestinians away from actual starvation. As unbroken and defiant of the occupation as ever, Palestinians were nevertheless longing for a respite and a chance for some amelioration of their situation.

Many Palestinians still considered suicide bombings as a legitimate way of "getting even" with Israel for bombings of Palestinian cities or the assassination of Palestinian leaders — but few if any of them still held to the idea that the pressure of continued attacks would of itself cause a precipitate Israeli withdrawal, an idea derived from mistaken analogy with the May 2000 Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon. And an increasing number of Palestinians were becoming aware of how much the suicide bombings were playing into the hands of Sharon — some calling for a limitation of the armed struggle only to attacks on soldiers and settlers in the Territories themselves, others calling for unarmed struggle by such means as mass defiance of the numerous Israeli military orders and restrictions.

Meanwhile, the regional and international diplomatic arena was focused upon the American conquest of Iraq and its aftermath. At least a year before the war was actually launched, there were already widely-publicized scenarios predicting that it would be followed by a high-level American diplomatic initiative aimed at the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, following the precedent of Bush the father, who had convened the 1991 Madrid Conference in the immediate wake of the Gulf War. And Washington's need to be seen taking such an initiative became more and more manifest, the more difficult and problematic the occupation of Iraq turned out to be.

Already before launching the war on Iraq, Bush published officially "The Road Map for Peace", worked out by "The Diplomatic Quartet" consisting of the US, the UN, the EU and Russia, under which a viable Palestinian state "within temporary borders" is to be created before the end of 2003, and to gain its definite dimensions and status by 2005. Even though the word "cease-fire" or "Hudna" did not explicitly appear among the stages enumerated in the Road Map, the achievement of such a cease-fire was evidently an indispensable preliminary, so as to create the appropriate public atmosphere.

Such was also the opinion of Mahmud Abbas ("Abu Mazen") elected to the newly-created position of Palestinian Prime Minister at the same time that the Road Map was unveiled, and who declared the achievement of a Hudna to be among his main priorities. But this priority was in no way shared by Sharon. In fact, the Israeli PM, his ministers and his generals were vociferous in denouncing the whole idea of a Hudna which "would merely give Hamas and the Islamic Jihad a chance to regroup and prepare for new terrorist attacks after the end of the cease-fire."

Based on this argument, Sharon demanded that Abu Mazen and his security Chief Muhammad Dahlan completely disarm the Islamic groups, so as "to dismantle the terrorist infrastructure." Any attempt to do so would obviously entail a bloody civil war among Palestinians; this, Abu Mazen and Dahlan firmly stated, they were both unwilling and unable to do. Instead, their declared immediate purpose was to achieve voluntary adherence of all Palestinian factions to a Hudna, with the longer-term goal of eventually amalgamating all the militias and armed groups into a single Palestinian force under a unified command.

With such profound differences on the most immediate steps to be taken — not to mention later stages on which the differences go even deeper — it is hardly a surprise that in early May, the first official meeting between Sharon and Abu Mazen ended in dismal failure and utter disagreement. This fiasco left a vacuum, which was immediately filled with a new round of killing and counter-killing. To more than one commentator it looked like the Road Map was going to join very many previous diplomatic initiatives on the ash heap of history.

At this juncture, however, President George W. Bush suddenly undertook the kind of high-profile personal involvement which he hitherto avoided and which Sharon's advisers had confidently predicted he never would: personally flying to the region at a moment's notice and summoning the various leaders to attend hastily-organized summit conferences. It was, in fact, more the kind of action typical of Clinton...

Like many other summits, in this and other regions, the get-together of the US President, the Israeli and Palestinian PM's and the King of Jordan at the latter's Port of Aqaba on the Red Sea was, first and foremost, a photo opportunity. Still, although there was no trace of the wild euphoria of Oslo 1993, the live broadcast spectacle did make some impression on the skeptical, not to say bitter, Israeli and Palestinian societies: Maybe after all something is happening here? Something to get us out of the hell of the past two and half years?

More than had been the case in the days of Oslo, it was evident that the Road Map tends to orient Palestinians and Israelis not at each other but at the outside umpire. And though the Road Map had been the creation of "The Diplomatic Quartet", there was nothing quadrilateral about that umpire. In line with the rampant "unilateralism" of his administration, Bush altogether excluded the Europeans, Russians and the UN from the proceedings, denying them even the symbolic role that they got from his father at Madrid in 1991. Not even Tony Blair, Bush's most staunch ally, was considered worthy of an invitation to Aqaba.

That was very much in line with the wishes of Sharon, who had come to regard European involvement in the region as a dangerous threat to his aims. But Aqaba also made clear that Sharon's successful delegitimization of Arafat has been largely nullified by the appointment of Abu Mazen. In Bush's far from sophisticated classification of world leaders, the Palestinian Prime Minister was unmistakably chalked up among "The Good Guys", and so were his Security Chief Dahlan and his Finance Minister Salam Fayad (who happens to be a graduate of the same university in Texas that the president himself attended).

Therefore, Palestinian concerns, which went unheard when voiced by "Bad Guy Arafat", could now expect to get a bit more of a friendly hearing in Washington. (Bush seems only dimly aware that Arafat and Abu Mazen have been close political associates over more than three decades...)

Bush to the rescue

Meanwhile, the immediate aftermath of Aqaba seemed to confirm the most cynical of skeptics on both sides. Abu Mazen had gone to Aqaba confident of his ability to achieve a Hudna — based on intensive talks that he held with the leaders of Hamas and other factions. But these same leaders felt offended by what they considered a too-conciliatory speech delivered by Abu-Mazen at the summit, both his explicit reference to suicide bombings as being acts of terror and his unprecedented acknowledgment of "the historical sufferings of the Jewish people."

The radical factions' misgivings were further fuelled by an Israeli army unit killing two Palestinian militants at Tulkarem, on the very day following the summit. Several Palestinian organizations joined forces in a retaliatory raid on an Israeli military camp in the Gaza Strip, killing four soldiers. For their part, the Israeli generals launched a large-scale aerial manhunt of the Hamas leaders. Three of them were killed by the missiles shot from Israeli helicopter gunships. Abed El-Aziz Rantisi — the Hamas spokesman, who as member of the political echelon was not hitherto targeted — narrowly escaped a similar fate, jumping out of his car a second before the missile hit it; but several passers-by, who happened to be on that street, were not so lucky. On the following day, Hamas blew up a bus in Jerusalem, killing seventeen passengers — the kind of horror of which Israelis had started to hope they have seen the last.

Still, while the Hamas leaders were determined to retaliate to the attacks, they were nevertheless amendable to renewed negotiation feelers on a Hudna — well aware that their own grassroots supporters, like virtually all Palestinians, were longing for a respite.

An enormous diplomatic effort was launched, involving the disparate power foci in the Palestinian political system: Abu Mazen and Dahlan, the only ones to whom Sharon and Bush would talk, but who had little support among the Palestinians themselves; Arafat — still retaining an overwhelming support among the Palestinian masses despite (or precisely because of) his long-lasting siege in the half-ruined Presidential Compound in Ramallah; Hamas with its own large base of support, its armed militias and its network of social welfare organizations. From his prison cell Marwan Baghouti — the prominent Fatah leader arrested by Israeli soldiers last year — proved able to exert a significant influence on the course of these inter-Palestinian negotiations.

International mediators abounded. The Europeans — trusted by Palestinians far more then the Americans, and possessing an extensive network of contacts — were able to recoup a bit after their exclusion from Aqaba. So did President Mubarak of Egypt, whose hosting the summit had been vetoed by Sharon, and who now sent his own influential security chief Omar Suleiman to help mediate between the Palestinian factions.

The Israeli side was not officially involved, with ministers declaring the ongoing negotiations "an internal Palestinian affair" and gruffly pronouncing "we don't want Abu-Mazen to make deals with Hamas, but to fight the terrorists." Nevertheless, the negotiations were followed intensively on the Israeli media, with commentators going into minute details and enumerating the interplay of various Palestinian factions, militias and factions inside factions.

When it was finally announced that Hamas, Jihad and most (though not all) of the other factions had committed themselves to a three-month Hudna, there was a collective sigh of relief throughout the Israeli society. Literally within days, a marked increase was noted in the number of young Israelis streaming to week-end entertainments, and the shopping centers of metropolitan Tel-Aviv reported an abrupt 20% increase in sales.

On the Palestinian side, the Hudna was also widely welcomed — with the expectation that the IDF would immediately reciprocate by removing the measures that had made Palestinian life into hell over the past two and half years. In this, however, Sharon soon proved extremely tight-fisted, leading to increasing feelings of anger and frustration.

Wriggling out of pledges

For Palestinians, the most onerous of burdens is the system of roadblocks and barriers erected around all cities and towns, villages and hamlets, making each Palestinian community virtually into a prison. Upon signature of the Hudna agreement between the Palestinian factions, the Israeli army opened to Palestinian traffic the main north-south artery of the Gaza Strip, which had been closed for years, and TV cameras caught the cheers from cars loaded with Palestinian youths, speeding unhindered through road stretches where hitherto they had to wait for many weary hours. Later, a few roadblocks in the West Bank were removed as well — most notably the notorious Surda Barrier west of Ramallah, which for two years made life extremely difficult for the students and staff of Bir Zeit University.

Still, these were the exceptions. A month and half into the Hudna, most Palestinians remain imprisoned in their communities, and most West Bank main roads remain off-limits to Palestinians, reserved for military and settler traffic. (The settlers' powerful "Judea, Samaria and Gaza Council" feel that "Palestinian traffic on the roads is a deadly threat to settlers" and so far their considerable pressure prevailed over the counsel of some military officers who suggested a more rapid opening of roadblocks.) Even the handing over of Bethlehem to Palestinian control failed to evoke the enthusiastic response that could have been expected among the townspeople — since their city remains ringed with military barriers, preventing or greatly hampering travel even to the nearest villages.

A second highly contentious issue are the Palestinian prisoners held in Israeli prisons and detention camps — about 6,000 in number, of whom more than a thousand are held in "administrative detention" without trial, while several hundred others already spent twenty years or more behind bars, having failed to secure release even in the heyday of Oslo.

On few issues are Israeli and Palestinian perceptions so polarized as on the prisoners. Palestinians in general — even those who object to suicide bombings — tend to regard their detained compatriots as prisoners of war, fighters of the struggle for national liberation whose release is a precondition for any reconciliation. Among Israelis, the same prisoners are regarded as terrorists and murderers. (The positions would have probably been reversed, had the Palestinians been in a position to capture and hold Israeli air pilots and tank crews who had been involved in the bombing of Palestinian cities.)

Again and again the Sharon cabinet debated the issue of releasing Palestinian prisoners, with hardliners making every possible obstruction (reportedly, with the covert encouragement of the Prime Minister himself). The criteria defined for entitlement to release excluded "prisoners with blood on their hands" with this term interpreted very broadly.

To start with, the government also excluded from release any prisoner belonging to the Hamas or Jihad, waiving this restriction only after the alarmed Abu Mazen warned that it could lead to collapse of the Hudna. (Nobody would like to be held responsible for that.)

After more than a month of deliberations, the government came up with a list of less than 500 prisoners, most of whom had been soon due for release anyway, and some of whom were common criminals ("Them Israel could have kept, as far as I am concerned" said Abu Mazen). Moreover, during the same period nearly 200 Palestinians were lifted from their beds and detained in the ongoing nightly raids. Altogether, the prisoner release — intended as "a confidence building measure" — turned out to have precisely the opposite effect.

Things were not much better with regard to still another contentious issue: the removal of illegal settlement outposts, dozens of which had been constructed on hilltops throughout the territories — an issue first taken up by the Israeli Peace Now movement, whose Settlement Monitoring Team is regularly documenting this ongoing process, and whose reports gain worldwide currency.

On this, the text of the Road Map is quite clear — Sharon is to remove all settlements built after March 2001, the time when he came to power. Satellite photos of the West Bank are taken several times per day, sharp enough to distinguish individual houses, and the photos from 2001 on are on record. So it would seem there was no room left for ambiguity.

However, at Aqaba Sharon managed — with the tacit acquiescence of Bush — to replace this clear obligation with something quite different: he pledged to remove "unauthorized outposts." Here one gets into a far darker field: the bureaucratic procedures by which settlements and "settlement outposts" get authorized by the Israeli authorities are anything but transparent. A whole set of signatures is required by such shadowy officials as the Defence Minister's Adviser on Settlement — a procedure that seems designed to make it possible to tell the opposition and the outside world that a certain outpost is unauthorized while the settlers get hold of a piece of paper looking suspiciously like an official authorization.

And indeed, the army's list of settlement outposts to be removed fluctuated from day to day and week to week, as did (and even more so) the implementation.

Some "unmanned outposts" were removed without exciting much interest — a few empty mobile homes placed on hilltops here and there, regarded as expendable by the settlers themselves. The army did also evacuate a few inhabited outposts. Each occasion became the scene of a major violent confrontation, with fanatic young settlers beating up bewildered conscripts in front of eager media cameras, and being finally evicted — only to come back at night to the spot, which the army left conveniently unguarded.

"I tried to calculate how many unauthorized outposts were evacuated in the month and half since you pledged to evacuate them, Mr. prime Minister" said KM Yossi Sarid on the Knesset floor. "Deducting those which the settlers built again, I come to a grand total of — one."

Confrontation over the Wall

At the end of July, Abu Mazen held his first official visit to the White House. While all the grievances enumerated above figured in his talks with the Americans, the Palestinian PM gave precedence to still another issue that Palestinians have come to regard as crucial and indeed existential: Sharon's "Separation Wall" steadily cutting its way through the West Bank.

Originally conceived in Labor Party circles, as a way of both protecting the Israeli population against suicide bombers and achieving a "unilateral separation from the Palestinians", Sharon has taken over implementation of the idea and transformed it into a way of pre-determining the future borders of the Palestinian state. "State", in fact, is hardly the right name for what Sharon has in mind: a series of crowded and isolated enclaves embracing no more than half of the West Bank, surrounded on all sides with settlements and military camps — a decidedly non-viable entity. (From Sharon's point of view, there is hardly anything new about all this. Expert Sharonologists claim that as early as 1979 he had drawn a map with his idea of partitioning the West Bank, virtually identical to the present-day course of the Wall.)

Already, the Wall has made the town of Qalqilya into an enclave, surrounded on three sides and having a single narrow road as its only connection to the outside world — this road being often blocked by the army. Already, villages lost their fields and water sources, left on the other side of the Wall, while other villages were left behind the Wall in their entirety, cut off from the rest of the West Bank. And the Wall's next installment, not yet formally approved in the cabinet though planned by Sharon and his advisers, would go still much further — cutting dozens of kilometers deep into Palestinian territory so as to loop around the settlement-city of Ariel and effectively annex it to Israel.

Abu Mazen managed to explain all this in words the President could understand, as well as presenting him with photos and maps. At the ensuing joint press conference, Bush stated to a worldwide TV audience:

'I think the wall is a problem and I've discussed that with Prime Minister Sharon. It is very difficult to develop confidence between the Palestinians and Israel with a wall snaking through the West Bank.'

Sharon's own visit to Washington, a few days later, failed to eliminate the tensions with Bush on this issue, despite an effort to present a harmonious picture, with the two leaders addressing each other as "George" and "Ariel."

A few days later, the Americans started talking about the possibility of deducting the cost of the Wall from the loan guarantees promised to Israel — the kind of measure, which led to a major confrontation between George Bush Sr. and Yitzchak Shamir. Press reports told of Sharon about to give way. Without an official announcement there seems to be a prime-ministerial decision to delay by at least half a year the construction of "the controversial section."

On other issues, however, the Americans proved less attentive to Palestinian grievances. For example, Bush failed to heed Abu-Mazen's request to pressure Sharon to release more prisoners. (Neither as President nor in his previous job as Governor of Texas did George W. Bush ever show a tendency towards clemency to prisoners.)

Moreover, to counterbalance the pressure on Sharon with regard to the Wall, Washington started to pressure the Palestinians on the issue of "dismantling the terrorist infrastructure."

Abu Mazen and Dahlan reiterated that a Palestinian civil war was not on the cards, and begged for more time to do things their way. The Americans were inclined to grant that — but nevertheless Sharon and his generals felt encouraged to step up once again the nightly raids into Palestinian cities ("as long as the Palestinians don't do the job, we have to do it ourselves"). This led to escalation, imperiling the entire Hudna.

Bleeding Hudna

The Hudna did not completely stop the mutual bloodshed, though it was considerably reduced. The killing of Palestinians despite the Hudna was not acknowledged as violation in Israel. Usually, explanations were offered such as "terrorist resisting arrest" or the "civilian regrettably mistaken for terrorist and shot." While taken at face value by most of the Israeli media, such explanations were far from satisfying the Palestinians.

Violations on the Palestinian side derived mainly from rogue groups, taking such actions as kidnapping Israelis in the hope of exchanging them for the prisoners Sharon would not otherwise release. Ironically, the radical Islamists proved highly disciplined and faithful to their signature of the Hudna, and the most problematic were some members of Fatah — Arafat and Abu Mazen's own organization.

Fatah had always been a heterogeneous organization, composed of many disparate groups with little to unite them but the general tenets of Palestinian nationalism, capable of many conflicting interpretations. During last year's invasion and reconquest of the West Bank cities, the Israeli army and security services made an active and quite successful effort to break up the Fatah militias' chain of command.

The result was not, as intended, the complete elimination of the militias — but rather the creation of many rogue squads, taking orders from nobody. Further, some such groups in the northern West Bank cities of Jenin and Nablus have reportedly come under the influence of the Iranian regime and of Hizbullah, the Iranians' Lebanese ally.

Rather then hand Nablus and Jenin to Palestinian rule and let Dahlan make the effort of reasserting control over the rogues, Sharon decided to keep these two cities as long as possible under Israeli rule.

On the morning of August 8, the army conducted what was apparently the largest raid since the Hudna was declared. The elite Naval Commandos entered the Askar Refugee Camp in Nablus, and surrounded a three-storey house where a group of Hamas activists were hiding. In the ensuing firefight four Palestinians were killed, as well as one of the besieging Israeli soldiers, and the building totally collapsed — large parts were destroyed in the explosion when an Israeli missile apparently hit stored explosives, with the demolition later completed by army bulldozers.

The army claimed that the Palestinians had been involved in the production of explosives, which is likely enough. It was also claimed that they had been on the point of using those explosives in a series of suicide bombings — which sounds far less plausible, since they were members of Hamas, which up to that moment adhered with no exception to its Hudna obligations.

However, precisely the killing of its activists prompted Hamas into declaring a "one time retaliation." On the morning of August 12, two suicide bombers exploded themselves — one at the entrance to the Israeli settlement of Ariel, which figured so largely in the debate on the Wall; the other, at the town of Rosh Ha'ayin, just inside Israel's pre-'67 border. Each of the explosions claimed the life of one random Israeli. Afterwards, having taken its revenge, Hamas declared its reversion to the Hudna rules, unless Israel killed any more of its people.

Israelis were shaken, and there started an intensive debate on "Is the Hudna still alive?" Sharon, apparently hard-pressed by the Americans, decided to answer the question in the affirmative, and declared that there would be no special military retaliations (beyond the 'routine' demolition of the two suicide bombers' homes and the making of their families homeless).

However, two days later an army force in Hebron surrounded the home of a senior member of the Islamic Jihad and killed him, in circumstance almost identical to those of the Nablus killing a week before. As could have been predicted, speakers for the Jihad vowed to take their revenge, the Hudna non-withstanding.

As this goes into print (mid-August), Israeli Defence Minister Mofaz just held an emergency meeting with his Palestinian counterpart Dahlan, with the declared aim of shoring up the crumbling Hudna. Mofaz brought what he considered a tempting offer: the handover of four Palestinian cities, Qalqilya and Jericho at once, Ramallah and Tulkarem within two weeks — Ramallah being the big prize, which Sharon and Mofaz hitherto refused to hand over, since that would imply removing the long-standing siege of Arafat's compound.

Mofaz attached, however, a barb: the handover of the cities would be cancelled if the Islamic Jihad carries out its threatened retaliation, or if anybody else carries out any serious terrorist attack. The Kol Yisrael commentator remarked that the Mofaz offer could serve "either to strengthen the Hudna, or to remove from Israel the blame for its collapse."

Sharon's immunity

After two and a half years as Israel's Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon has become the arbiter of Israeli politics in a way that, according to several commentators, is incomparable since the time of the country's Founding Father David Ben-Gurion back in the 1950's. His Likud Party controls forty Knesset seats, a full third of Israel's parliament, and his position is not seriously challenged by any party or combination of parties of either the left or the right, nor by any faction or rival leader of the Likud Party itself.

The revelations of corruption scandals involving Sharon and his two sons, which might have sunk the career of a prime minister in another country, seem not to damage Sharon's standing in the polls. Average Israelis believe that "all politicians are corrupt."

The sharp cuts in welfare payments and the protest marches and sit-ins by the particularly hard hit single-parent mothers aroused much public sympathy. The anger was, however, was directed solely at Finance Minister Netanyahu — the rival whom Sharon manoeuvred into taking up the unpopular Treasury.

Furthermore, the Labor Party is not in a position to challenge Sharon's position, defeated and decimated in this year's elections and involved in deep internal quarrels. A year ago, the assumption of the Labor leadership by such an idealistic and unworldly person as Amram Mitzna had aroused great hopes. However, Mitzna's position was soon undermined to the point that he decided to resign. His place was taken by the veteran Shimon Peres, staging his umpteenth comeback.

Far from being a white-hot oppositionist, it is Peres' dearest wish to lead his party back into the Sharon Cabinet, in which he had been Foreign Minister for two years and from which he departed only reluctantly. For the time being, however, Sharon is more or less satisfied with the cabinet he has. Labor can only hold the thankless task of being an understudy, ready to step into the cabinet should it be deserted by some of the present coalition partners.

In fact, it is the threat of Labor stepping in which serves to keep the parties of the extreme right in a cabinet that is — at least verbally — committed to the creation of a Palestinian state. In acrid debates held among the settlers and their friends, the supporters of staying on in the cabinet repeatedly state: "Don't worry, Sharon doesn't really mean it", while more pessimistic settlers retort: "He is already on the slippery slope, he will not be able to stop."

To despair or not to despair

The same debate, or rather its mirror image, is what we nowadays face, in the peace movement with all its groups and organizations. After two years in which we had very little hope — mostly just a dogged determination to go on resisting, whatever the odds — how much hope, how many expectations can we afford to invest in this newly-launched process in which a central role is played by such characters as Sharon and Bush?

Some among us can see no reason at all for even a glimpse of hope. They see a Sharon who bestrides Israeli politics with no real challenge, and whose aim is to lock the Palestinians into narrow Bantustans and call them a state. They see a narrow-minded Bush, whose occupation of Iraq copies the methods that Sharon used in Palestine, and who will soon face an elections campaign in which he will need the support of the powerful Israeli Lobby (and of the Christian Fundamentalists). They conclude that Sharon will achieve his aim through settlements that will be neither frozen nor dismantled, and through the Wall whose construction would be completed in one way or another. They see the two-state solution finally made impossible, and turn to the vision of a bi-national state where the two peoples would one day live together in peace and amity. They turn to it — not in the expectation that it could become real any time soon, but because when you gird yourself for a long, long, dogged struggle with very little concrete hope, a beautiful strong vision can help sustain you.

But not all of us are willing to give in to despair. Conflicts that seemed as intractable as that between Israelis and Palestinians have been resolved before, and peoples whose plight seemed worse then that of the Palestinians finally gained their liberty (The East Timorese, to mention just one recent example). Quite often it happened through dubious processes presided over by politicians acting out of opportunistic motives.

One might remark the deep-seated war weariness that was so instrumental in bringing about the Hudna, and the fact that by all polls Israelis in their great majority — including most of Sharon's voters — are ready to make deep concessions for peace (far greater then what Sharon seems right now to consider).

One may argue that when Sharon speaks of "a Palestinian State" and "an end to the Occupation" he means something with a very limited territorial scope — but most of his voters are not so aware of such distinctions and nuances, and they might take such terms to mean something quite different. In short: Sharon might be in spite of himself preparing the public opinion to concessions that he personally does not intend.

Looking further out, one might note that, while diplomatic formulas always reflect cynical power interests, such formulas can gain some power in themselves. The fact of a complete international consensus that the Two States Solution is the appropriate way to solve the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians is not without meaning.

Also, having placed so many of its soldiers in harm's way at volatile Iraq, the US could hardly afford to have an uncontrolled new outbreak among Palestinians, which would certainly reflect on the Iraqi situation. The row over the course of the Wall seems to indicate that Bush's vision of the borders of the future Palestine might not chime in with Sharon's.

And, not to forget the ultimate argument: if the Palestinians are not broken by their extreme hardship, who are we to give up now the only solution in which we can believe as a reality.

The Editors


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