Are New Winds Blowing?

By Marcia Freedman, President

With its usual fluidity and volatility, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict may be entering into an entirely new phase, one that is potentially more hopeful than what preceded.

As Ariel Sharon lies in a coma from which he is unlikely to emerge whole, if at all, Ehud Olmert begins to step out from the shadow of his mentor's policies in two very bold ways. First, he has taken a very tough stance toward the "hilltop youth" especially, and the settlers in general. He has ordered the army to evacuate illegal settlers in Hebron's casbah, met with strong resistance and given the IDF free reign to do what needs to be done. The IDF has declared it "a closed military area," just as it did with the Gaza Strip prior to and during the evacuation in August 2005. Nevertheless, on the West Bank this is the first time that such a declaration hasn't preceded an action against Palestinian militants.

In going after the most lawless of the settlers, Olmert has also sent a strong message to the political leadership of the West Bank settlers, a point underscored by his cancellation of a weekly meeting with Yesha, the settlers political arm.

Olmert seems to have found a willing partner in the IDF high command. There have already been several instances of soldiers lightly wounded by settlers in recent weeks. Both the political and military echelons understand the threat posed by the hilltop youth and those who might follow them. While Israel expresses its concern that civil unrest may break out among the Palestinians, it has already acknowledged by its actions that potentially violent dissent is threatening to break out in Israel as well.

Second, the new Prime Minister has declared that following the Palestinian and Israeli elections, he is ready to negotiate a final status accord. Just this week, Olmert went a step further by announcing that his first political appointment would be that of Tzipi Livni to be foreign minister. Livni has consistently recognized that the only option for Israel is a two-state solution negotiated with the elected Palestinian leadership, and for several years, she has held constructive meetings with prominent Palestinians.

In the current climate, Israel's demand that negotiations cannot begin prior to Hamas' disarmament is not as intractable as it was a year ago. In allowing the elections to take place in East Jerusalem, the Olmert government tacitly accepted the legitimacy of Hamas' participation in the electoral process. Should Hamas' showing in the elections be strong enough to give them a substantial minority in the new Palestinian Authority, it will have to disarm in order to gain international recognition as a legitimate party.

The only question now is how long this will take to happen, and will the international community and Israel have the patience to wait while still moving toward greater rapprochement -- continuance of the ceasefire and easing of restrictions on daily life in the West Bank and Jerusalem.

Interestingly, the real push for the moderation and ultimately for the disarmament of Hamas will likely come from the Palestinian voters, to whom Hamas will become accountable upon assuming seats in the Palestinian Legislative Council. A study published Thursday by Palestinian pollster Khalil Shakaki for the US Institute for Peace indicates that there is now an increased support among Palestinians for a two-state solution by which "Palestinians recognize Israel as the state of the Jewish people." Perhaps most importantly, 60% of Palestinians now oppose the use of violence, up from similar studies in 2000 and 2004 in which the majority supported terror attacks against Israel. The poll also examines long-term trends, finding that the more severe the impact of the occupation, the less likely Palestinians are to support compromise. These results indicate that popular support for Hamas is largely a response to corruption within the current Palestinian leadership and to severe hardships caused by the occupation, not a negation of the right of Israel to exist.

Hamas may already have begun the transition from a military to a political emphasis. There are some encouraging indications that this may be true. The ceasefire declared in January 2005 still holds. Of the 6 suicide bombings perpetrated against Israeli citizens by Palestinian terrorists since the ceasefire, responsibility for 5 has been claimed by Islamic Jihad--not Hamas--while responsibility for the sixth is still disputed. By entering the electoral process for governance of the Palestinian Authority, Hamas has tacitly accepted Israel's right to exist, and they carefully avoided the issue in their campaign platform. A senior Hamas official indicated that it is not unthinkable that Hamas might amend its charter. Another declared that Hamas will negotiate with Israel.

It is possible that rather than talking about "disarming Hamas," we need to start talking about Hamas voluntarily disarming. It is not out of the question that once Hamas' political wing has real governing power, it will gain increased control over its military wing. If the ceasefire continues to hold and the newly constituted Palestinian Authority begins disarmament of the smaller militias and terrorists groups/cells operating, Israel may be under pressure to begin negotiations prior to Hamas' full disarmament.

The two men who are expected to be the heads of state of Israel and the Palestinian Authority have both declared their intention to negotiate final status issues. The Palestinian ceasefire declared in February 2005 still holds. Israel has begun to take action against its own extremists.

There are Israeli and Palestinian Authority elections, and polls in the region are often poor predictors. New winds may or may not yet be blowing, but at the very least there are breezes that in the dry heat of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict feel refreshing.

Brit Tzedek v'Shalom, The Jewish Alliance for Justice and Peace
11 E. Adams Street, Suite 707
Chicago, IL 60603
Phone: (312) 341-1205
Fax: (312) 341-1206


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