Are New Winds Blowing?
By Marcia Freedman,
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.
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
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
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
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