It’s easy to get depressed by all this, but only if you start from the assumption that the “peace process”, the endless march of summits and agreements and memoranda, has something to do with making peace. At one point, perhaps, it did, but now both sides use it as a tool for something far more important: collecting political favors.
The political leaders of both Israel and the Palestinian Authority have three things in common:
The logical way for Sharon and Abbas to respond to these pressures is to make as few concessions as their foreign patrons can possibly tolerate, while announcing their peaceful aspirations as loudly as they can. The logical way for the militants to respond is to make the most trouble at the times when Israeli-Palestinian cooperation seems most likely.
Palestinian Authority leaders can credibly tell their foreign patrons that they would just love to put Palestinian terrorist organizations out of action, but ever since Israel decimated the PA security organizations, they have been unable to do so. Since Israel cannot make the corresponding excuse for, say, not restricting the growth of settlements in the West Bank, they enter the diplomatic “peace process” game at a disadvantage. Furthermore, in the current round of play, the PA has replaced Arafat, a change that Sharon has been advocating for years, and the US has eliminated Saddam Hussein, one of Israel’s chief strategic threats. Even if these changes do nothing to help Israel—even if terrorists kill just as many Israelis as before—the rest of the world is not going to put any serious pressure on the PA until Israel makes more concessions.
Sharon can do one thing to improve Israel’s diplomatic position. He can demand that if Palestinian militant organizations do not follow an order from the PA to stand down, and if the PA does not prevent them from continuing to attack Israelis, then in future negotiations, the militants should have seats at the table alongside the PA, and no agreement with the PA will be signed unless the militants agree to endorse it.
Such a policy would have a number of benefits for Israel.
Unfortunately, this policy would also break a long-standing tradition in Israeli-Palestinian relations: Israel’s quest to choose Palestinian leaders. During the 1970s, Sheikh Ahmed Yassin received covert Israeli support for the Islamic charities he ran; the Israeli government wanted to encourage Islamic radicalism among the Palestinians as a way of undermining the secular PLO. In 1988, Yassin became a founding leader of Hamas, and now the Israeli government considers him a legitimate military target. During the first intifada, the home-grown Palestinian leaders in the West Bank and Gaza were more militant than the PLO bureaucrats, including Arafat, in Tunisia; Rabin no doubt considered this fact when he signed the Oslo accords and brought Arafat back to Ramallah.
Without a radical change of tactics on the Israeli side, Abbas will prove just as much of a disappointment. Israeli diplomats and politicians will grumble about how, if only someone else were running the PA, Israel would have a true partner for peace, this time for sure. And yet the “peace process” will continue: the Oslo accord and the Wye River agreement and the Mitchell report and the Tenet work plan and the Quartet road map will be followed by…wait a minute while I check my thesaurus…