A Glimmer of Hope?

It is seldom incorrect to discount hopes for imminent peace between Israelis and Palestinians. Nonetheless, it seems almost possible to hope beyond hope this time that something resembling a cease-fire between Israelis and Palestinians might stand a chance of lasting longer than a day or so. This seems the case especially since Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon on Monday shrugged off a couple of shooting incidents that came after three major Palestinian groups called a three-month cease-fire.

Wisdom is usually on the side of skepticism about peace prospects in this part of the world, of course. But it just might be that enough people on either side are ready to give it a try. But the most important thing for those who hope for peace is to keep the expectations modest rather than grandiose, and centered on the interests of the two parties rather than the current desires of the United States government and/or the "international community."

I talked with Leon Hadar, an Israeli who was UN correspondent for the Jerusalem Post a while back and is now Washington editor of the Singapore Business Times and a research fellow at the Cato Institute. "A cease-fire, especially if it lasts for while, is an accomplishment. A cease-fire is all they have had, formally at least, in Cyprus for decades, but the violence has been contained. If that could happen on the West Bank we would have reason to be grateful."


It is somewhat instructive to check into the actual statement made by Hamas, Islamic Jihad and later Yasser Arafat’s Fatah movement, the armed resistance (or terrorist, as some would insist) Palestinian groups that announced a three-month cease-fire. (They were joined by the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine, which had earlier opposed a cease-fire declaration but said they would honor it.)

The statement leads with "the right of our people to return and self-determination and establishing the independent Palestinian state with Jerusalem as a capital on all lands occupied in the year 1967," which contains at least a couple of potential deal-breakers. It continues with six demands on Israelis, including "the immediate withdrawal of the occupation forces to where they were before Sept. 28 2000," and three detailed conditions in return for "A suspension of the military operations against the Zionist enemy for three months."

In other words, it’s not exactly a pacifist document. Furthermore, as Hamas leader Abdel Aziz Rantisi, target of a recent Israeli assassination attempt noted, in a story reported by the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, "We consider ourselves free from this initiative if the Israeli enemy does not implement all the conditions." So the Palestinian militants have made sure the cease-fire contains, within the announcement, literally dozens of reasons to break it.


On the other side of the divide, the Israeli government did respond by withdrawing military forces from the northern part of the Gaza Strip and dismantling several military checkpoints. And after two shooting incidents, claimed by the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade (or at least self-proclaimed members thereof), Ariel Sharon counseled patience, telling parliament members, "Even if the Palestinians were the fastest in the world and the most determined, you can’t expect them to destroy terrorism in a moment, since this morning."

Since the cease-fire was declared unilaterally, however, with no discussion with the Israelis of the conditions grandly proclaimed, the Israelis are in the position of being able to say they never agreed to those conditions and aren’t bound by them. One Israeli cabinet minister Yosef Lapid said "I don’t think it will last because there are so many enemies on the Palestinian side," and education minister Limor Livnat called the cease-fire a "trick." Gideon Meir, a senior foreign ministry official, told Haaretz, "We are not holding our breath. We here in Israel fully support the road map, and we want it to be implemented chapter and verse." Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom told Channel One Television, "The main issue is to dismantle the infrastructures of terror."

So the Israelis have also placed themselves in a position of being able to justify an abandonment of the cease-fire for virtually any reason, at any time.


The striking thing, however, is that the Palestinian militant groups did call a cease-fire and the Israeli government responded with something resembling a reciprocal concession almost immediately. Considering all the underlying barriers to a permanent settlement of the conflict – status of Jerusalem, status of West Bank Israeli settlements, insistence on the right of return, decades of mutual hostility – why might this tiny step toward reduction of violence have happened now?

Some will say it is because of the U.S. initiative in drawing up a "road map" and becoming intimately involved – almost to the point of daily micromanagement – in Israeli-Palestinian affairs. Some will say the presence in the region of National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, talking to people on all sides and sticking her oar in, was a big factor in inspiring a cease-fire.

Leon Hadar, who just returned from a trip to Israel and a conference in Jordan, thinks it has more to due with the situation on the ground. "People on both sides told me they are just exhausted" by the ongoing Intifada, he told me. The promenade in Tel Aviv is deserted, the economy is in the tank. As is well-known, business investment, either foreign or domestic, dries up in a situation fraught with violence and long-term instability. The two sides have not come to like or trust one another, but each has an interest in stopping the killing, at least for a while.

"Three years ago this sentiment of mutual exhaustion didn’t exist," Leon told me. And three years ago the United States could have done backflips and offered even more extensive bribes or threats and had almost no impact on the situation. The sole superpower might want to believe it is omnipotent and omnicompetent, but it is more severely constrained than some of our dreamers in Washington imagine. There may be a mutual interest on the part of Israelis and Palestinians in stopping the violence, at least for a while, and that might happen. But it isn’t because Uncle Sam has issued orders.

Indeed, it doesn’t require much recollection (although perhaps more than most of the U.S. media can muster) to remember that acts of violence were specifically timed to coincide with visits by the likes of Gen. Zinni and Colin Powell, to send the message that the United States didn’t control events in the area, the militants did.


The conventional wisdom is that the only hope for progress toward peace between Israelis and Palestinians is more aggressive involvement by the United States. Leon Hadar (and I) think almost the opposite. He goes so far to say that if this cease-fire does become extended into something more long-term (which in fact he rather doubts) the relative lack of involvement by the United States for the last three years will have been a contributing factor. It allowed the two sides to become exhausted and let them know in deed rather than word (at least until Dubya’s burst of hyperactivity) that the United States just might not bail them out, that they would have to resolve things on their own.

Leon, as he reminded me, has for some time been advocating that the Israeli-Palestinian dispute be viewed as one more of many local ethnic civil conflicts in the world that would best be handled locally rather than with a full-court press by the wise gurus of the international communist. With the demise of the Soviet Union there is little about the dispute that makes it geopolitically more significant than tribal disputes in Africa or Iran or the interior of China.

More Americans, for various reasons, some understandable and some downright foolish, tend to identify with Israel than with people involved in other ethnic conflicts in other parts of the world, but some Americans identify with the Palestinians as well.

The point is, the global interests of the United States – whether viewed as narrowly as some of us would prefer or even in the more expansive vision of the American empire – will be little affected whether this dispute goes on for decades (as seems likely) or is resolved tomorrow. It has a minor impact on relations with Arab countries but no impact on access to oil. It will have an impact on American power only if the United States becomes too committed and overpromises and then fails to deliver even a semblance of peace or settlement. If that happens American prestige and ultimately American influence and perhaps even effective American power will suffer.

As decent human beings we should hope the cease-fire takes hold and becomes long-term. As realists, it might behoove us to acknowledge that that might be the best that can be accomplished in the region for some time to come. But the fact that it is not a "comprehensive settlement" that ties up every loose end and makes theorists in Washington DC feel satisfied at their brilliance should not lead us to denigrate the accomplishment.

A cease-fire, even one observed only inconsistently, would be a reduction in violence and killing. It would be the minimum requirement for the recommencement of any kind of economic development in either country. If a cease-fire does take hold, we could tolerate a certain amount of ambiguity about the final outcome and a certain amount of militant rhetoric on both sides. A cessation of killing for a while could be much more important than a theoretical solution to all the problems in the region.

Author: Alan Bock

Get Alan Bock's Waiting to Inhale: The Politics of Medical Marijuana (Seven Locks Press, 2000). Alan Bock is senior essayist at the Orange County Register. He is the author of Ambush at Ruby Ridge (Putnam-Berkley, 1995).