The U.S. Congress has now joined The Quartet - the UN, the Bush administration, the European Union, and Russia - in endorsing Ariel Sharon's plan to get Israelis out of Gaza. In return, Israel will annex huge chunks of the West Bank to Israel.
An official Israeli document justifies this unilateral policy with the claim that "at present, there is no Palestinian partner with whom it is possible to make progress on a bilateral peace process." So the Israelis themselves, with a chorus of international approval, will decide Palestine's future for the Palestinians. Alternatives like the Geneva Accord, which call for the two sides to negotiate a peace that both can support, will be totally ruled out and ignored.
This is obviously risky business. No one can doubt what happens when the Palestinians feel pushed around and trampled on. Some of them fight back, with disastrous results for Israeli bus riders and café-goers. Now, that spiral of violence is only likely to get worse. So why would the Sharon government take this fateful step?
It may be that Sharon and his advisors really believe what they say: Yassir Arafat does not want to negotiate peace; he wants only to destroy the Jewish State. And there is no one else among the Palestinians who both wants to and is able to negotiate a settlement that will guarantee the existence of Israel as a Jewish state.
If Israeli leaders really do believe this, they have been deceived. In a recent front-page interview in Ha'aretz (Israel's most respected newspaper), Arafat was asked if he would accept a formula, a solution that will not
change the character of Israel as a predominantly Jewish state. "We had
[accepted it] in `88 in our PNC [Palestinian National Council resolution recognizing the existence of Israel], it is clear and obvious, we had agreed upon [UN Resolutions] 242 and 338 ... and definitely we are speaking also about a part of our people, our refugees [returning to Israel]."
But if too many Palestinians return to Israel (inside its pre-1967 borders), they might become a majority. "You understand that Israel has to keep being a Jewish state?" Ha'aretz asked. "Definitely," Arafat replied. That does not sound like a man bent on pushing all the Jews into the sea.
Ah, but perhaps Arafat is a sneaky liar. That has been the premise of Israeli policy for a long time. It was given an official seal of approval several years ago by the head of research for Israel's military intelligence
(MI) office, Amos Gilad. Gilad told the Israeli cabinet that intelligence analysts had concluded that Arafat and the Palestinians would never make peace with Israel. That's when Israeli officials began their immensely successful campaign to discredit Arafat, saying he could never be a "partner for peace."
Now it has come to light that Gilad was not summarizing the findings of Israeli MI analysts. He was just giving his own opinion. Unfortunately, his opinion has been received as unquestioned truth in the U.S. government and most mainstream U.S. media, as well as most Jewish homes here and in Israel.
Recently, though, Ha'aretz reported that "behind the doors of a few [Israeli] homes, among them those of senior people in the intelligence branches, different and even opposite assessments have been whispered throughout. Amos Malka, who was head of MI from mid-1998 to the end of 2001, and was Gilad's direct superior, is one of them, and his version is the opposite of Gilad's. He is joined in this by Major General (res.) Ami Ayalon, who headed the Shin Bet security service up until a few months before the intifada; in the approach taken by Arab affairs specialist Mati Steinberg, who until a year ago was a special advisor on Palestinian affairs to the head of the Shin Bet; and by Colonel (res.) Ephraim Lavie, the research division official responsible for the Palestinian arena at that time and Gilad's immediate subordinate."
Most of the Israelis best positioned to know believed that Arafat did indeed want to negotiate peace, as long as he could get a settlement that he thought was fair and politically saleable to his own people. That did not mean massive numbers of Palestinians returning to Israel. According to The Guardian, " former Israeli military intelligence chief, Amos Malka, said he believed that Mr. Arafat would accept fewer than 30,000 refugees returning to their homes in Israel, provided that this was coupled with Israeli recognition of responsibility for their plight."
In other words, the whole "no partner for peace" mantra, which is the basis for Israel's unilateral approach, rests on a premise that Arafat and the Israelis who study him most closely all say is false.
Perhaps Sharon knew, or suspected, that all along. Perhaps Gilad was just telling Sharon what he knew Sharon wanted to hear. It couldn't hurt his career. He was soon promoted to be head of the whole military operation in the occupied territories. (Given his peculiar beliefs about Palestinian hatred for Jews, that's like putting General Custer in charge of an Indian
Why would Sharon want an excuse to cut off negotiations with Arafat? The basic principle of Israeli foreign policy has always been "divide and conquer," to prevent its opponents from forming a united front. With Arafat sidelined (or, more precisely, under virtual house arrest), no Palestinian leader could claim to speak for all the Palestinian people. There was indeed no one to make peace with. So Israel would never have to sign a document making any concessions for peace.
The "divide and conquer" policy may also explain Sharon's seemingly generous plan to evacuate all Israelis from Gaza. What happens then? Who takes charge? Presumably, the Palestinian Authority security forces, ultimately controlled by Arafat. But Gaza is the stronghold of Arafat's chief political foe, Hamas. Weakened by the Israeli assassinations of its top leaders, Hamas must show that it is still a force to be reckoned with.
It is easy to imagine pro-Arafat forces and pro-Hamas forces fighting each other for control of Gaza. That battle would surely provoke similar antagonisms in the West Bank. A unified Palestinian leadership would be further away than ever. That may very well be what Sharon imagines will happen. And he may very well imagine himself sitting back contentedly, watching it all, with a big grin.
This is the future, based on a past full of false premises, that the Bush administration and now the Congress have endorsed. It is bound to convince Arabs throughout the Middle East that the U.S. has no interest in helping Arabs improve their lives. The last time I looked, Iraq was in the Middle East, and the lives of a lot of Americans depended on what Iraqis thought about American motives. We all have a stake in getting U.S. Middle East policy on an even-handed track, based on an accurate assessment of the motives of the leaders in both Palestine and Israel.
Ira Chernus is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder. firstname.lastname@example.org