Arab-Israeli relations hijacked by radicals

Watching the latest rocket attacks between Hamas and Israel, it is difficult to remember the heady days of the 1993 Oslo Accords when Israelis and Palestinians committed to creating a two-state solution.

Oslo allowed for the formation of the Palestinian Authority – the internationally recognized leadership of the Palestinians – and the recognition of the State of Israel, but it did not define the future borders for the two and left undefined the question of sovereignty over East Jerusalem up in the air.

The early 1990s was a time of very different political dynamics in the Middle East that saw a far more deft and diplomatic generation of politicians, on both sides, shaping policy. In those days, the issues seemed difficult but resolvable with time.

It became apparent towards the end of the Clinton era, however, that both sides were digging in their heels. Many point to a 2000 summit at Camp David as the last chance to save Oslo and deliver a framework for a two-solution. That possibility, however, came to an end when, after four days of intense negotiations between Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Yasser Arafat from the Palestinian Authority, talks that were moderated by Bill Clinton, Arafat rejected Barak’s final proposal for full and unfettered control of the whole of the West Bank and Gaza, but not East Jerusalem, which would remain a part of a unified Jerusalem that would be Israel’s capital.

The Israeli-Palestinian peace process has steadily gone downhill ever since Arafat opted to walk out of the talks. This had profound implications for the region and for the domestic political scene in both Israel and amongst the Palestinian Authority.

Israel’s centrist Labour party, which was one of the architects of Oslo and has been the dominant moderate-secular party in Israel for decades, was accused of making too many concessions to the Palestinians, which ultimately still failed to deliver peace. Following the October 2000 riots and the violence of the Second Intifada, Barak resigned, and Labour has seen its popularity decline ever since.

Today’s Labour has become a marginal political force. In the meantime, the conservative Likud party has been shifting further to the right for years. The process began under the leadership of Ariel Sharon when Likud questioned key provisions of Oslo. Sharon was later attacked by Benjamin Netanyahu for being too soft on the Palestinians, mostly because of his decision to withdraw from Gaza. The last 12 years of various governments led by Nethanyahu saw a constant radicalization of Israeli foreign policy and its position towards the Palestinians.

In the meantime, the Palestinians have been affected by deadly internal divisions for the last 15 years, and the ever-growing role and influence of the Islamist terrorist group Hamas, which fully governs Gaza, is a non-starter for the Israelis. Unlike Fatah, which governs in the West Bank, Hamas fundamentally rejects the core tenents of Oslo, specifically the formal recognition of the State of Israel. Hamas has been supported, financed and armed by Iran, which only complicates the dynamics of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

Members of Hamas demonstrate in Gaza.

The last two-plus have clearly demonstrated that the ongoing conflict between Israel and the Palestinians is simply playing into the hands of radicals. Following the latest conflict, the popularity of Hamas has grown amongst the Palestinians whilst Fatah has been on the losing end.

The June 2 agreement by all of the Israeli opposition parties may cost Benjamin Netanyahu his premiership, but should hostilities with Gaza resume, he may actually remain as the head of the Israeli government. This means that in the current context, powerful political forces – both in Israel and amongst the Palestinian leadership – are working against peace.

Both sides badly need leaders that think bravely long-term and beyond their narrow political interests. For the moment, no such leaders have appeared on the horizon in Israel, in Gaza or in the West Bank. It is, therefore, more than likely that another wave of Israeli-Palestinian hostilities will resume sooner rather than later.

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