Lasensky in the San Diego Union-Tribune: "As Violence Escalates, Middle East Sinks Further Into Despair"

This opinion piece ran in the San Diego Union-Tribune on Sunday, September 14, 2003

With the resurgence of Israeli-Palestinian violence, the resignation of Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas and the complete collapse of the road map peace initiative, it is an auspicious time for stocktaking on the Israeli-Palestinian front. Sept. 13 marks a decade since the PLO signed the Oslo accord, the historic agreement with Israel to renounce violence and begin negotiations toward a permanent settlement. Where is the Palestinian national movement today?

By almost every measure, Palestinians are experiencing a crushing setback. Despite obtaining measurable achievements through peacemaking in the 1990s, Palestinians are now mired in an uprising that has pushed the prospect of statehood further out of reach. To be sure, Israel faces painful choices – whether to continue building the "separation fence" (which President Bush has criticized) or whether to expand Jewish settlements in Palestinian lands (which most Israelis consider a big mistake) to name just two. But Palestinians face an even greater test – to cast aside their insurgent mentality, reject terrorism and focus squarely on state-building.

It is not an insurmountable challenge. But without a clear political decision to abandon violence and confront the armed rejectionist groups, the Palestinian national movement will remain frustrated – leaving Palestinians trapped somewhere between insurgency and statehood.

Meaning of Oslo

Palestinian achievements at Oslo were myriad and far-reaching. The PLO, long a bitter foe of Israel, and a pariah in Washington, was recognized by the late Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and former U.S. President Bill Clinton as the legitimate representative of the Palestinian people. A massive international donor effort quickly turned Palestinians into the highest per capita recipients of development aid in the world, and helped establish a full menu of state-like institutions.

For the first time, Palestinians had a real opportunity to manage their own affairs. Public institutions were established, ranging from education and public health to finance and welfare.

The exiled Palestinian leadership, led by Yasser Arafat, returned to the territories to lead this state-building enterprise. Although specific outlines of a future Palestinian state were not achieved at Oslo, Palestinians did obtain an Israeli commitment that even the most sensitive issues, like the status of Jerusalem, would be negotiated.

As with most peace settlements, there were trade-offs and setbacks. From the outset, Palestinians have had a hard time coming to terms with the fact that Oslo did not require Israel to freeze settlements. The setbacks came early. The emergence of rejectionist terror led to tough Israeli security measures and a consequent decline in the Palestinian standard of living. Then, just two years after that famous handshake, Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated.

Missed opportunities

Oslo was never meant to produce a complete settlement; it was a framework agreement designed to launch a step-by-step process of peacemaking. Israeli leaders avoided discussing final status issues until seven years after Oslo, when President Clinton made a hurried push for peace beginning at Camp David in summer 2000. These talks were a watershed in Israeli-Palestinian relations.

The Israeli positions are by now well known. Palestinians received a commitment that most settlements would be evacuated. Jerusalem would be a shared capital. A Palestinian state, though demilitarized, would benefit from a U.S.-led peacekeeping force. Tens of billions of dollars would be made available for refugee resettlement, rehabilitation and compensation. The 1967 borders, with agreed land swaps, would settle the territorial dispute.

Measured against the Palestinian position a decade earlier, with the PLO marginalized and bankrupt, and a complete Israeli occupation of the territories, these were stunning achievements. But whether by abandonment or outright rejection, Palestinians failed to seize this opportunity for peace.

Camp David and the negotiations that followed were not perfect. Missteps by Barak and Clinton were numerous, and have been documented in testimonials from Israeli, American and Palestinian participants. But Arafat's decision to walk away from the negotiations and not to confront the violence that ensued was a catastrophic miscalculation, and remains the single most consequential factor in the defeat of Ehud Barak, the decline of Israel's Labor Party and the destruction of the Israeli "peace camp."

Intifada as catastrophe

Palestinian violence during the past three years, which Yasser Arafat and the Palestinian leadership have failed to challenge, has given Israel greater legitimacy to respond with an iron fist. The current intifada has revealed how Arafat maintained a dual existence throughout the Oslo years as both a leader of a national liberation movement and a nascent nation-state. Arafat sought to epitomize the role of insurgent and statesman.

But Arafat has been forced to forfeit the role of statesman. He decided to ride the wave of violent confrontation with Israel, a misjudgment that has borne terrible consequences for Palestinians. Because Palestinians chose to pursue the violent path to state formation, they unwittingly (though not uncharacteristically) played to Israel's strength.

As a result of the violence that erupted after Camp David, a good deal of the moral high ground that Palestinians occupied since the first intifada was lost. Unlike that earlier struggle, where the Israeli military primarily faced stone-throwing children, over the past three years Israel has frequently confronted paramilitary forces of under-equipped yet legitimate targets.

The Palestinian death toll stands well over 2,000, with more than 25,000 injured. Civil society is disintegrating, and the Palestinian economy lies in ruins. Poverty is rampant and unemployment is pushing 60 percent. According to the World Bank, 2 million Palestinians subsist on two dollars a day or less. The Palestinian GNP has shrunk by 40 percent since 2000. Malnutrition is on the rise.

But a Palestinian defeat does not make life any simpler for President Bush. A reduction of Israeli-Palestinian violence, and an eventual settlement, is still important if the United States hopes to win the war on terror and continue to manage its diverse interests across the Arab world, especially in Iraq. The White House has declared repeatedly since 9/11 that the end of the occupation and the establishment of a viable, democratic Palestinian state is a critical American national security objective.

No victory for Israel

Neither does a Palestinian defeat mean victory for Israel. Even Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, an opponent of the Oslo process, has acknowledged that a political settlement is necessary for Israel's own survival. For the first time in a century, time may not be on the side of the Zionist enterprise. For 100 years, Zionists believed the clock was working for them. At its operational core, the Zionist movement was about creating facts on the ground.

State-building and land settlement went hand in hand in an effort premised upon the belief that Arabs would eventually come to terms with a Jewish state that was more than just a military juggernaut – but a physical, economic and social force as well. But times have changed. In the area between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean, Arabs will soon outnumber Jews (if they don't already). Demography is quickly outstripping geography as Israel's principal strategic concern.

The road ahead

Ten years after first sitting down with Israel to negotiate a political settlement, the Palestinian national movement stands at a crossroad. If Arafat and the Palestinian leadership decide to let the intifada continue, the current catastrophe will only worsen and Palestinian society will suffer even more. In the aftermath of America's military defeat of Saddam Hussein, there will be little tolerance in Washington for a continued Palestinian insurgency. Moreover, with Saddam removed, Palestinians have few, if any, regional patrons that are as vocal and generous as Ba'athist Iraq.

Palestinians can choose a different path, but it will take courageous leadership. The new Palestinian prime minister will need to prove that even though he is partially constrained by Arafat's grip, resolute action can be taken to reign in the Intifada and challenge extremist violence. Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia, like his predecessor, will complain that he lacks the capacity to do so. But in reality the problem goes much deeper. To borrow one of Arafat's favorite phrases, "where there's a will, there's a way." Palestinians must demonstrate the will to confront violent renegades in their midst. Until that happens, Palestinians are likely to remain where they are today – defeated and worse off than a decade earlier when prospects for peace were real and a better future was within reach.

Scot B. Lasensky formerly a fellow at the Brookings Institution and the Council on Foreign Relations is a professor at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts.