Posted on March 07, 1994 in Washington Watch

The outrageous massacre at the Al Ibrahim mosque has done more than cast a pall over the Middle East peace talks. It has had dramatic effects on all the major parties to the negotiations: the Palestinians, the Israelis and the Americans. It has exposed flaws in the process, the underlying vulnerability of the Palestinian and Israeli leaderships, and has deepened division within both societies.

There is no question but that in the end the massacre in Hebron will alter the Middle East peace equation – the question is will it be altered for the good of the process or to its detriment?

And that question can only be answered by the responses that all of the major parties to the talks give to the central issues raised by the massacre: the security concerns of Palestinians and Israel’s settlement policy in the occupied lands.

But it is important to note, at this late date, that even if the right responses are given to these concerns, the raw nerves exposed by the massacre may not be sufficiently healed so that the process can again move forward.

Obviously, the most dramatically affected party are the Palestinians. The massacre and its bloody aftermath in which more than 70 Palestinians have been killed (forty-three in the mosque and the others by Israeli Defense Force (IDF) actions throughout the territories) have highlighted the extreme vulnerability and powerlessness of the people under occupation. They are defenseless and unable to effect any control over their daily lives. They are subject to arbitrary arrest and/or detention; collective punishment – house demolitions, roundups and curfews; random and provocative settler violence; acts of humiliation by the IDF or settlers or both.

For the Palestinian community living under occupation, the Al Ibrahim mosque massacre was, in more than one way, a lethal blow. It not only killed defenseless civilians at prayer, but it reminded Palestinians of the collective pain they have endured for the last 27 years. With the population already chafing at the slow pace of the negotiations and the concessions their leadership had been forced to make, the massacre further eroded Palestinian confidence in the peace process itself.

The powerlessness of the people under IDF occupation and the asymmetry of power between the Israelis and the Palestinian negotiating teams are a mirror image of each other. Thus the vulnerability of the Palestinian leadership was also exposed by the massacre. In response, the PLO announced that it cannot return to the talks until Israel and the world community take certain steps to ensure the security of Palestinians living under occupation and address the issue of Israel’s accelerated settlement drive.

Simply put, the Palestinian leadership feels that it cannot continue to negotiate under the present rules of the game. Their constituency is too aggrieved, too vulnerable and so alienated from the process that further progress or even talks is impossible. Their return to the talks under current conditions would be rejected by the constituency and any deal they might reach would be a dead letter.

While differing conditions have been put forth by different PLO negotiators, the fundamental concerns relate to correcting the vulnerable state of their constituency and the need to restore confidence in the leadership and integrity to the entire process. And though the Israelis may argue with several of the PLO demands, the U.S. appears to be convinced that the PLO’s assessment of the political situation is sufficiently correct to warrant some significant actions, if the talks are to resume.

Israel and its Labor government has also been affected by the massacre, though in a more subtle way. The extreme shame and revulsion the massacre provoked in most Israelis was heartfelt, and it has generated an internal debate over what must be done to gain control over those elements of their society who not only reject the peace process but are also willing (and able) to wreck it with acts of provocation and terrorism.

Outsiders can find some of the statements by Israeli leaders to be disingenuous. They can say `It was not one lone gunman – the IDF has itself committed such atrocities in the past and the racist ideology of the extremist settlers is shared by many figures in the Israeli political mainstream.’ But one must remember that the Israelis have in the past avoided accepting any part of the blame for acts of violence and shifted it off on others; whereas this time they simply accepted that one of their own had committed this horrible act.

Rabin is acting out of a conviction that the process must go forward. He feels restraint from the right wing (which is one-half of the Israeli Knesset and public opinion) and from the mass psychology of anti-Arab fear and “Eretz Israel” sentiment that right-wing and centrist Israeli politicians have created over the past few decades. But he has been seeking a showdown with the extremists whom he feels are a real threat to peace, so he decided to act – but in a limited way – by disarming some settlers and to agree to some international presence (though not a force and only in a very limited area).

The problem for both Rabin and Arafat (and, I would add, for mainstream Jewish American and Arab American leaders) is that while they are invested in each other and in making their shared process work, and while the mainstream of opinion in both communities remains supportive of them, there is a growing base of opinion that not only rejects their views and their leadership but also has become extremely harsh in their rhetoric and actions and is almost beyond their reach or control.

Can they regain lost ground? Can they rejuvenate their leaderships with a dramatic new deal that generates excitement and support and rekindles the spirit of hope of last September 13th? Given the limited maneuverability of both leaderships, the answer to this question lies with the critical role that must be played by the third major party to the talks: the U.S. Administration.

The Clinton Administration has been working full time to find a way to resolve the impasse created by the massacre and reconvene the peace talks in Washington. It is fascinating to watch the change in how this Administration is dealing with both the issues raised by this crisis and how they are dealing with both Arabs and Jews in an effort to find a solution and create a constituency that will support the peace process.

From Secretary of State Christopher’s strong words of praise for Arafat’s leadership and his compassion for Palestinian victims, it is clear that there has been a change here in Washington. There can be no peace without the PLO, that is clear, but added to that is the realization that unless the issues raised by the massacre are adequately addressed, the PLO will not be at the peace talks. So the order of the day is to find a way to take effective steps to create Palestinian confidence in the process and in the ability of their leadership to deliver on their security concerns so that the process can continue. At the same time, the Administration is wary that it not push Rabin so far as to hamstring him domestically.

The search is underway to find the formula and the mechanism that will meet the basic needs of both parties – and this is new. Palestinian security, at least on this level has now, for the first time, entered the political equation in Washington.

One sign of the Administration’s sensitivity to this new concern has been their intense consultation with Arab Americans. In the past week there have been regular Arab American meetings at all levels of the Administration, including meetings with both Secretary Christopher and Vice President Gore. At these meetings, Arab Americans raised these issues:

· providing international protection for Palestinians in the occupied territories;

· the need to disarm the settlers in the West Bank and Gaza and regulation of their behavior by the IDF;

· a full investigation of the connection Jewish extremist groups have with funding and training in the U.S. and a declaration of these groups as domestic terrorist groups;

· and U.S. pressure on Israel to stop building new settlements and confiscating land in all the occupied territories.

To all of these concerns, the Administration has been sympathetic and responsive. While not agreeing on all the details of the Arab position, the Administration is clearly making an effort to work to address these concerns so as to move the process forward.

The Administration remains convinced that the best solution to the entire crisis is for the PLO and Israel to come to an agreement, which will begin the process of Israeli withdrawal and will establish, in Secretary Christopher’s words, “Palestinian control over their own lives,” and will create new conditions on the ground in the relations between Palestinians and Israelis.

Palestinians agree, of course, with this assessment and would therefore like to return to the talks as soon as conditions are met that would enable them to do so with integrity. With the U.S. realizing their dilemma and pressing for stronger terms that will meet Palestinian needs, it may be possible to see a return to the peace talks in the near future.

The question that remains is, will reconvening the peace talks or even completing an Israel-PLO agreement be enough to remove the poison that has so contaminated relations in the wake of the Hebron massacre? In part, time will tell, but so too will the effectiveness of U.S. diplomacy and the commitment of Israel to make real changes that restore Palestinian confidence in the talks and the integrity of the peace process.

For comments or information, contact jzogby@aaiusa.org

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