Posted on November 21, 1994 in Washington Watch

The peace process, despite the great hopes that it engendered and its much celebrated achievements, is at a tragic impasse. It is an impasse rather than a collapse because some aspects of the process are irreversible. Instead of moving forward, the Israeli-Palestinian relationship has, to all appearances, entered a new stasis – and within that stasis the dynamic is a downward spiral.

And in this situation the Palestinians are the big losers, victims once again of the asymmetry of power that has marked their entire political history.

There is a great deal of irony in all of this, since it was the Palestinians signing of a Declaration of Principles with Israel in 1993 which opened the door and made possible the progress achieved thus far: the Israel-Jordan peace agreement, movement toward ending the Arab boycott of Israel, the expansion of Israel’s relations with Muslim nations from 2 to 14, and the historic Middle East economic summit in Casablanca.

And yet, with world attention focused on those developments, the Israeli-Palestinian relationship itself has deteriorated. It is as if energy has been mobilized toward constructing the 5th and 6th floors of a building whose foundations are unfinished and even crumbling. Or, to return to the original metaphor, Palestinians opened the door to a new Middle East, held it open for others but have not been permitted to enter themselves.

The centerpiece of the Israel-Palestinian Declaration of Principles was its “mutual recognition” of two peoples with equal rights. In the preamble to the agreement, Israel and the PLO agreed to:

“recognize their mutual legitimate and political rights, and strive to live in peaceful coexistence and mutual dignity and security and achieve a just, lasting and comprehensive peace settlement and historic reconciliation….”

The implementation of these mutual rights was to be phased with each phase designed to create the confidence to enables the parties to move forward to the next phase.

Israelis expected that the process would create greater security and regional acceptance of their state, while Palestinians expected that the process would yield economic prosperity and implementation of their political rights to an independent state.

But upon entering into negotiations to implement the Declaration of Principles, the Palestinians discovered that Prime Minister Rabin lacked the political courage to apply “mutuality” as spelled out in the agreement. The optimism of the Palestinian negotiators was crushed as the Israelis continued to squeeze the Palestinians to accept less and less at each stage of the talks.

Nabil Shaath, for example, projected that the process would work despite the objections of a strong Palestinian opposition. He described how as peace expanded, Palestinians would receive the expanded benefits of peace. Opposition would dissipate and those who used violence to subvert the peace would be isolated by the larger community that would be invested in the fruits of peace. The strength of the Palestinian Authority and the strength of the peace process itself depended upon the ability to change Palestinian daily life and move Palestinians from a state of oppressive occupation to real freedom.

In this view, the Israeli quest for security and recognition is intrinsically linked with the Palestinian quest for prosperity and peace – they are two sides of the same coin. To the extent that Israel continues to control the process, to impose humiliating conditions on the Palestinian Authority, and to dominate daily life in the West Bank and Jerusalem – to that same extent will the Palestinian authority and the peace process itself lose legitimacy in the eyes of the Palestinians. And to that same extent, Israelis will not achieve the security they long for, as Palestinian militants will continue to strike out against them and be supported by a frustrated and alienated Palestinian constituency.

Its is now fourteen months since the September 13th signing, and the fruits of peace are too few to maintain momentum for the process in a Palestinian population sill losing its rights.

· Gaza still has 65% unemployment and open sewers. A recent outbreak of cholera threatens to further devastate an already fragile hope for change. Even the few thousand Palestinians who worked for poverty-level wages as day laborers in Israel have been repeatedly denied access to jobs – jobs made necessary by an Israeli policy of de-development of the West Bank and Gaza economies during its 27 years of occupation.

· Israel has failed to offer even a minimum of confidence-building gestures to the Palestinians. The Israelis have refused to surrender even token amounts of confiscated lands or allow the digging of new wells. Palestinian prisoners (most of whom are political prisoners), instead of finding freedom, were either forced to sign humiliating statements or were freed to Jericho where they had neither family nor employment. And the Israelis continue to exercise control over too many areas of activity, which promotes a lack of public belief in the independence of the Palestinian Authority.

· Israeli settlement-building continues unabated. Rabin’s Labor government, while pledging an end to all settlement construction as a condition of receiving U.S. loan guarantees, has, during the past two years, either completed or started construction on roughly 30,000 new housing units in the West Bank and Gaza and in the “annexed” area around East Jerusalem. Another 15,000 housing units are being planned. And with this construction comes new roads, expanded infrastructure and a stronger Israeli military presence – and reinforced Palestinian conviction that Israel has no plans to surrender land and is committed only to a peace it defines and controls.

· East Jerusalem, the religious, cultural, economic and welfare center of Palestinian life has been virtually cut off from the rest of Palestinian society. In fact, Jerusalem has become a virtual no-man’s land. New legislation being pushed through the Israeli Knesset, which would prohibit any political meetings in Jerusalem with the Palestinian leadership, only adds further insult to existing injury.

· The process leading to Palestinian elections has been repeatedly delayed by Israel’s concern over the Declaration of Principle’s linkage between elections and withdrawal of Israeli forces from Palestinian cities. While elections are necessary for the legitimacy of the process and the Palestinian Authority, Israel’s concerns have once again won out, quite simply because they have the power to set the time and terms of the process.

· And finally, World Bank funds – so vital for building infrastructure, creating jobs, and inspiring hope in the peace process – have simply not materialized on the scale needed to jumpstart the process of moving forward. While some problems of accountability and transparency remain, creative solutions to promote independently administered project-based fundraising were suggested, but no effort has yet been made to raise and expend the investment Gaza so desperately needs. And so, instead of being strengthened, the process was weakened.

The problem today is not merely episodic extremist violence or the dangerous signs of civil conflict. The more serious problem is that both Palestinians and Israelis have lost the hope they once had that real peace is possible.

Israelis may feel today more accepted in the broader Middle East, they can travel to Petra or Casablanca and attend conferences in other Arab capitals. But now they fear getting on a bus to go to the local market. An implied potential external threat has been replaced by a real internal threat. And Palestinians see their once-raised expectations dashed, and a once-revered leadership undermined and, at times, humiliated.

This is new stasis – an unraveling of hope and an expansion of anger and cynicism in both Israeli and Palestinian societies.

The fault must lie with the party in power. It was called a “peace of the brave,” but instead of seizing the moment after September 1993 and moving rapidly toward implementation of the agreement, Rabin allowed Israel’s right wing to drive his agenda. What Israel should have realized, but didn’t, was that its long-term security was dependent upon Palestinians achieving their rights. Instead of listening to Netanyahu (who advises Rabin to build a wall around Gaza and close it off) or Olmert (who is determined to deny any Palestinian role in Jerusalem), Rabin would do well to listen to Peres who recognizes that without economic opportunity and an accelerated peace process, the Palestinian Authority will remain weak and without sufficient legitimacy.

At each step in the process, Israel has hesitated or dictated rather than negotiated. Such actions have served only to weaken the Palestinian side; and so today the Palestinian Authority’s problem is not that extremists are committing acts of violence against Israel or challenging their authority in Gaza, but that these enemies of the peace process have greater mass support than they should – should have, that is, if the peace process were working and bearing fruit.

The question that now remains to be asked is, has there already been too much erosion for the peace process to be salvaged? Or has the region merely moved from one stage of conflict to another, without the just resolution that so many hoped for?

The solution, if there is one, applies a counterintuitive logic to the problem. For Israel to be more secure and for peace to be won, Rabin must take greater risks and surrender more rights and power to the Palestinians. Steps should be taken to rapidly implement the Declaration of Principles and invest the Palestinians in the process and in their leadership. Elections and Israeli withdrawal from Palestinian population centers should take place as soon as possible and without any more conditions being imposed.

Israel’s proposal for “early empowerment” is not enough. It is not enough for Palestinians to be reduced to administering the occupation – they must be given freedom, and only Israel can give that. And economic investment must be accelerated, with the international community adopting a sense of urgency in this regard.

Further, Israel should act to stop new settlements and close the more provocative settlements now. For only when Palestinians experience freedom, the benefits of peace and the hope that justice will be done can their support for the peace process and their leadership be restored. Only then can the Palestine National Authority act with legitimacy to establish order, and only then will Israelis achieve the security they hoped peace would bring.

For comments or information, contact