Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Eyeless in Gaza, Toothless in the West Bank

In the wake of US Secretary of State Rice's visit last weekend, the Israel government has removed one of the fifty road blocks it promised to remove from the West Bank and announced it would build 1400 housing units in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Meanwhile the IDF launched several raids into Gaza that resulted in the killing of several alleged Palestinian gunmen. These actions need not indicate deception on Israel's part in dealing with Rice or the customary Israeli foot dragging on matters of peace. They point instead to the weakness of Israel Prime Minister Olmert and the power of the IDF and goverment offices to pursue own policies. As Le Monde correspondent Benjamin Barthe recently observed, while Olmert repeatedly expresses his desire for peace based on Israel's longer term interests, IDF focuses on local security in the immediate present. Consequently every army officer or non-com in charge of a checkpoint, village or region in the West Bank can execute his own foreign and security policies. These policies do not aim to build trust among the Palestinians or reduce their grievances toward Israel, but rather to suppress violence toward the occupation and Jewish settlers that are the source of most of the Palestinians' grievances. The restrictions and privations suffered by the Palestinians, symbolized in large by the security fence and in small by the checkpoints, raids, infiltrations, webs of informers, etc. are credited by the army with reducing the number of attacks on Israelis initiated from the West Bank and Jerusalem. Given their focus on the immediate, the army commanders do not see these measures as intensifying grievances to the point of triggering a third intifada. IDF's power to ignore the Prime Minister's words, to replace one removed checkpoint with another, to explain as necessary the endless disruption of Palestinian life, to dismiss as unimportant settler violence, has made the Prime Minister, with his talk of peace, a ridiculous figure for Palestinians.

The story is similar with regard to the powers of local councils, regional planning councils, the housing ministry and Olmert's coalition partners to force through expansion of settlements in the West Bank and Jewish neighborhoods in and around East Jerusalem. Such moves leave the government with casuistic explanations as to why they are not violations of the freeze on settlements. These outcomes strongly suggest that few, if any, people in or near power in Israel care enough about peace to seek a top-down implementation of Israel's declared policies, whatever the risk to their careers. This corruption of the political process is paralleled by a hypocrisy of refusing to acknowledge that Israel's actions are not consistent with the promises and commitments government has made.

Of course, a similar and more bleak appraisal can be made of the Palestinian Authority. Abu Mazen is even weaker than Olmert and more dependent on the goodwill of officials under his nominal control. Although some progress has been made to reduce the corruption, self-dealing and duplicities that were rampant in Arafat's era, the PA does not have the resources and personnel for effective, consistent social and security services. So to unite Palestinians with him for the cessation of terrorism and the ideological demobilization that Israel demands, Abu Mazen would need to get significant concessions from Israel. But Israel is loathe to do that.

The loathing accounts for some Israelis, including Defense Minister Barak, talking up the Syrian option, as soon as Secretary Rice left the area. Such talk is a standard recourse when there is pressure on Israel to deal constructively with the Palestinians. On this option, Israel would make peace with Syria first by returning to some form of Syrian authority most or all of the Golan Heights. Presumably, that would satisfy Syria's grievances, remove it as a military threat to Israel and greatly reduce any threats from Syrian clients Hezbollah and Hamas. The Palestinians would be isolated, with little choice but to settle the conflict on Israel's terms.


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