INDEPENDENT NEWS

The Other Israel: The Malaise

Published: Mon 19 Mar 2007 02:37 PM
THE MALAISE
An Editorial Overview
The Other Israel
"The weakness of Abu Mazen" has become proverbial immediately when Mahmoud Abbas (his official name) assumed the Palestinian presidency, as was before "The Terrorism of Yasser Arafat", each expressing that "Israel has 'no partner' on the Palestinian side and therefore needs to make no concessions."
Ariel Sharon's crude "chick without feathers" remark was not essentially different from the Bush administration's patronizing attitude. Repeated declarations of the wish to "help Abu Mazen" and "strengthen" him had the effect of weakening him and depicting the Palestinian president as a collaborator with the occupation forces. Especially since the best means of "strengthening" which occurred to Israelis and Americans was the supply of weapons for use against opposing Palestinian factions.
From time to time there was talk of "good will gestures." Solemn pledges by the Israeli side to ease the stifling travel restrictions on West Bank Palestinians were made in Prime Ministerial interviews to the international media — but invariably failed to be implemented on the ground.
The obvious and only way of strengthening Abu Mazen would have been to provide him with concrete proof that the end of the occupation could be achieved by way of diplomatic negotiations. But Israelis and Americans rather seemed engaged in showing to Palestinians the utter futility of the diplomatic track.
During the January 2005 Palestinian presidential campaign, Abu Mazen firmly and unequivocally committed himself to a negotiated solution, and gained an unquestioned popular mandate.
For a whole year afterwards, he had an unfettered authority to conduct negotiations and sign agreements on behalf of the Palestinian people, with his Fatah party holding a solid parliamentary majority and a cabinet committed to cooperating with the president along his chosen path. But he was not invited to any negotiating table, the government of Israel opting instead for a unilateral disengagement from Gaza and an equally unilateral deepening of its stranglehold over the West Bank.
To the extent that the Gaza Disengagement could be seen as a Palestinian achievement at all, Palestinians tended — and not without reason — to attribute it to Hamas armed struggle rather than to Fatah diplomacy.
Moreover, by the time of the January 2006 Palestinian legislative elections, Israel was clearly seen to be still maintaining a suffocating stranglehold over all entrances to the Gaza Strip, in effect transforming it into a giant open-air prison.
These were the circumstances under which Hamas won a parliamentary majority and formed a cabinet, with which Abu Mazen had to share a very illusory and limited power under occupation — setting the final seal on his "weakness."
Yet by a kind of poetic justice, both Ehud Olmert and George W. Bush soon found themselves in not so much better positions, as the result of wars which turned into fiascos: a war in Lebanon entered into light-heartedly, without proper political or military preparation, and a war in Iraq entered into after a years-long preparation based on false premises.
Thus, with the Israeli occupation of the Palestinians approaching its fortieth anniversary and almost universally acknowledged (at least verbally) as an evil which must be abolished, the three leaders who are supposed to do something about it are too weak to act decisively, even if they sincerely wished to. And on more than one occasion, Abu Mazen seemed to have a bit more room for manoeuvre than his Israeli and American counterparts.
Unilateralism's dead end
Ehud Olmert, who attained to the top more or less by accident following Ariel Sharon's stroke, started out by emphatically advocating a unilateral withdrawal from large parts — but not the whole — of the West Bank. This was the main plank of his elections campaign in March 2006, and in the agenda of the cabinet, which after the elections he formed in partnership with Labor's Amir Peretz.
Olmert seemed to accept the need for a head-on confrontation with the settlers in order to implement any such plan. The clashes during the evacuation of the illegal outpost of Amona were taken as a foretaste of what was in store. General Dan Halutz, the Army Chief of Staff who had carried out the evacuation of the Gaza Strip settlements, was expected to preside also over this confrontation with the settlers. As is well known by now, none of this happened. From its inception the Olmert Government embarked on an all-out confrontation not with the settlers but with the freshly formed Palestinian government.
First there was the severe economic boycott, leaving all government workers — a major part of the overall Palestinian workforce — without livelihood.
Then came a rapid escalation of mutual provocations, culminating in the massive Israeli bombings of the Gaza Strip.
Finally, the Palestinian raid resulting in the capture of Israeli soldier Gil'ad Shalit precipitated a massive invasion of the Gaza Strip, in which hundreds of Palestinians were killed, as well as to a virtual manhunt on Hamas members of the Palestinian legislature and cabinet, dozens of whom were apprehended and taken to Israeli prisons.
For some time, all this was regarded — by observers on both sides of the political spectrum, and apparently also by Olmert himself — as a temporary distraction, which would eventually dissipate and let the government resume its original agenda on the West Bank. But such expectations were laid to rest once Hizbullah staged its own daring cross-border raid and capture of Israeli soldiers, setting off the Second Lebanon War.
Olmert, Peretz and Halutz jauntily set off a full-scale war, so arrogantly certain of victory that they did not bother to either check the army's abilities to achieve its military objectives or prepare any set of coherent political goals. The resulting fiasco left the careers of all three in tatters and the government lurching rudderless from crisis to crisis, with no goal or agenda beyond short-term survival.
Moreover, not only did the war result in the personal discrediting of the country's main policy-makers, it also discredited the concept of unilateral withdrawals that had become so popular under Sharon.
The Hizbullah attacks from the Lebanese territory evacuated by Ehud Barak, together with the shooting of missiles from the Gaza territory that Sharon evacuated, gave the idea that such a unilateral withdrawal — without any agreement with or obligation by the other side — was after all not a very good idea.
It still left the question open whether there should just be no withdrawal at all — as avowed by a shrill right-wing chorus — or that withdrawal should be part of a negotiated solution — as asserted with renewed vehemence by leftists who were never really happy with Sharon's unilateralism.
Tooth and nail
In the immediate aftermath of the war, Olmert did manage to whether an extra-parliamentary movement demanding his resignation — which was not quite massive enough to topple the government (nor did it quite succeed in convincing the public of its impartiality). But with the passing months, this came to be seen as little more than a temporary reprieve and stay of execution.
Olmert and Peretz's ratings in the polls plummeted to depths rarely if ever recorded for the holders of such senior positions and showed no sign of recovery. So did Halutz's, all the more remarkable in the militarily minded Israeli society where generals usually enjoy high popularity simply by virtue of being such.
Were new elections to be held, the major winner would clearly be Likud leader Binyamin Netanyahu, whom commentators had written off as "a failure" and "a has been" just before. Not that Netanyahu's performance has visibly improved since the rather ignominious end of his term as Prime Minister in 1999 — but in the public mind, his half-remembered failures seemed to pale in comparison with Olmert's fresh ones.
Olmert's first priority was, therefore, to forge a solid parliamentary majority blocking any initiative for new elections. The obvious means was to divide the ranks of the right-wing opposition and entice into the government the extreme-right demagogue Avigdor Lieberman.
A shrewd and ruthless man, Lieberman had started as Netanayhu's protégé and henchman, but had long since launched his own party and career. At first allied with the settler leadership, Lieberman concluded from the settlers' failure to stop Sharon's "disengagement" that relying on Biblically derived "historical rights" and claiming the whole of "Greater Israel" had a very limited appeal in the Israeli society.
Such arguments attracted mainly the national-religious sector, some ten percent of the Israeli population. These, moreover, had plenty of leaders preferable to Lieberman — who is a settler but not a very religious one.
Instead, Lieberman forged his own political mixture. This included an ethnic appeal to Israelis who are like him of Russian origin combined with persistent incitement against Israel's Arab citizens who are depicted as "an internal threat" and "fifth column". He promises to disenfranchise them by demanding "oaths of loyalty to the Jewish state", proposing to "give a whole lot of them to Palestine, together with their villages."
A last ingredient was a call to institute in Israel "a presidential system" so as to "make possible a strong and stable leadership." The resulting brew — which gained Lieberman eleven Knesset seats, nearly 10% — was judged by more than one observer as "the closest to a classic Fascist party ever to arise in the Israeli political system."
Olmert proved highly eager to bringing Lieberman into his cabinet and make him "a Special Minister for Strategic Threats" — a title that was never clearly explained, but there were broad hints that it had to do with the Iranians plans to develop nuclear arms.
To the dismay of his fast-dwindling supporters on the left, the Labor Party's Amir Peretz made no more than token protests at the entry of such an unsavory character, and only a single one of Labor's seven ministers resigned rather than become Lieberman's fellow minister.
The price of Lieberman's presence in the government was very clear and officially stated: no more evacuations of settlement outposts, even those considered "illegal" under Israeli as well as international law. Certainly, no far-reaching political and diplomatic plans involving evacuation of territories and dismantling of "legal" settlements, and no more talking of "convergence" (i.e. unilateral withdrawal) on the West Bank, which had been the main electoral plank of Olmert and his Kadima Party and now went officially into a "deep freeze."
When critics pointed out that he had left his government without an agenda, the PM replied forthrightly: "A government does not need to have an agenda."
Who's next?
In the aftermath of the war Olmert managed to sidestep the demand for a fully empowered Judicial Commission of Inquiry to investigate the Lebanon failures — whose kind already terminated several ministerial careers in Israel's history.
Instead he established a commission of lesser power and independence headed by former judge Winograd. However, so often were the five members of the Winograd Commission castigated as "spineless lackeys" and their integrity roundly questioned and impugned, that they soon began showing signs of conducting a more thorough and aggressive investigation than expected, and the Prime Minister's bureau started to look forward with growing alarm and apprehension to the forthcoming presentation of their report.
Meanwhile, there appeared another eager candidate for delivering the coup de grace, State Comptroller Micha Lindenstraus. Since taking up this position, Lindenstraus had adopted far more assertive and aggressive modes than his predecessors in the job.
He decided to start his own competing investigation of the Lebanon War failures. Especially, he took up the government's inability to provide adequate support to the population of northern Israel during six weeks of living under constant missile bombardments. After all, the firing of rockets from Lebanon into Israel had been a predictable result, which anyone embarking on an aerial war in Lebanon should have foreseen.
Ehud Olmert, Amir Peretz and Dan Halutz all faced constant challenges to their continued tenure of their respective positions — and it did not bring about any cordial relations between the three of them. On the contrary, in an increasingly brutal tug-of-war each sought to save himself by making the others into scapegoats, with the Prime Minister and his Defence Minister engaging in particularly acrimonious public quarreling.
PM Olmert faced an increasing restiveness within the ruling Kadima Party — a jury-rigged structure improvised by Sharon less than a year ago. Especially Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni started, more and more openly, to manifest her belief — shared by quite a few others — that she could do a better job.
Amir Peretz faced a more intensive and open challenge to both his tenure of the Defence Ministry and his leadership of the Labor Party. Peretz had totally lost his considerable initial support from the Left, gained when posing as a staunch peacenik and white-hot social reformer, had evaporated due to his actual performance in office. And those who objected to him to start with were confirmed in their stance.
Virtually everybody in Israel, with the notable exception of Peretz himself, became convinced that he was never fit for the role of Defence Minister and should vacate it as soon as possible. Peretz was obdurate — but had to submit to an all-out leadership contest set for May 2007.
There, he is likely to lose out to either former PM, retired General Ehud Barak (who made an impressive "comeback", due less to his own merits than to the proven demerits of the incumbent) or to the more dovish former Admiral and Security Chief Ami Ayalon.
The strongest challenge of all seems to have confronted Chief of Staff Halutz. In theory an army commander, not being an elected official, has no need of popular backing. In practice, however, a general finds it very difficult to continue functioning when his competence is seriously doubted by many of his direct subordinates, and when at the same time the middle and low ranking officers express a growing lack of confidence both in him and in the high command as a whole.
Following an intensive power struggle inside the army, exposed to the public gaze as such struggles never were before, a Brigadier and a Major General had to resign for faulty conduct during the Lebanon War — with media commentators strongly implying, in both cases, that they were taking the rap for faults originating at the very top. At last, in January Halutz submitted his long-expected resignation.
But the careers that teetered on the verge of extinction were not only of those implicated with the Lebanon fiasco. In the past months, Israel seems to have embarked on what has already been labelled "anti-corruption crusade", "puritanical mania" and "witch-hunt", with scandals of various kinds following each other in the headlines with bewildering rapidity.
The most well known and sensational was the criminal investigation launched against President Moshe Katzav, charged with sexual assault and actual rape of female employees in the Presidential Mansion. Though manifestly unable to go on being the "Unifying National Symbol", Katzav persistently refused to give up his titular role, making angry accusations of being "persecuted and victimized by the media" (to which the media gave extensive coverage).
Justice Minister Haim Ramon, one of the wiliest of Israel's politicians, lost his job when being convicted of having intimately kissed a girl soldier without her consent, en route to the cabinet meeting that resolved upon the war in Lebanon (though this aspect was remarkably absent from the entire Ramon Controversy).
And the Chief Commissioner of Israel's National Police had to resign when found to have covered up for a senior police officer suspected of collusion with an organized crime "family." And the government's Chief Tax Collector, along with all his chief helpers, was arrested on suspicion of having received bribes from rich business people for various illegal "favors." And PM Olmert's trusted Chef de Bureau was arrested on suspicion of involvement with the tax scandal. And the PM's name was mentioned in connection with half a dozen other corruption scandals, big and small — some with sufficient evidence uncovered to have Attorney General Mazuz deliberate whether or not to present criminal charges...
For his part, Olmert appointed to the vacant Justice portfolio a law professor dedicated to "cutting down" the Supreme Court and reducing the "excessive powers" of its judges — which observers considered an especially inappropriate act for a PM who might sooner or later face the judicial system as a defendant in the dock. But at the same time, Olmert's men also tried to make use of the Supreme Court to obtain injunctions and hinder the investigations of State Comptroller Lindenstraus, whose mediagenic probing of ever-new corruption scandals were "making it impossible for the government to function"...
Under such circumstances, the demise of an ambitious politician, who lost a bid to become Minister of Tourism because she was revealed to have included in her CV a couple of non-existent academic degrees, would have been little more than comic relief. Except that the Knesset Member in question — a lieutenant of the noxious Lieberman — had also made some very blunt racist remarks on Arabs (which in themselves had not hurt her career at all — rather the reverse).
The prevailing atmosphere of "malaise" — with Israelis on all parts of the political and social spectrum tending to lose confidence in all leaders, parties, and institutions and to feel themselves sinking into a morass — has many implications. Not least, the growing worry that sooner or later Israeli society might turn to "a strong man" who would succeed in making himself seem "clean" and "decisive."
No more jumps
After being so damaged by having jumped light-heartedly into war, Olmert does not at present seem very eager to plunge into further large-scale military adventures, such as are enthusiastically advocated in various political and military circles: a new war in Lebanon, and possibly involving Syria too, in order to "restore Israel's deterrence" after the 2006 debacle as well as a complete re-conquest of the Gaza Strip aimed at "rooting out terrorism" — both of which might be combined with a "pre-emptive" aerial strike at Iran, attempting to destroy that country's nuclear program.
But if not eager to engage in large pyrotechnics beyond the "routine" operations daily stamping on the occupied Palestinians, even less was Olmert inclined to make even a small move towards peace which might involve any kind of controversial concession. Indeed, it is generally assumed — by Israelis as by international observers and diplomats — that "the chick has no feathers"; Olmert is simply far too weak to do anything of the kind.
This was what defined for example the PM's negative response to what news editors called "The Syrian Peace Offensive." In the past half year Syrian President Assad has been making a long series of conciliatory statements. He repeatedly made overtures via Arab and European diplomats and non-governmental Americans and Israelis, among them Alon Li'el, a senior Israeli Foreign Ministry official in the Oslo years.
The message passed through all these various channels was similar: Syria was willing to resume negotiations — and conclude them with a peace agreement — on the same terms as formed the basis for past negotiations: return of the Golan Heights, occupied by Israel since 1967 and unilaterally annexed in 1981, but whose possession by Israel was never recognized by any other country.
These Syrian offers were accompanied by not quite explicit threats and hints that the prolonged cease-fire on the Golan border — scrupulously maintained since 1974 — might not survive in case of Israel persisting in holding on to the Golan.
There were visible moves to upgrade the Syrian armed forces, long considered obsolete and unable to face Israel in the field — especially the large-scale purchase of anti-tank missiles of the kinds that had proven so effective against Israeli armor in South Lebanon.
There were a considerable number of voices in the mainstream political system and press calling upon the government to at least try to make a deal with the Syrians — so as to avoid the danger of war and effect a strategic change by depriving the outspokenly hostile Iran of its a major ally located at Israel's border.
Israel's Military Intelligence took a similar position in several reports submitted to the government — in open debate with the hawkish stance of Mossad, the country's external intelligence agency, which persistently expressed extreme suspicion of the Syrians.
For his part, Olmert had what seemed the perfect response: an American veto. The Bush Administration had declared Syria to be part of the "Axis of Evil" and imposed diplomatic isolation and various sanctions; Israel, as a loyal US ally, could do nothing else but follow and avoid any contact with the Syrians, whatever its own interests.
In other countries, a Prime Minister might have been hesitant to speak out loud of having accepted such a severe limitation on his country's sovereignty; to Olmert in Israel, it was a cinch.
Nor was he disturbed by the intransigent anti-Syrian line being cast in doubt at Washington itself, notably with the Iraq Study Group of former Secretary of State Baker recommending a dialogue with Syria (and Iran) as a way out of America's dire predicament in Iraq.
As was often pointed out, in his weakened condition Olmert was in no position to tackle the formidable Golan settlers' lobby, with its position in the Israeli public opinion far stronger than any other settler group.
With minor differences, Olmert took the same line towards the Palestinians. The elected Hamas parliamentary majority and cabinet were, of course, beyond the pale — to be boycotted and hounded beyond measure.
Government speakers repeated ad nauseam the "Three Conditions" mantra — renunciation of terrorism, recognition of Israel and acceptance of previous agreements. Plainly, however, the last thing Olmert wanted was for Hamas to truly accept these conditions and become a respectable partner who could ask for concessions at the table.
Olmert did not outrightly refuse to talk to "The Respectable Abu Mazen", but was rather reluctant. And when he did finally talk to him, he excluded from the agenda any substantive issue such as ending the occupation, and preferred to concentrate on "improving the quality of Palestinian life" — a subject which the Americans are in the habit of raising again and again, as does the international media.
The talks would end with (again) solemn promises to remove at least some of hundreds of military checkpoints and roadblocks effectively cutting the West Bank territory into small ribbons. Then, the army and security service would inform the PM that actually removing roadblocks would facilitate suicide bombers, so nothing came of it.
In the final account, all that Abu Mazen got out of meeting Olmert was a kiss on his cheek by the Israeli PM, which was certainly not what he was waiting for, its only effect being to discredit him among Palestinians.
Economy of hunger
For all of the country's other ailments, Israel's economy seems to be growing and flourishing (though the poor in Israeli society got little benefit of that growth). Indeed, Olmert aides bitterly complained that their boss got no credit for "his economic achievement."
The same could by no means be said of the Palestinian economy, in the process of drastic fast shrinking towards total collapse, with its props being cut one by one over the past six years.
First, Palestinians were almost entirely deprived of the possibility of working in Israel, hitherto one of their main sources of income. Then, Palestinian farmers were deprived of more and more land, for the building of settlements and of the Separation Wall — some of it confiscated outright and much more made inaccessible and not available for cultivation. In addition, travel restrictions made it far more difficult to sell agricultural produce beyond the immediate region where it was grown.
The complete or partial closing of vital roads and passages to Palestinian traffic, with no prior notice and at the complete discretion of Israeli military commanders, makes impossible any serious planning of economic activity. As a result, many Palestinian business people either went bankrupt or took their money elsewhere.
Nor did the trumpeted Israeli "Disengagement from Gaza" provide any relief to this blighted region: while Israeli settlements in the Strip were removed, the Palestinians were not allowed to have any seaport or airport of their own, all import and export remaining completely dependent on border crossings under effective Israeli control — and these had been closed much more often than open.
By early 2006, the one significant remaining source of income in the Palestinian territories was the government service, providing the livelihood directly to about one-third of the population and indirectly to many more.
However, as a result of all the above, the Palestinian government has no way of maintaining itself by the collection of taxes. Having no control over its borders, its customs duties are collected by Israel, which is supposed to pass the funds over, but which reserves for itself the right to withhold them. And the international donations, in the Oslo days designated for development of infrastructure, came to sustain bare survival. These remaining sources of income were, however, brutally cut off with the Hamas electoral victory, economically pitching the Palestinians into the void.
Israeli government speakers have repeatedly objected to the use of the term "hunger", pointing out that there were no reports of people actually starving to death. But there is no doubt that a large part of the Palestinians suffers from severe malnutrition — more than half of the Palestinian children, according to the reports of international humanitarian organizations.
Package deal diplomacy
Already in mid-2006, some mediators came up with the idea for a comprehensive deal, which would extricate the Palestinians from their insufferable plight and give some hope of moving forward.
Among them were European diplomats — especially from such countries as France and Spain that were never happy to participate in the boycott on the Palestinians; from Arab regimes such as those in Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia, where it was feared that the continuing turmoil and suffering in the Palestinian territories could threaten their own stability. Last but not least, intensive efforts to get things moving again were made by imprisoned Palestinian leaders such as Fatah's Marwan Barghouti and his colleagues from Hamas and smaller organizations.
The package of measures envisaged an exchange of prisoners between Israel and the Palestinians, reuniting with their respective families the captured soldier Gil'ad Shalit as well as a significant numbers of incarcerated Palestinians; a ceasefire putting an end to all offensive acts of Israelis and Palestinians against each other; the creation of a Palestinian National Unity Government, with a compromise program which Hamas could accept without feeling that they have surrendered and which would still satisfy international donors enough to make them renew the vital flow of funds; and a re-launching of Israeli-Palestinian and Israeli-Arab peace negotiations, in conjunction with a revival of the Arab Peace Initiative, proposed by Saudi Arabia and adopted by the Arab Summit in Beirut in 2002 (and never getting a real Israeli response).
Enumerating these points was, however, far more easy than concretely achieving them. Not one but several sets of intricate negotiations were necessary. There were the inter-Palestinian negotiations between Fatah and Hamas, parties possessing large militias and with little trust in each other, and which needed to achieve both a common political platform and an acceptable division of political power positions.
The fact that under the occupation the Palestinian cabinet had little real power did not preclude fierce struggles for possession of key ministries. There was also the byplay between the "internal" and "external" leaderships of Hamas, with the latter housed in Damascus — which gives the Syrians some leverage.
Concurrently, Palestinians conducted secret negotiations with Israel, via the Egyptians and other mediators, of whose progress (or lack thereof) there were occasional conflicting leaks to the media. It took long to determine how many prisoners would get free, and who they would be. Especially, the issue of releasing so-called "prisoners with blood on their hands" is always a highly sensitive issue in Israeli politics, and even more so with a government so weak.
Still further negotiations, more in the nature of informal international contacts, were aimed at trying to ensure that the donors — or at least the Europeans — would recognize the new Palestinian government and resume funding it.
Moreover, there were two Israeli soldiers held by Hizbullah, with a separate set of secret negotiations for their release. Even though Hamas made clear they wanted no direct linkage, this added at least some kind of tie-up with the intricate complications of Lebanese politics, and some more Syrian involvement...
Omnipotence and its limitations
Meanwhile, in addition to their boundless economic plight, Gaza Strip Palestinians continued to be exposed for half a year to an ongoing Israeli military offensive, each day bringing an aerial bombardment, a destructive intrusion of tanks and bulldozers, or a combination of both.
After the Lebanon ceasefire of August 2006, which terminated Israel's unhappy northward venture, the attack on Gaza actually intensified.
With the Palestinian militias lacking the advanced anti-tank missiles which Hizbullah had, Israeli forces could rampage more or less at will, killing hundreds of Palestinians while hardly sustaining any losses themselves.
They proved, however, unable to achieve the operation's proclaimed aims: neither to browbeat the Palestinians into releasing Shalit, nor to stop the shooting of clumsy but not totally harmless Palestinian Qassam missiles into Israeli border cities.
The generals — vociferously backed by the right-wing opposition as well as by some hawkish members of the ruling coalition — were pressing for a move "beyond mere incursions into Gaza" and for an all-out reconquest of the Strip, on the model of the 2002 reconquest of the West bank cities ("Operation Defensive Shield").
This agitating was accompanied by urgent warnings that the Palestinian militias were striving to smuggle anti-tank missiles from Egypt (which is, indeed, the obvious lesson that Palestinian could draw from the Lebanon battles) and that a later reconquest of the Strip might prove far more difficult and expensive.
However, an all-out Israeli conquest in Gaza might have spelled the end of Abu Mazen's career as Palestinian President, or at least the end of his ability to maintain any kind of contact with Israel and the US. Therefore, Washington apparently placed a veto on any such scheme.
Moreover, even without possessing anti-tank missiles, Palestinians proved able to exact a growing price for the continuing operation. At the border town of Beit Lahia, hundreds of unarmed Palestinians turned up on November 19 to sit on the roof of a militant leader's home due to be bombed by Israeli warplanes, forcing the pilots to cancel the strike.
This was probably inspired by what had been going on in the previous weeks in neighboring Beit Hanoun.
Two weeks earlier, Israeli ground troops had entered Beit Hanoun on a weeklong, large-scale raid killing 40 people and not leaving one house undamaged. During this week, militants had taken refuge in the local mosque, but the army made itself ready to demolish the mosque with the militants inside.
Then, townswomen formed a human chain and succeeded in extricating dozens of militants besieged by the troops — at the price of two Palestinian women being themselves killed. It was conceived, by friend and foe alike, as a humiliation for the army.
A few days later, after the army had gone out, the town was shot at with artillery at an early morning hour and an entire Palestinian family wiped out, at home in their beds. With bloody pictures flooding the international media and reminding the world of this forgotten Gaza war, the Israeli authorities made deep apologies for the "tragic mistake." A confrontation with the limitations of almightiness.
Meanwhile, inhabitants of the Israeli border town of Sderot, prime target of the Qassams, were shown on TV fighting for a place on "evacuation buses", financed by the dubious multi-millionaire Arkady Gaidamek.
Shortly afterwards, Olmert suddenly announced a ceasefire and the complete withdrawal of Israeli forces from the Gaza Strip.
The Trojan ceasefire
The banner headlines on the morning of November 26, proclaiming "Ceasefire!" came as a total surprise to nearly everybody — for example, to the coalition of Israeli peace groups, in the midst of a month-long "Campaign Against the Siege of Gaza." It was the first piece of good news in a very long time. Certainly, it saved the lives of many people who stood to be killed on the following days and weeks. But it soon turned out that its significance was far less than seemed at first.
Momentarily, it seemed possible to extend the ceasefire from the Gaza Strip to the West Bank and achieve a complete end of all attacks by Israelis on Palestinians and vice versa. However, the army and security services — whom Olmert had not consulted before ending the Gaza offensive, and who were far from pleased — put down their collective foot.
It was totally out of the question to cease the raids into the West Bank cities, conducted every day and especially every night, in which between fifty and hundred "wanted terrorists" were every week caught and hauled off to Israeli detention cells — and some five to ten per week killed while "resisting arrest" or "trying to escape."
These raids were all that stood between the population of Israel's main population centers and a new wave of deadly suicide bombings, so said the generals; a government which stopped them and relied on "worthless Palestinian promises" would "bear full responsibility for all the results."
It would have taken a far stronger Prime Minister to stand against this kind of blackmail. The West Bank raids continued, and were actually intensified with the Gaza Strip ceasefire. For its part, Hamas kept the Gaza ceasefire, but smaller militia groups declared they would retaliate for West Bank casualties by continuing to shoot rockets into Israeli territory from Gaza — and did, though at a much lower intensity than before, and mostly without causing any casualties.
As presented to the Israeli public by its mainstream media, the Israeli raids on the West Bank were vital and completely justified pre-emptive actions against terrorism, while the shooting of Palestinian rockets from Gaza was an unprovoked aggression and a dastardly cease-fire violation.
The lack of Israeli retaliation for these rockets was, according to government speakers, a remarkable act of forbearance, demonstrating the purity of Israel's intentions. According to the right wing, it was a shameful caving in to terrorism. Meanwhile, the killings of West Bank Palestinians continued, week by week.
The orchestrated civil war
Publications in the American and Israeli press during December 2006 and January 2007 spoke increasingly of what some termed "The Conspiracy of the Women" — i.e., a joint plan by US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and her Israeli colleague Tzipi Livni, to revive the moribund "Road Map for Peace."
According to the press reports, the two resolved to bypass their respective bosses, Bush and Olmert, and jump over the "first stage" of the Road Map — which obliges The Palestinian side to "dismantle the terrorist infrastructure" and the Israelis to do the same to "illegal settlement outposts", and which neither side showed any inclination of implementing since officially adopting the Road Map in 2003.
Instead, the two "conspirators" proposed to move over to the second stage, involving the creation of "A Palestinian state in temporary borders."
There was, however, a sting that soon became more obvious. The efforts of the Palestinians to achieve national unity were not at all appreciated. On the contrary, before getting anything from Israel or the US, Abu Mazen was expected to stop negotiating with the rival Palestinian faction, enter into an all-out civil war with Hamas, and extirpate the elected Palestinian government.
For some weeks the design seemed to work. Israel's strict observation of the Gaza Strip ceasefire seemed more and more a deliberate ploy to avoid disturbing the process in which difficulties in the inter-Palestinian negotiations widened and deepened, and the rival militias trained and prepared — each regarding itself as the legal armed forces of the Palestinian Authority, under conflicting interpretations of a vague and ambiguous law. Minor incidents multiplied and escalated into major ones and into all-out confrontations between Hamas and Fatah militias, with acts fully rivalling the worst which the occupation troops had perpetrated: The targeting of militia commanders private homes, their families and children, plus the waging of savage street battles with the inevitable toll of many casualties among innocent bystanders.
There was no clear victor, Hamas and Fatah forces appearing quite evenly matched; and though some on both sides seemed caught up in the frenzy of internecine fighting, many others felt increasingly uncomfortable at turning their guns on fellow-Palestinians. Certainly the fighting was highly unpopular among the grassroots of both movements.
Moreover, the infighting tended to enhance the popularity of smaller factions, such as the Islamic Jihad — which steered clear of it.
Just as the smoke and fire filled the streets of Gaza, a youthful Jihad militant succeeded to slip out of the besieged Strip, and via Egypt enter the Israeli resort of Eilat and blow himself up in a bakery — taking with him three random victims, two Israelis and an African migrant worker. The youth's recorded last message — calling upon the feuding factions "to cease fighting and unite against the real enemy" struck deep chords among Palestinians (and the Israeli random victims were hardly noticed).
To top it all, the Fatah troops were not promised any kind of adequate reward for the brutal civil war they were supposed to fight. Far from being an alluring inducement, the idea of "A state in temporary borders" seemed in Palestinian eyes very much like a dangerous trap.
The "temporary borders" on offer would obviously fall far short of the 1967 borders, and Israel would keep control of "settlement blocs", water sources, and of course of Palestinian East Jerusalem. Judging from the precedents of the Oslo Process, "temporary borders" might endure for decades and even generations. Hardly a goal justifying what would be — quite literally in more than one Palestinian family — a war of Brother against Brother.
News from Mecca
Saudi Arabia did not hide its deep concern with the internecine Palestinian fighting (also with the drift of Hamas, traditionally a Saudi client, towards the Iranians, the only ones willing to offer Palestinians the sorely-needed funds).
The Saudi bid to bring the Palestinian factions together for a final make-or-break summit, in sight of Islam's holiest sites at Mecca, was launched quite openly — in fact, with considerable publicity. Still, decision makers in both Israel and the US disregarded the Mecca Summit, took its failure for granted, and seemed dismayed and angry at the fact that it did produce an agreement on forming a Palestinian National Unity Government.
In the streets of Gaza there was mass dancing at the news from Mecca. In the bureau of the Olmert Government, the news was most alarming and unwelcome. Livni set out immediately on a tour of the European capitals, with the proclaimed aim of "stemming the tide" and preventing the EU from recognizing the new Palestinian cabinet. And the Jerusalem summit of Olmert, Abu Mazen and Rice — trumpeted weeks in advance as "the opening of a New Political Horizon" — ended with no other outcome than the Israeli and American participants both reportedly berating their Palestinian interlocutor for his "betrayal" in Mecca.
And so, this account ends in mid-March with quite a bleak outlook. The new Palestinian government is due to be inaugurated in the coming weeks, on a program pledging to "respect" previously signed agreements with Israel — which, while not accepting chapter and verse of the famous "Quartet Demands", is an enormous change from previous Hamas positions.
And at the end of this month, the Saudis are about to gather the leaders of the whole Arab World at Riyadh, to reaffirm the offer made already in 2002: peace with Israel in return for the end of the occupation.
With somebody else at the helm, this might have marked a true new start — the exit from decades of bloodshed and the end of an occupation which most Israelis are long since ready to give up. With bankrupt leaders both here in Israel and across the Atlantic, this is most likely going to be one more entry in the long long list of missed opportunities, as this land lurches towards the fortieth anniversary of an occupation which had already lasted more than two-thirds of Israel's total span of history.
A year ago, John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt stirred up a hornet's nest with their assertion that Israel, via the Jewish Lobby, effectively controls American policy. Some people, no less critical of Israeli and American governmental policies, asserted that it was still the United States setting the lines of an aggressive policy in the Middle East (and elsewhere) and Israel profitably fitting itself within these lines. However that may be judged, Israel and the United States seem more and more like drowning twins, clinging and likely to drag each other under.
The Editors
Holon, March 9, 2007
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The Other Israel, POB 2542, Holon 58125, Israel.

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