The fundamentals in the Middle East have changed so drastically–unalterably–that the recent agreement at Sharm el Sheik was just a strip of gauze on a gaping wound. The complacent assumption of many in Israel and the United States that the “peace process” was moving irreversibly forward has been drastically shaken.
An enormous gulf opened between the two peoples sharing the same land. A troubled Israeli columnist wrote in Yediot Ahronot, “It was only two weeks ago that we were buying furniture in Ramallah, gambling in Jericho, importing vegetables from the West Bank villages and reading about the Palestinians’ intention to build six new duty-free malls for Israelis along the border with the autonomous areas.” (Note the one-sided view of Palestine as a consumers’ haven.) “Where was this [anger] concealed so that we didn’t see it?” The answer came from a Palestinian social worker: “For fifty years, we have lived together, yet I do not believe the Jews really know anything about us…. Young men cannot find work. Nearly half of all Arabs in Nazareth live below the poverty line…. Why is anyone amazed that everything has exploded?”
How could any reasonable person not have believed that the visit of Ariel Sharon, escorted by 1,000 policemen, to the Temple Mount–also known as the Dome of the Rock, a Muslim holy site–would provoke the Palestinians? As Gideon Levy wrote in Haaretz, Sharon did not care if he offended the Palestinians–“he went up ignoring their existence completely. He went up for internal political reasons, without giving a thought to how his behavior might affect them.” Sharon is loathed by Palestinians for the brutal war in Lebanon and for loudly championing the policy of pushing ever more settlements into their space.
It is true that Sharon’s visit was not the “real” cause of the riots. They were ignited by long-smoldering outrage over the failure of the Oslo process to deliver any tangible benefits to Palestinians. One of the greatest of the longstanding provocations, along with the humiliating Israeli military presence, is the ongoing encroachment of Jewish settlements on Palestinian space, which has continued unabated under the Barak government.
In the short term the violence must be stopped; in the longer term, all sides–but particularly the United States and Israel–must absorb the lessons of this round of violence before they go about trying to restart peace talks. The Israelis must face the fact that it is wildly unrealistic to maintain sovereignty over East Jerusalem, overwhelmingly inhabited by Palestinians determined to contest that sovereignty. The United States must face the fact that it has failed to convince the Palestinians that it can be a fair and honest broker (about $5 billion annually in military and economic aid to Israel, an occupying power, has always made that claim rather hollow). Arafat concluded that trilateral negotiations (Israel, the United States, the Palestinians) left him isolated, called on to make compromises that would be politically fatal to him. The Arabs’ insistence on Secretary General Kofi Annan’s participation in the Sharm el Sheik talks signaled the need for an expanded UN role in the region. The European Union, Jordan, Egypt and other Arab states must play a greater part as well.
To regain its credibility as broker, the United States should involve the UN, the EU and the Palestinians in the preparation of its report on the causes of the violence. Israel must cease its reliance on military force, which exacerbates tensions and keeps youthful Palestinians raging in the streets. Arafat has a role in cooling the violence, but he cannot do it until religious fanatics on both sides are reined in. Beyond that, two estranged peoples must somehow be reconciled. With time, the wound can be healed. It must be.