The Bush Administration’s carefully stage-managed June 4 Aqaba summit could not hide the serious structural impediments to a resolution of the Israel-Palestine conflict. Indeed, the ludicrous attention to the details of the photo-op–the specially built bridge over King Abdullah’s pool, enabling the leaders to walk side by side over water, and the outdoor air-conditioning that allowed them to wear business suits without sweating in the fierce heat–only underscored the artificiality of the meeting and the lack of substantive agreement on either procedure or goals.
From the Israeli perspective, any agreement that even approaches the “viable Palestinian state” called for in the road map will bring about a direct, and perhaps violent, confrontation with the vast settlement infrastructure and constituency that seems to exert a stranglehold over the Israeli political system. The tens of thousands who protested in Jerusalem on the day of the summit meeting, and the strong presence of settler representatives not only in the Knesset but in Ariel Sharon’s Cabinet, are clear evidence of their political clout.
As for the Palestinians, Abu Mazen’s denunciation of the armed intifada may have been welcomed in Tel Aviv and Washington, but to Palestinians it was evidence that he was Israel’s and Washington’s man, not theirs. That his speech was revised and approved by the White House only strengthened that feeling. As long as Israel continues its policy of closures, curfews, assassinations and mass detentions, there will be widespread support for armed resistance, and Abu Mazen and his security chief, Muhammad Dahlan, will almost certainly be powerless to stamp it out. The recent attack that killed Israeli soldiers at the Erez crossing in Gaza, a coordinated operation involving Hamas, Islamic Jihad and the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades (grassroots units of Abu Mazen and Yasir Arafat’s Fatah), was a direct challenge both to Abu Mazen’s policy and to his authority. Israel’s follow-up assassination attempt against Abdel Aziz al-Rantisi, a top Hamas political leader, was in turn a calculated provocation that was immediately followed by a suicide bombing.
The Bush Administration has its own formidable political hurdles to overcome, perhaps chief among them the Christian evangelical constituency, which strongly opposes any Israeli withdrawal from the occupied territories. This lobby, combined with the more established and well-organized pro-Israel lobby represented by AIPAC et al., holds powerful sway over Congress. Indeed, Benny Elon, a far-right minister in Sharon’s Cabinet who supports perpetual Israeli sovereignty over all the occupied territories and eventual “transfer” (that is, expulsion) of the Palestinians, is given an enthusiastic reception by Congressional leaders.
The recent promises by Sharon’s government to eliminate some, or even all, of the “illegal” settlement outposts (as if to imply that all the settlements are not equally illegal) should not be allowed to obscure Israel’s long-term policy vis-à-vis the occupation, most concretely demonstrated by the vast, multimillion-dollar “separation wall” now under construction. Seventy-five miles of this forbidding structure have already been built, with a total projected length of more than 200 miles. The wall, which is more than twenty feet high, with guard towers, electronic fences and two-lane patrol roads, would annex up to 10 percent of the West Bank to Israel; it has already cut off thousands of Palestinians from the rest of the West Bank and from their agricultural lands. The 40,000 citizens of Qalqilya, for example, are now surrounded on three sides by this wall, and most of their farmland has been seized. They are now virtually imprisoned.
This is a grim scenario, but the situation still offers some possibility of forward movement. A recent poll by Israel’s Jaffee Institute for Strategic Studies shows that 56 percent of Israelis–up from 48 percent last year–would “support a unilateral withdrawal from the territories in the context of a peace accord, even if that meant ceding all settlements.” Here is the signpost for a realistic road map that could be charted by the Bush Administration. If the Administration were to insist unequivocally on a total Israeli withdrawal from the territories as part of a regional peace treaty, it would find widespread support within Israel, perhaps far more than expected. And Washington could use the power of its purse to ease the transition, guaranteeing a subsidy for every Israeli settler moving back to Israel proper. There would no doubt be resistance from the Washington lobbyists and Congress, but the Administration would have compelling arguments on its side. Thirty-two months of conflict have not only devastated the Palestinian civil society and economy, they have led Israel to a dead end. The dream of Greater Israel has become a nightmare.
Israel is now at a fateful crossroads: One path leads to continued occupation, repression of Palestinians and their rebellion, which can only lead to further international isolation and worsen an economy already experiencing 11 percent unemployment and exploding budget deficits. The other path would involve a decisive confrontation with the settler extremists, but it would also lead to a final resolution of the conflict, not only with the Palestinians but with the entire Arab world.