RETHINKING THE INTIFADA
By AMIR TAHERI
October 15, 2004 -- EARLIER this month, Ahmed Qureia, the Pales tinian prime minister, suggested a review of the four-year-old intifada as the starting point for a debate on a new strategy. Qureia's proposal was quickly dismissed by Yasser Arafat, who regards any debate as a challenge to his one-man show.
Yet the Palestinians need to ask whether four years of a violent struggle that has claimed the lives of thousands, and wrecked the lives of many more, have produced positive results for them.
What was to become known as "the second Initfada" was launched at the end of 2000, when Arafat walked out of the last session of the U.S.-brokered talks at the American Embassy in Paris. As then-Secretary of State Madeleine Albright ran after Arafat, begging him not to walk away, the Palestinian leader shouted defiantly that all was now "up to the Palestinian street."
One little fact, forgotten by many, is that Arafat took the decision to walk out of the peace talks after long consultation with Saddam Hussein, then still in power in Baghdad. Did Saddam advise Arafat to make the move? Or did the Palestinian leader think that, by ordering an uprising, he would silence his own critics on the radical Islamist wing?
The second intifada was Arafat's latest move in the complex chess game he had played with the Israelis since the days of back-channel diplomacy in Oslo. Later, Arafat was to claim that this intifada, far from being a deliberate move on his part, had been provoked by Ariel Sharon's controversial visit to the Islamic edifices in East Jerusalem.
As a form of low-intensity warfare, intifada is an instrument in the service of a policy. The problem for the Palestinians is that it is used not as a means to an end but as an end in itself. What Arafat rejected in 2000 was clear. But what exactly it was that he wanted was never clarified. This ambiguity is the inevitable result of contradictions in the strategy that Arafat developed from 1991 onwards.
Fearing marginalization as a result of his alliance with Saddam Hussein in 1990-91, Arafat recast himself as the only Palestinian leader capable of delivering a peace deal to Israel. The problem was that Arafat never decided in his own mind what kind of deal, if any, he would accept. Thus when the Israelis, prompted by President Clinton, revealed their hand, Arafat had no hand to reveal. The intifada was triggered as a means of hiding the lack of a Palestinian strategy.
How long can the current violence continue? Unless stopped politically, it can last for ever.
In the short run, the initfada suits everyone. As long as bombs explode and Israelis retaliate, Arafat is under no pressure to offer any political strategy while no one will dare challenge his despotic rule.
Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, meanwhile, owes his election mainly to the violence triggered by Arafat, because the present Likud coalition also lacks a strategy. Military reprisals, targeted killings and the proposed withdrawal from Gaza, are tactical moves that do not constitute a proper strategy.
And as long as the intifada continues, the United States has a ready-made excuse for its diplomatic lethargy, and the Europeans have ample opportunities for making moralistic statements without taking political risks.
The Arabs states also have reason to be happy with the intifada. It provides a smoke-screen to hide their failure to agree even on an analysis of the problem, let alone its solution.
The only losers are the Palestinians and their Israeli neighbors.
Having suffered heavy losses, the Palestinians are no closer to achieving their goal, because no one knows what that goal is. To some, the goal is the elimination of Israel from the map. Others pursue the two-state chimera. Still others dream of a single Arab-Jewish state in which the Palestinians will, thanks to their faster demography, become the majority.
The Israelis, too, are no longer sure of what they want. The two-states dream appears farther away than ever. while the prospect of an Israeli civil war prompted by attempts to dismantle some Jewish settlements is no longer dismissed as fanciful. The single Jewish-Arab state solution, though preached by some Israelis, is unlikely to win majority support anytime soon.
So, the intifada, and its mirror-image of Israeli retaliation are likely to continue, forever, if necessary. (In politics, the term "forever" means until the protagonists develop alternative strategies.)
By the standards of low-intensity warfare, the intifada has not been successful.
Israel has sustained losses, at the average rate of one killed every four days, but Palestinian losses are more than twice as high. The intifada has wreaked havoc on the Israeli economy, which has been stuck in recession since 2002. But the damage to the Palestinian economy is more severe. The latest United Nations and World Bank assessment illustrate a dramatic fall in Palestinian living standards.
The Palestinian hope that the intifada might persuade large numbers of Israelis to leave the Jewish state has not materialized. Israel's net population loss is estimated at around 15,000 a year, most of them Jews. But the Palestinian loss, estimated at around 18,000 a year from the occupied territories and Israel proper, is more significant because it concerns a smaller population base.
While much of the blame for the impasse must be laid at the Arafat's door, it would be unfair to scapegoat him. The real problem is that Palestine, as a political issue, has, over the past 50 years, been transformed into an abstract, metaphysical and almost mystical cause, one that can no longer be tackled through worldly methods such as diplomacy.
For decades, the only solution acceptable to those who professed that cause was a complete rewinding of the reel of history to the pre-1947 era. After The Six-Day War, the realization that such a rewind would not happen led to a new illusion: a return to June 4, 1967.
After 1991 those who saw Palestine only as a cause devised a new slogan: "just peace." The problem is that the phrase "just peace" (and variants such as "the peace of the brave") are oxymoronic. Peace is peace, with no prefixes or suffixes.
A peace that appears just to one party must, be definition, appear unjust to another. Many Palestinians would regard any peace that leaves a Jewish state in place in any shape as unjust. And many Israelis would regard the transfer of any parcel of a land that they regard as "promised" to them as injustice.
In practical terms, the formula "land for peace" can cause only war. Land is something quantifiable, while peace is not.
Peace will become possible only if Palestine and Israel cease to be seen as abstract causes, at least as far as the territorial aspect of the conflict is concerned.
Both Israel and the Palestinians still have to ask hard questions from themselves. The Palestinians must ask whether or not they are prepared to accept the "injustice" of Israel's existence and, if yes, in what shape. The Israelis, for their part, must ask whether or not they can truly accept in their hearts the "injustice" of relinquishing their claim on parts of their "promised land," including the "holy city" of Jerusalem.
It is only when both sides have accepted an "unjust" peace that they can close the circle of violence which, in one form or another, has engulfed them for half a century. ...