Can Palestinian democracy truly bring peace between Palestinians and Israelis in a region that has been torn apart by hatred, prejudice and murder for centuries?
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It has been a long time since the words “peace” and “hope” have been associated with the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. Over the past several years, the nation of Israel has experienced some of the bloodiest violence on record. However, the death of Yasser Arafat has renewed optimism for a peaceful end to hostilities in the region.
Mr. Arafat, an implacable foe of Israel, never embraced diplomacy as a means of bringing about change. He wholeheartedly supported terror as a weapon and, to emphasize this, once appeared at the United Nations brandishing both a gun and an olive branch. His embrace of terrorism caused him to lose credibility in the eyes of Israel and the United States. The result was his failure to create a Palestinian state.
However, since Mr. Arafat’s death, things have changed. More moderate Palestinian leaders have emerged, committed to resolving differences with Israel through non-violent means, and to establishing an independent, democratic Palestinian state.
Will this be achieved?
One such leader to emerge is Mahmoud Abbas. Mr. Abbas, a long-time associate of Yasser Arafat, was elected President of the Palestinian Authority in January 2005. Born in Safed in British Mandate Palestine in 1935, his family fled to Syria when Safed became a part of Israel in 1948. A highly educated man, he later graduated from university with degrees in law and history and is one of the few Palestinians to study Israeli history and politics. He is also the author of several books.
While in exile during the 1950s, Mr. Abbas helped recruit young Palestinians to the cause of “liberation,” many of whom later went on to become leading figures in the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO).
In the 1960s, along with Yasser Arafat, Mr. Abbas co-founded Fatah, the main political faction within the PLO. As a close associate of Mr. Arafat, he accompanied him into exile in several countries. While the flamboyant Mr. Arafat took the limelight, Mr. Abbas stayed in the background, becoming known for his clean and simple living. Prior to the January 2005 election, he had never been known to carry a gun, fight a battle or run for election.
Mr. Abbas has long been considered one of the leading Palestinians dedicated to searching for a peaceful solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. While Mr. Arafat repeatedly advocated change through violence and terrorism, Mr. Abbas supported change through negotiation. He was a leading advocate of negotiations with the Israelis and initiated dialogue with liberal Jewish movements in the 1970s. In fact, his long years of good relations with Jewish leftists won him a reputation as a “dove,” eventually leading to his heading the Palestinian negotiating team in Oslo, Norway, and becoming one of the architects of the Oslo peace accord with Israel in 1993.
After 48 years in exile, he returned to Israel in 1995. In March 2003, he was appointed Prime Minister of the Palestinian Authority, but was never given full authority, because Yasser Arafat insisted on having the final say in all decisions. In addition, Mr. Arafat maintained control over the security services, which further undermined Mr. Abbas’ position. While Prime Minister, he signed the U.S.-backed “Road Map to a Middle East Peace,” which calls for a Palestinian crackdown on terrorism and for Israel to freeze all settlement activities. But he resigned in frustration after only four months in office, accusing Mr. Arafat of thwarting his efforts by not giving him control of Palestinian security organizations.
Though considered the “brains” behind the PLO, he lacked Mr. Arafat’s charisma and was regarded by many Palestinians as being too conciliatory toward Israel. However, he was popular in the United States and Israel as a man who, in their eyes, is a moderate capable of compromise.
Following the death of Yasser Arafat in November 2004, the Palestinian Authority held an election to choose his successor. Mr. Abbas was elected President on January 9, 2005, with 62 percent of the vote. In choosing Mr. Abbas, voters elected a man who believes that the way to peace with Israel is through negotiation. However, his ultimate goals are the same as Mr. Arafat’s. He ran his campaign on the principles of a Palestinian state with the same borders prior to the 1967 Arab-Israeli war and the right of return for Palestinian refugees (over four million) who fled or were removed from Israel in 1948.
While campaigning, Mr. Abbas made it clear that he would not back down from certain key Palestinian positions, such as the release of some 7,000 Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails, and the establishment of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, with east Jerusalem as its capital. Interestingly enough, as a gesture toward the militant groups while campaigning, Mr. Abbas allowed himself to be held aloft by militant gunmen and, at one point, referred to Israel as the “Zionist enemy.” Upon winning the election, as if to reassure the electorate of his commitment to the legacy of his predecessor, Mr. Abbas immediately dedicated his victory to Mr. Arafat.
In electing Mr. Abbas, Palestinians have elected a man who is strikingly different from his predecessor and former colleague Yasser Arafat. Mr. Abbas wears a suit, not the military uniform Mr. Arafat wore. Mr. Arafat loved crowds and was a showman, but the intellectual Mr. Abbas shuns the spotlight. Mr. Abbas is a devout Muslim, a quick study and relentless negotiator. However, regardless of his personality differences with Mr. Arafat, their goal remains the same. As a leading analyst said, “He may wear a suit, he may not jump on tables or shout that a million martyrs will march to Jerusalem, but his demands from Israel are no different than Arafat’s were.”
His moderate stance does not engender support from the majority of Palestinians, particularly the youth. A recent poll by the Palestinian Centre for Policy and Survey Research indicated that two-thirds of the respondents believe that the Palestinians have achieved more with violence than through negotiations. On the other hand, many are weary from the violence and, as a result, other polls suggest that the majority of Palestinians would like to see a lasting ceasefire with Israel and a return to negotiations. Since Mr. Abbas is seen as the leader with whom the Israelis would be most willing to talk to, he was elected as President of the Palestinian Authority, even though most Palestinians see him as an “uninspiring” choice.
Today, there is a cautious optimism in Israel that Israeli-Palestinian relations will improve. Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has said that Mahmoud Abbas is a man with whom Israel can do business. In the aftermath of the Palestinian election, Mr. Sharon has indicated a willingness to speak with Mr. Abbas, after years of sidelining Mr. Arafat. Mr. Sharon has provided assurance of a conciliatory tone by indicating a plan to remove all Jewish settlers from Gaza in 2005, a move that some on the political right in Israel see as “giving in to terrorism.”
The United States was quick to congratulate Mr. Abbas publicly, with hopes that his election would lead to the re-kindling of peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. The U.S. considered Mr. Arafat’s death as an “opportunity” to restart the peace process, as he was repeatedly criticized as the main obstacle to peace.
But along with U.S. optimism, there are uncertainties over Mr. Abbas’ ability to persuade militant groups to cease attacks on Israelis. Mr. Abbas is facing pressure to consolidate the security forces and show that he is serious about curbing terrorist activity.
Future U.S. economic assistance to the Palestinians is conditional on Mr. Abbas taking steps to control the security forces and end attacks on Israelis by radical groups. Increased support from Washington will be crucial as the Palestinian Authority fills the vacuum created by Israeli withdrawal from Gaza. In a show of U.S. support, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has publicly given her backing for a Palestinian state.
Likewise, the European Union (EU) has pledged to help make the most of the opportunity presented by Mr. Abbas’ rise to the Palestinian presidency. Following the elections, EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana said that Europe was willing to help politically, economically, with security or wherever there is a need. The EU has already pledged financial support to the Palestinian Authority. It is intensely interested in a peaceful solution to the Israeli-Palestinian crisis because of its long standing commercial and cultural ties to the Middle East, its reliance on oil from the region and its large (and growing) Muslim communities.
The Arab nations have expressed support for Mr. Abbas and the continuation of the peace process with Israel. Meanwhile, they remain suspicious of Israel’s intentions.
Since becoming Prime Minister, Mr. Abbas has won the commitment of the militant groups Hamas and Islamic Jihad to end their violent attacks on Israeli citizens—if Israel agrees to end its attacks on occupied territories, end assassinations and abandon its pursuit of wanted Palestinian fighters.
In return, Israel has responded by taking steps to reduce raids and killings in Palestinian areas. It has promised to free some prisoners and hand over responsibility for security in a number of West Bank towns. But it is unwilling to commit to a total ceasefire with groups it sees as terrorist organizations. Israel’s concern is the disarming of militants before serious peace negotiations begin.
Hamas is an astute, politically sophisticated group. By holding back and not committing to a ceasefire, it is buying itself some time to assess Israel’s credibility. In addition, it is playing for advantage in the Palestinian political arena. To go along fully with the ceasefire, it may well seek Mr. Abbas’ commitment on a wide range of issues, including assurance that its fighters will not be disarmed.
Both Hamas and Islamic Jihad are seeking more influence in the PLO, which has long been dominated by Fatah. They are likely, at least temporarily, to abide by the cease-fire as a means of gaining political advantage. However, other rogue groups, including Hezbollah and the al-Aqsa Martyr Brigades, remain the biggest threat to the peace process, as they do not recognize the cease-fire. In fact, Palestinian officials have repeatedly accused Hezbollah of offering money to local militants for staging attacks. Israeli officials have also raised concerns about Hezbollah, a political party as well as a well-armed military force.
The American government is working toward an agreement that would involve the Palestinian security forces disarming militant groups in exchange for an Israeli military retreat to its positions at the beginning of the Intifada (“armed uprising”) in 2000.
Prime Minister Sharon has said that if Mr. Abbas acts to stop terrorism, Israel will begin a plan to pull approximately 8,000 Jewish settlers, as well as the Israeli army, out of Gaza and parts of the West Bank by the end of 2005. During the 1967 Six Day War, Israel captured the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, home to four million Palestinians.
From the Israeli point of view, the Palestinians must demonstrate that they can govern responsibly by putting an end to terrorist attacks. However, if the Israelis pull out and Gaza becomes a lawless region, it will be difficult to persuade Israel to pull out of other areas. If the Palestinians in Gaza show that they can maintain a stable government and live peaceably with their Israeli neighbors, Israel’s justification to continue occupying other territories will weaken. Mr. Sharon needs the violence against Israelis to end if he is to convince his parliament to support a pullout from Gaza, as well as relaxing the army’s grip on the West Bank.
But, the Palestinians need help if things are to go well in Gaza. They need to develop their struggling economy and build a capable security establishment. The United States and Europe may need to assist Mr. Abbas if these objectives are to be achieved.
As a further step in the peace process, Mr. Sharon and Mr. Abbas attended a summit in the Egyptian resort of Sharm el-Sheikh in February 2005, hosted by Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and King Abdullah of Jordan.
This was the first high-level meeting between Israelis and Palestinians in more than 18 months—the highest level of talks since Mr. Sharon came to power. In the weeks leading up to the summit, Mr. Abbas managed to persuade Palestinian militant organizations to stick to a ceasefire; in return, Israel scaled back military operations in the Palestinian territories.
At the summit, Israel and the Palestinian government agreed to a ceasefire from the four years of violence (the Intifada). Mr. Abbas announced an end to violence against Israelis wherever they are, thus recommitting to an informal ceasefire agreed to with Palestinian militant groups. In return, Prime Minister Sharon promised not to stage any more military raids into Palestinian territory. Israel has also agreed to free hundreds of Palestinian prisoners and hand over control of some West Bank towns. However, militant groups have declared that they had not signed any agreement. Hamas said it would join the ceasefire only after it has judged whether Israel is keeping its side of the agreement.
Israel said that it might suspend its pursuit of wanted Palestinian militants. If the ceasefire holds, it could set in motion a final peace settlement between Israelis and Palestinians. The peace process could be bolstered by revitalized U.S. interest due to Mr. Arafat’s death and Mr. Abbas’ success in restraining militant groups. Meanwhile, Israel is set to withdraw settlers from Gaza and parts of the West Bank in 2005.
Nevertheless, the two sides remain suspicious of each other. The Palestinians suspect that Israel is getting a cessation of violence without having to make serious concessions on military occupation of their territory. In addition, some fear that Israel is pulling out of Gaza to become more entrenched in the West Bank.
On the other hand, Israel is suspicious that the militant groups will not be comprehensively disarmed. If the militants continue to target Israelis through rocket attacks and suicide bombers, the peace plan will quickly end. The resolution of difficult issues (such as rightful ownership of Jerusalem) remains sometime in the distant future. However, the two sides seem determined to forge ahead.
Both sides have their own extremists to contend with. Jewish extremists, angry over the government’s plans to withdraw from Gaza, are threatening the lives of Israeli Cabinet ministers and Prime Minister Sharon. Palestinian militants, adopting a “wait and see” approach, have not bound themselves to permanently commit to a ceasefire. In addition, because of his advanced age, Mr. Abbas is seen as a transitional leader; and it is not clear who would replace him.
Many in the Middle East want a peaceful solution to this conflict. Over the years, many thousands have died in bloody attacks. Many Palestinians live in abject poverty, and their economy has been devastated.
Most Palestinians are weary of the violence and the economic collapse it has brought. The Israelis are tired of being considered “occupiers” and “oppressors.” Both sides desire to see peace come to the region.
Already, events are taking place that could worsen relations between the Palestinians and Israelis. The Israelis are planning to expand settlements in the West Bank with the building of 3,500 new homes in 2005—a move seen by the Palestinians as a provocation. Also, the newly reconvened Sanhedrin (Jewish legal/religious assembly) has been discussing the building of a temple on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem and the offering of sacrifices there. This is the site of the Dome of the Rock (containing the al-Aqsa mosque), considered to be Islam’s third holiest site.
If a temple (or an altar) is built and sacrifices are offered, Israel could face attack from several enraged Arab/Muslim nations who would consider such an act to be a desecration of a sacred place. Such an attack could have dire consequences for mankind, as it is widely believed that Israel secretly built up an arsenal of nuclear weapons in the latter half of the 20th century. If faced with defeat and possible extinction, Israel could quickly escalate the conflict to an all-out nuclear war (often called the “Samson Option”).
Many have long speculated as to what will happen in the Middle East, but the Bible is the only source that has accurately foretold world events throughout history. It has predicted monumental events such as the rise of the ancient Roman Empire, the emergence of the U.S. and Britain as superpowers, the impending rise of a European super-state and the establishment of the nation of Israel.
God’s Word shows that peace will not come to the Middle East before the Return of Christ. Instead, it reveals that a crisis will occur at the end of the age: A number of Arab/Muslim nations, allied with Europe, will conspire against and attack Israel (Psa. 83:1-8). Eventually, the nation of Israel will be overrun by the “King of the North” (the European Union) and the Jews will be taken captive (Dan. 11:40-41) during the worst time of trouble the world has ever seen.
Jerusalem has long been a source of contention between nations, as it is considered to be a holy city by three major world religions—Christianity, Judaism and Islam. The Bible has foretold that all nations contending over Jerusalem will be cut to pieces (Zech. 12:2-9). Scripture shows that the Palestinians and Israelis will not establish a permanent peace before Jesus Christ returns. The hatred and mistrust is too deep.
But the good news is that Jesus Christ will return and finally establish lasting peace through the world-ruling kingdom of God. At that time, Palestinians, Israelis and all humanity will learn to live with each other in peace and harmony (Isa. 2:2-4).