Prospects for Israeli-Palestinian relations have not been better for ten years. Less than three months after Yassir Arafat”s death, the Palestinians have elected a new president with a mandate to end violence and resume negotiations in an attempt to forge an end to the long Israeli-Palestinian conflict. President Mahmoud Abbas has decided that by rejecting the military option of suicide bombings and Qassem rocket attacks, he can win international support, revive the peace camp in Israel, and bring the Palestinians closer to the establishment of a state in the West Bank and Gaza with East Jerusalem as its capital.
After four years of Intifada and an oppressive occupation by the Israeli Defense Forces, a majority of Palestinians have become weary of the false gratification of resistance and martyrdom, and a majority of Israelis are waking up from the dreams of the settler movement and ideologues that Israel can continue to occupy a people of 3 million and their land.
What was refreshing about the 8 February Sharm el Sheikh Conference is that four regional parties, without any international presence, forged a consensus for a cessation of violence and a resumption of the political process. The Palestinian Authority and Israel, joined by Egypt and Jordan, have forged a regional Alliance for Peace. It is hoped that the parties will use this period of positive dynamics created by the election mandate given to Abbas and the Israeli government”s decision to withdraw from Gaza and a handful of settlements in the northern part of the West bank to go to the next step. Namely, for the Sharm el Sheikh Initiative to blossom into peace, the Israelis and Palestinians need to agree on the precise destination of the road map. Only by knowing what lies at the end of the journey together will it be possible for both sides to turn back their rejectionists.
Arrayed against the Alliance for Peace are the spoilers, comprising Hezbollah, the Damascus headquarters of both Palestine Islamic Jihad and Hamas, and their backers in Syria and Iran. Each of the spoilers has its own interest in keeping the Israeli-Palestinian conflict raging.
The recent suicide bombing in Tel Aviv demonstrates how damaging their actions are for Israel and the Palestinian Authority. Palestine Islamic Jihad, a Palestinian group whose leaders run the organization out of Syria with Iranian money, has taken credit for ordering Abdullah Badran of Tulkarim to blow himself up in a queue filled with young Israelis outside a Tel Aviv club, killing four people including a 28-year-old woman handing out her wedding announcement. Complicating the picture are reports that Hezbollah, with Iranian financing and logistical support, has set up an independent organization to finance, train and instruct Palestinians in the West Bank and Israeli Arabs to carry out suicide bombings. Palestinian security officials initially alleged that the main suspect behind the preparation of the Badran suicide bombing was a Palestinian officer who had recently begun to work for Hezbollah. Another key Hezbollah operative, Kais Obaid is an Israeli Arab based in Lebanon in constant touch with Palestinian militants in the West Bank. The point is not that Hezbollah participated in the latest bombing which succeeded, but that it has been implicated in previous attempted suicide bombings which were thwarted. These instructions emanating from Damascus and Beirut to launch suicide bombings in Israel brazenly flout the decision of Palestinian leaders, including leading militant groups in Gaza, for a de facto cessation of attacks following the Sharm Conference. As President Abbas put it starkly on 26 February, the spoilers are trying to "sabotage" the peace.
The main danger to the region is the ability of Hezbollah, Palestine Islamic Jihad and Hamas International to upset the Sharm el Sheikh Initiative for Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking and even drag Israel and Syria into a confrontation that neither wants right now.
But it is not helpful in dealing with the danger to lump the spoilers together into one monolith. Take Syria vs. the militants. Syria has acted in the past to restrain Hezbollah from launching cross-border attacks. With thousands of Hezbollah rockets stashed in urban areas, even mosques, hospitals and other public buildings, Israel does not have an internationally acceptable military solution to Hezbollah.
It may be surprising to some but France and the United States, the co-sponsors of UN Security Resolution 1559, are more eager than Israel to see Syria leave Lebanon. Given the uncertainty of Gaza after Israel completes its withdrawal in October, the last thing Sharon wants is a vacuum in Lebanon filled by Iran and Hezbollah. At the same time, Israel will be more explicit than in the past in holding Syria responsible for restraining Hezbollah and the Damascus-based leadership of Palestine Islamic Jihad and Hamas International led by Khaled Meshal from organizing future suicide bombings in the West Bank.
If Iran is trying to send a message to the US on the nuclear stand-off by nurturing and using local militants to undermine the Palestinian peace initiative, the 25 February bombing may backfire. Iran, the patron of Palestine Islamic Jihad and master of Hezbollah, will join Syria as a target of blame for spoiling the Palestinians quest for peace, just as Syria has been demonized for the Hariri assassination.
The split in Palestinian-Iranian relations is the most dramatic development with President Abbas declaring a new basis for arresting Palestinian militants in the West Bank for "serving the interests of a foreign country," and "serving the agents of a foreign country," meaning Iran, Hezbollah and the other spoilers. President Abbas may now consider accepting the outstanding invitation to visit Teheran if only to make it clear to the Mullahs that the militant groups under Iranian control and influence are undermining the decisions of a democratically elected Palestinian government to cease military attacks and give peace a chance.
Within the territories, Hamas is poised to become a real political player in Palestinian decision-making. Its candidates defeated the more established Fatah candidates in the recent Gaza municipal elections and are expected to do reasonably well in the July legislative elections.
But that is only half the story. The Palestinian Authority is more likely now than before the Tel Aviv bombing attack to insist that it must have a monopoly on military weapons in the territories. For the Sharm Initiative to go forward, and for the State of Palestine to have a chance of being realized anytime in this century, Hamas cannot become another Hezbollah, a political party with independent military capabilities. It cannot smuggle in from Egypt or manufacture in Gaza thousands of rockets like Hezbollah has done in southern Lebanon. Otherwise, Hamas will have the power, like Hezbollah, to launch a suicide bomb or a rocket across the border whenever it chooses to destabilize the Palestinian government.
Holding Israel ”to the fire” by maintaining a suicide bombing capability did not work under Arafat and is not likely to work in the future. Abbas understands that the key to eliminating "settlerism" and occupation any time soon is to convince the Israeli people that the Palestinian people have turned their backs on the military option. That is the way to win international and Israeli support for a viable, sovereign Palestinian state.
The best gift to the Palestinian Authority from the foreign ministers of Europe and the Arab world at the London Conference would be to assist the Palestinian Authority financially and politically, to help Hezbollah and Hamas complete their transformations into non-violent political and social organizations, and to argue with Iran and Syria that it is in their own interest to cease backing the military wings of these groups.
Never before have the parties lining up for peace, led by the Palestinians, been in such sharp contrast to the spoilers. The advantage of the pragmatic peace camp is that the spoilers do not present a united opposition whereas the supporters of peace, especially Israelis and Palestinians, are beginning to show signs of strategic unity against the rejectionists.