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Mired in Mistrust

There will never be a serious movement toward resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict until both sides are equally exhausted from fighting.

The prediction that defeating Saddam would trigger the domino effect--encouraging other Arab countries to act more democratically, eventually leading to an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement--was overly optimistic. The mayhem following the invasion of Iraq may have, in fact, reduced the chances for peace between the Israelis and Palestinians; it has emboldened Islamic radicals who see that America, for all its military might, can be confronted effectively. Moreover, rulers in the region see that America, faced with its Iraq problem, may be incapable of backing up its demands with force. In the words of Iran's President Mohammed Khatami, "America is not in a position to materialize its threats against Iran and Syria....If America manages to pull out safe from the storm which it has started in Iraq, it will be acknowledged as having done a great job."

The anti-American surge is now so strong among the people that even moderate Arab leaders cannot allow themselves to be too closely identified with the US. So right now, if America were to push Arab regimes to act in a certain way--including ways that encourage Israeli-Arab peace--they would likely resist.

As for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, even if the US could pressure the two sides to negotiate and sign a peace pact (and that's a big if; in 2000 President Clinton failed to convince Arafat to sign an agreement at Camp David), America could not guarantee implementation--an important difference.

Nonetheless, from the Israeli perspective the ousting of Saddam Hussein is a big plus. Before Saddam's fall, most Israelis, including people in the intelligence community, believed that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. Now, because the US went in, we know they did not, easing fears of a chemical attack on Israel. In addition, Saddam's defeat put an end to the Iraqi government's $25,000 incentive payments to every family of a Palestinian suicide bomber and dried up funding to Palestinian terrorist groups, although some money still flows to them from Saudi charities. The end of Baathist rule in Iraq also undermines the PLO's "stages plan," which called for the destruction of Israel in stages, taking advantage of any Israeli concession as the basis for the next stage. This misguided strategy assumes the Palestinians can outlast the Israelis because time is on their side.

In forecasting the prospects for peace, the best scenario for Israel would be the stabilization of Iraq under a democratically elected government that allows for American influence; the worst scenario would be a fragmented Iraq that furthers Iran's influence in the region. An emboldened, strengthened Iran could then claim the mantle of being the last remaining power in the Muslim world capable of confronting the United States--and, with nuclear weapons, it would pose a mortal threat to Israel.

Ultimately, we cannot expect a serious movement toward resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict until both sides are equally exhausted from fighting and the Palestinians abandon the notion that armed struggle will eventually force Israel into submission.

Today, each side deeply distrusts the other. Most Israelis are not convinced that the PLO has abandoned the provision of its 1968 Palestinian National Covenant that calls for the destruction of Israel; they also doubt that Palestinian militants will ever accept the existence of a Jewish state on what Israeli's enemies insist is sacred Arab soil. Consequently, the majority of Israelis expect to live by the sword for generations to come.

The election of President Abu Mazen has evoked both hope and doubt. Some Israelis, citing his calls to stop the armed struggle, believe he is a man of peace. Others point to his pledge to follow Arafat's way; his proclamations justifying the murders of civilian settlers; and his Ph.D. dissertation suggesting that the Zionists collaborated with the Nazis, and that the Holocaust never happened. But even if Abu Mazen is sincere, does he possess the power to move the Palestinians toward a lasting peace?

From the perspective of lives lost, thus far the Palestinians have paid a relatively low price for their national struggle. The most lethal part of the Arab-Israeli conflict was not fought by the Palestinians, but by the Arab states. Even in the last four years, Palestinian losses of life are relatively one-tenth of what Israel suffered during the two years of her War of Independence. As long as the Palestinians continue to view their struggle in these terms, they have a strong incentive to continue the status quo--fighting for another Israeli concession.

For the Israelis, too, a continuation of the present situation is not the worst-case scenario. A hostile Palestinian state on Israel's border would be far more dangerous. The Yom Kippur War, which lasted only three weeks, cost twice as many Israeli lives as the last four years of Palestinian terrorism.

What, then, is the best situation Israel can realistically hope for? The only solution is a negotiated peace based on Palestinian acceptance of the fact that Israel cannot be defeated. Should this happen, a long transitory stage would need to ensue, with strong US and/or international sanctions imposed for every breach of terms. But first, both sides have to learn how to stop killing each other.

Unfortunately, changing this state of affairs lies beyond US power. 

Yagil Henkin is an associate fellow at the Shalem Center in Jerusalem and a military historian specializing in military doctrine and urban warfare. His first book, Not 'a Guerilla': the History of the Chechen War, 1994-1996, will be published this year by the Israeli Security Department Publishing House.