Preparations for the regional conference are ostensibly advancing apace - Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) are close to agreeing on a joint declaration of principles. But matters on the ground remain enervated as ever. In view of the existing reality in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, all the talk about declarations, conferences and principles isn't worth much. One only has to look at the headlines in the Arabic press in general and the Palestinian press in particular, which report daily on the dead and wounded, on incidents they term massacres or cold-blooded murder, and add to these the reports by the women from Machsom Watch recounting acts of abuse and humiliation - to understand that the gap between talk and action is immense.
The present preoccupation with the itemized list of principles - temporary borders, Jerusalem neighborhoods, passage to Gaza, the so-called "sacred basin" (including the Mount of Olives and the Silwan neighborhood), the settlement blocs and return of refugees - now increasingly resembles flipping through the worn pages of an old book. In the years since the Oslo accords, the parties' representatives have gone over these matters time and again, ad nauseam. Seven years ago the bloody events of the Al-Aqsa Intifada erupted, and in the meantime Arafat has died of his ailment or was assassinated, the construction of the separation fences and walls has nearly been completed, and a Hamas regime has arisen in Gaza, which refuses to compromise, splitting the Palestinian homeland in two. Against this backdrop, the documents from Camp David 2000, along with the Taba accord and the Clinton plan, look like ancient scrolls that may be useful to historians, but not to statesmen dealing with the present.
These claims were confirmed last weekend in a public opinion poll published by the Jerusalem Media and Communications Center, whose director, Ghassan Khatib, served as minister of planning in the Palestinian government. Ever since Palestinian polls erred in conjecturing the results of the parliamentary elections and failed to predict Hamas' dramatic victory, there has been a tendency to question the credibility of these surveys. Yet, in this case, some of the poll's findings cannot be doubted. The most striking one is that almost 94 percent of Palestinians object to any form of Israeli control over the Al-Aqsa compound - neither above nor below. Another interesting finding is that 82 percent of those polled are not willing to allow settlement blocs to remain under Israeli control. And most important of all: Close to 70 percent support the return of all refugees to their homeland (i.e., within the confines of the State of Israel), and they reject notions of compensation, a partial return of refugees, or the right to return only to a Palestinian state.
When you compare these data, and similar findings, with polls conducted in the past, it becomes clear that the Palestinian public's opinions have become more extreme. The fact that the peace process has failed, that we are mired in crises accompanied by constant bloodshed, and that the plight of the Palestinians is worsening, has not made the Palestinian public more moderate, but rather the opposite.
The conclusion is that the problem lies not with the Palestinian politicians, but with the general public. In other words, you can pressure Abu Mazen and his associates, and persuade them to make concessions and compromise, but it won't advance a thing. What you have to do is persuade the people, and that can only be done through the economy.
Two weeks ago, I went with friends to visit the mayor of Hebron, Khaled Osaily. He spoke about the trouble of supplying electricity and water, and especially about the city's growing unemployment. Hebron used to be an important center for shoe manufacturing, for Israel and overseas, but now the cheap Chinese wares have ruined everything. According to Osaily, the Israeli defense establishment will soon finish building the fences and the facilities for the cargo terminal at Tarkumiya, and then a death knell will sound for the Hebron hills, because the number of trucks that will pass through the terminal every day will be greatly reduced.
Osaily practically begs that more transit permits be granted for laborers to work in Israel. He says that if this is not done, Hebron will become a second Gaza. In other words, so long as Israel keeps raising the separation wall and the Palestinians keep getting poorer - all the debates about principles for a peace agreement are pretty worthless.
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