The stronger side creates reality
Amos Gilad never presented in June 2000 the assessment that he claims was his, according to Arab affairs expert Mati Steinberg.
Debates going in recent days within Military Intelligence (MI) and beyond it about assessments of the causes of the conflict with the Palestinians have referred to Arab affairs expert Mati Steinberg. According to books written by insiders in the Ehud Barak government, Gilad Sher and Shlomo Ben-Ami, about the peace process, Steinberg served as adviser to the head of the Shin Bet security service. He worked in this role until a year ago.
Steinberg says that he cannot relate to internal assessments within MI. Instead, he clarifies: "Since my name has been brought up and since I gave a lecture at Princeton University, which was quoted in the Haaretz report, I want to address the substantive aspects of the dispute."
Asked to relate to Major General Amos Gilad's assessment that the Palestinian Authority, headed by Yasser Arafat, has aspired to create in stages a Palestinian state throughout all of Eretz Israel, partly by relying on the right of return for refugees, Steinberg responds:
"Factually, there is no support for this contention. Amos Gilad, as a professional figure who is not a politician, should base his view upon professional criteria. Let's assume for a second that this [Israel's destruction] was Arafat's intention. Why then did he need to adopt the peace process? Opting for the diplomatic route cost him dearly - between 1997 and 2000 he began to cross the threshold, heading toward a violent stand-off with his opponents. Had he concentrated on demographic factors, he would have had to refrain from the diplomatic process and he would have waited for natural population increase to do its part, and for Israel to self-destruct."
Steinberg continues: "As to the assumption that the Palestinian demand for a right of return in a negotiation framework necessarily entails Israel's destruction - that's an erroneous assumption. It's impossible to conceal this sensitive subject, and not include it in an agreement. In fact, it can be claimed that ignoring this topic in negotiations paves the way for Israel's destruction. In this connection, I put stock in statements made by Arafat's opponents from Hamas and the leftist fronts - their criticism makes clear how far Arafat has distanced himself from them. I totally agree with Amos Gilad that it's important to pay close attention to what the Palestinians say and do. Arafat's opponents have grasped that his willingness to agree to a two-state arrangement is liable to put an end to their basic platform, which opposes all compromises; so it is no surprise that they have engaged in a power struggle against him."
Asked whether he believes that there is such a fundamental ideological dispute continuing today between Arafat and his opponents, Steinberg says: "Of course, there is. True, during the intifada Fatah and Hamas began to resemble one another with respect to means of struggle - that is, suicide bomber attacks. Yet the fundamental dispute about the strategy of the Palestinian struggle remains fully intact. For proof of this, it's enough to see what's said today in Hamas' journal "Falastin al Muslima" about Arafat and the PA. Hamas doesn't have the slightest doubt that Arafat and his associates are eager to return to the diplomatic route, and will do so if the opportunity arises."
Q. Doesn't the fact that Fatah has become more extremist mean that Arafat and the others have moved closer to Hamas' outlook?
A. "There is an important difference between intrinsic extremism, of Hamas' sort, and a process of increasing militancy that Fatah has experienced since the start of the current intifada. Fundamental militancy rejects the possibility of any agreement with Israel; any such arrangement is considered a betrayal. Hamas might be prepared to accept tactical retreats, such as the hudna, so long as they are not injurious to the ultimate goal. In contrast, the Palestinian national mainstream, which is led by Arafat and Fatah, has adopted the two-state principle. Yet to the extent that it becomes clear to them that this pragmatic approach has not yielded results, they become more militant. Intrinsic extremism of the Hamas variety doesn't depend upon positions taken by the State of Israel. A process of ideological escalation, in contrast, stems from the impasse in the peace process. That's what happened with the Palestinian public since the eruption of the intifada."
Q. Do most Palestinians today uphold Hamas' intrinsic extremism approach, or do they prefer the pragmatic outlook?
A. "Public opinion polls in the territories suggest that the main components of the pragmatic approach are accepted today by the vast majority of the Palestinian public - some 80 percent favor pragmatism, so long as a viable diplomatic process is maintained. Surveys bring up one constant finding: Some 40 percent of Palestinians say that they support neither the secular-nationalist stream nor the fundamentalist one; such Palestinians in the center of their political society feel confused and frustrated. This public supports the foundations of the pragmatic approach and recoils from fundamentalism but it cannot find proof that pragmatism has brought results. So this critical mass remains silent and paralyzed.
"They understand that the point of contention isn't the existence of the State of Israel, since its existence is accepted by the world, and by Israel's majority. The struggle, as far as they are concerned, is to ensure that the Palestinian state has the means it needs to survive. That means territorial contiguity, the establishment of a capital in Jerusalem and Palestinian sovereignty on the Temple Mount. For Palestinians, realizing sovereignty rights on the Temple Mount is not just a religious or symbolic matter: it's a matter of survival. A Palestinian state which controls the Temple Mount will be a source of interest, and will attract millions of Palestinians; it will be a magnet for tourism and pilgrimages. There isn't a single Muslim - not even the most selfless altruist - who can accept Israeli sovereignty on the Temple Mount. None of this means that I myself propose that Israel accept these demands. I'm only trying to sketch the parameters of a possible arrangement."
Q: Isn't a right of return for refugees a crucial component for their existence as a state?
A. "Return is a delicate subject felt deep in the collective Palestinian heart; yet the Palestinians are also aware that all Israelis oppose the demand. Concession of the right of return is a tremendous wrench for Palestinians - they are asked to cut their own flesh, and so they demand an extremely high price in return for the concession. Concession of the right of return is predicated upon their ability to attain the other components they need to survive (territories, borders, Jerusalem)."
Q. Isn't it true that proposals floated at Camp David and Taba left the Palestinians very close to attaining these goals - and yet they refused to accept any of the initiatives?
A. "The Palestinian way of thinking is this: We are prepared to establish a state on the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, on just 22 percent of the Palestinian homeland. Our consent to the 1967 borders is, for us, an unbearable sacrifice. These borders won international legitimacy in the peace agreement with Egypt, during negotiations with Syria based on Security Council Resolution 242, in the agreement with Jordan and after the withdrawal from Lebanon. The Palestinians can't understand why they are treated inconsistently, and asked to agree to what no Arab states was required to affix its signature to as part of a peace agreement with Israel - for instance, acceptance of the Jewish character of the State of Israel. Their approach left its mark on the way they handled negotiations: They didn't present any of their own initiatives, and remained passive. They believed that it would be wrong for them to initiate concessions regarding the little that is left to them."
Q. Were these assessments accepted in the period that preceded the summer 2000 Camp David summit?
A. "Personally, I thought that the moment Prime Minister Ehud Barak decided to carry out the third phase [withdrawal] within the final-status accord, the Oslo agreement was rendered invalid. The decision blocked the possibility of a third option, and so there was just one alternative: either an agreement would be reached, or affairs would erupt as a violent conflict. This was a widespread, accepted view, and everyone cited the same date for the eruption of violence - September 2000, the deferred date of Arafat's statehood declaration. There were no intelligence reports about a decision on Arafat's part to launch a conflict; and so I assumed that things would come to a boil from below. The question was whether the conflict would lead to a return to the violent conflict, or whether room would be left for the renewal of diplomatic talks."
Q. Would it still be fair to say that Arafat planned and initiated the intifada?
A. "The intifada did not result from a decision reached up above; it stemmed from a mood that swept through the Palestinian public. The Palestinians felt as thought they had reached a dead end due to the failure of the Camp David summit. Their economic and personal circumstances worsened. The PA frameworks collapsed. Corruption was rampant. These structural circumstances took hold; they awaited a pretext to erupt. A leader's responsibility, I believe, is to contain such circumstances, and not allow some pretext to serve as a catalyst for violence."
Q. In June 2000, before the Camp David summit, did Amos Gilad present an assessment holding that Arafat had decided to use the right of return, or demographics, as a means to destroy Israel?
A. "No. Insofar as I can recall, no such assessment was presented. Everyone agreed that if we were to fail to reach an agreement, a violent eruption awaited us. During the meeting in question, held on June 15, there was no serious argument with Amos Gilad, since he never presented the view which he now claims was his, holding that Arafat seeks the Israel's `demographic destruction.' The possibility that Arafat wants to bring back all the refugees was not discussed."
Q. Why is the question of whether such as assessment was presented important?
A. "It's important because the moment such an approach is adopted, and becomes accepted - even if it doesn't have widespread support - it is destined to have extremely grave consequences for the course of the intifada to the present. Under conditions of an asymmetric confrontation, one in which Israel is many times stronger than the Palestinians, we have decisive influence on the course of events. Hence, a mistaken assessment on the stronger side's part creates reality; it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Major General Amos Gilad claims that the proof of his approach is its verification on the ground; and this motif has echoed in statements made by Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz. I claim that a vicious circle has turned here. Whoever upholds such a position has concluded that there is no possibility of attaining an agreement with the Palestinian side. This approach dictates just one choice to the Palestinians: either they surrender to Israel's dictates, or they rise up against the dictates at all cost."
Q. Is this the dynamic that has sustained the intifada?
A. "The Palestinian public has come to feel that it has nothing to lose. That's the background to the emergence of a culture of suicide bombers, a culture which grants legitimacy to suicide bombers, regarding them as persons who serve the public. The most alarming development that has occurred during the intifada has been the appearance of suicide terrorists who are not devout Muslims, and are not Hamas or Islamic Jihad members, and instead come from nationalist streams within Fatah and the left. In these circumstances, the use of increased power on our part reinforces the Palestinians' perception that they have nothing to lose. In the same way, successful military operations reduced diplomatic maneuvering room, instead of expanding it."
Q. Where is all of this headed?
A. "When we adopted an approach which does not discriminate between the Palestinian streams, and when we destroyed the governmental center, a huge gap was left in the heart of Palestinian society. Hamas has taken root in this situation - and not just Hamas: there's also Hezbollah, Iran, and, heaven forbid, Al-Qaida. Choosing this route has blinded us to positions taken by the other side. For instance, in March 2002 the Arab summit adopted a collective peace initiative which contained, from Israel's point of view, positive changes, including sections referring to `the establishment of normal relations,' which Israel defined within the 1967 borders....This initiative was directly opposed to stances taken by Hamas, and delegates from refugee camps in Lebanon. This initiative became the Palestinian peace offer, and it was officially presented to the U.S., which referred to it in the road map. In Israel, however, the initiative sparked little discussion. Because it fit the mistaken conception, it was subjected to the `delete button'.... A change which one refuses to recognize as a change is not a change - that is because you are the side which decides. Once you uphold a mistaken view you become captive to it, and a vicious circle perpetuates reality. The only way to escape from it is to review the mistaken conception critically, and to replace it with a conceptual framework which, I believe, is better suited to the facts, and whose implications are more tenable.