The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is far from over, but we can already discern three consequences that will affect a future settlement that will be achieved by agreement or imposed by the international community.
The first consequence is that the parties have toughened their stance on two of the three issues central to a permanent accord: Israel on the refugee issue and the Palestinians on the border issue. At last year's Taba talks, Israel offered to contribute to the Palestinian "right of return" by absorbing tens of thousands of Palestinian refugees, giving special consideration to residents of the Sabra and Chatila refugee camps in Lebanon.
This magnanimity has evaporated in the wake of terror. In a speech to the Knesset this week, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon drew one red line: "The return of Arab refugees to Israel is out of the question." He did not talk about Jerusalem being our undivided capital forever, or about a refusal to withdraw from the territories. However, he did insist that Israel would not take back a single refugee.
The Palestinian side has become more rigid on the subject of borders: today, the Palestinians are demanding full Israeli withdrawal to 1967 lines, with minor adjustments and land exchange. The intifada has eroded the legitimacy of large settlement blocs in the West Bank that formed the basis of discussions at Camp David and Taba. In the future, the Palestinians will demand evacuation of all Israelis from their territory. In the current international climate, Israel will find it hard to justify leaving Ma'aleh Adumim and Ariel in the heart of Palestine.
This radicalization sharpens the equation: a national dream for a national dream; a Palestinian agreement to drop the right of return in exchange for an Israeli agreement to let go of the settlements. As for Jerusalem, the issue that torpedoed the Camp David talks, it seems that the parties could live with the ethnic partition proposed by former U.S. president Bill Clinton. The fragile status quo in the capital has somehow survived the current battles.
The second consequence is related to defense. In the past, Israel regarded an incursion from the east as the major threat. It insisted on the deployment of troops in the Jordan Valley and on the freedom to enter Palestine in emergency situations. Regarding the issue of terror, Israel was prepared to accept PA Chairman Yasser Arafat's word. Today, Israel's fears of invasion have been dwarfed by the bombings of restaurants and buses, and its demands on this score seem less legitimate. Israel can call for a demilitarization zone that goes deep into Palestine, but there is much less chance of imposing limits on Palestinian sovereignty, controlling its air space and being at liberty to deploy troops than in the past.
Israel's security will be threatened by a Palestinian state patterned on Lebanon: a weak Palestine, without an air force or armor, but unable to curb militias and terrorist organizations that continue to fight Israel after its pullback to the Green Line. Experience in the North has shown that the international community will not come to Israel's aid; it will only oppose retaliatory operations. Israel will require a new defense model that is capable of dealing with ongoing guerrilla warfare. The chances of an Israeli-Palestinian accord being signed and implemented are close to zero. A permanent-status agreement will plunge the two sides into a war with their brethren who reject compromise. The Palestinians will have to battle Hamas and Islamic Jihad, and Israel will have to battle the settlers. Both parties will avoid such a confrontation, and the agreement, even if it has been signed, will collapse.
Realizing this, we come to the third consequence, namely, that the only way to calm the region down is to deploy a strong international peacekeeping force prepared to take responsibility for security in the territories. Support for the idea of an international force is growing. The Israeli left, Europe and America see it as a magic formula to keep the warring sides apart and erase the conflict from the international agenda.
But in order for this undertaking to succeed, a sorry bunch of blue-helmeted observers along the lines of UNIFIL in Lebanon will not do. The force must have a strong mandate and the power to enforce the law. NATO soldiers, or whoever is sent here, will fight the war instead of the parties themselves. It is they who will dismantle both the settlements and Hamas. That is the real significance of an imposed solution.
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