Preempting a 'White Intifada'

The status quo between Israel and the Palestinians serves Israel's strategic interests and allows it to focus on confronting the Iranian threat. The relatively calm security situation and the ongoing haggling over the terms of negotiation with the Palestinian Authority also create a perception of quiet and stability vis-a-vis potential talks with Syria.

But this quiet could be destroyed overnight, as pressures are brought to bear on the PA and Hamas. The seeds of trouble lie in the changing view in the two Palestinian entities, Gaza and the West Bank, concerning Israel's power to control the diplomatic agenda and prevent an agreement that may be acceptable to them in the foreseeable future.

We may presume that the Palestinians' activities are influenced by developments in the international arena during recent years, which led to the weakening of the superpowers and the heightened value attributed to human rights. This trend was manifested in the 1989 Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia and, during the past decade, in the Orange Revolution in Ukraine and the Tulip Revolution in Kyrgyzstan. These movements were aimed at bringing governments to the bargaining table, and their success was assured mainly by employing the media "weapon."

It is not inconceivable that, along the same lines, a method that could be called a "white intifada" will become the Palestinian strategy. It would encompass altering the structure of talks with Israel from bilateral to multilateral negotiations that would break the Israeli and American monopoly on setting the diplomatic agenda.

The so-called white intifada would involve augmented efforts to create a Palestinian polity and would include the building of an institutional infrastructure for a future state. There would be a widely broadcast declaration of Palestinian statehood, followed by demands on Israel - first and foremost, for withdrawal from the West Bank.

Failure to address the demands would be liable to lead to a campaign of economic sanctions against Israel, particularly from Europe, and other steps toward boycotts and ostracism. Israel will then have two difficult alternatives: surrendering to pressure - that is, relinquishing the ability to have the upper hand in the peace process - or standing up to the pressure, which would likely expose it to increased international isolation.

Furthermore, it is possible the Palestinian public would join a protest campaign centering around the issue of settlements. Such a step could lead to a violent conflict, and thereby accelerate international intervention.

For Israel, a preemptive strategy is thus clearly preferable to the ostrich policy, and must be based on two elements. First, expanding the diplomatic scope for dealing with the Palestinian issue through the renewal of talks, and by offering the PA equal negotiating status. And second, widening the circle of those involved in the diplomatic process so as to neutralize in advance the Palestinians' ability to take unilateral steps to bolster international support. Without Israeli-initiated steps of this kind, the chances of a white intifada will grow, and in such a scenario, Israel will have a diminished ability to shape the geopolitical reality between the Jordan and the Mediterranean.

Prof. Shaul Mishal teaches political science at Tel Aviv University. Doron Mazza is a research student in the Department for Middle Eastern Studies at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev.