These must be tough times for pessimists. First, the Iraq election went off without mass violence. Afterwards those Sunnis who chose to boycott, rather than launching a civil war, lamely invited themselves into the new government. Saudi Arabia declared suicide terrorism “unacceptable by religion, reason and tradition” on the eve of the kingdom’s first municipal elections. And Israel and the Palestinian Authority shocked everyone by announcing a ceasefire intended to end the latest four-year spate of violence. Can the cynics stand any more good news? There’s always hope; maybe Iran will hurry up and get the bomb.
The truce agreement at the Sharm al-Shayk summit is particularly interesting. It does not mean that terror attacks inside Israel will end. The opponents of peace will have to mount a spectacular attack as soon as possible to try to destabilize the situation. As well, PA national-security adviser Jibril al-Rujub stated that the ceasefire did not cancel the “right of resistance in the occupied territories.” Nevertheless, the truce signifies that enough interests had changed for the mainstream Palestinians to seek a shift from armed struggle to negotiation.
The most important shaping event took place last November when Yasser Arafat died. Peace was impossible while Arafat lived. He had no interest in ending violence, as evidenced by his refusal to take the numerous opportunities for peace since the Oslo accords (not to mention his lifelong career as a terrorist). During the intifada he gave tacit approval to the activities of Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and other groups, and directed the violence perpetrated by the al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigade while claiming to be unable to restrain their youthful exuberance. His demise was the greatest achievement of peace in a generation. Arafat’s successor, Mahmoud Abbas, for all his faults, is no Arafat. He has been a more conciliatory figure over the years, and his resignation as Prime Minister in 2003 gave him legitimacy as an advocate of reform. He was elected president with 62 percent of the vote in January, and the mere fact of having a new government presents the opportunity to seek peace without losing face. If Abbas wants to try to cut a deal, the time to do it is now, while he is still new and can write off the mistakes of the past to his predecessor.
George W. Bush’s reelection was also a critical factor. U.S. policies in the region are unlikely to change for the next four years, and for all the Palestinians know another Republican will move into the White House in 2009. President Bush has been willing to allow the Israelis to work out their problems their own way, in part because since 9/11 the United States has been the leading advocate for offensive operations against terrorism. Thus Abbas cannot make an appeal to the U.S. while Palestinian suicide bombers are killing innocent men, women, and children in Israel. A truce is the minimum requirement to get back to the table.
Israel’s policy of precision strikes against the terrorist leadership is another factor. The PA leadership may cling to the right of what they call self-defense, but the ability of Palestinian terrorists to engage in large-scale offensive operations has been severely inhibited by the steady attrition in their upper ranks. Likewise, Israel has demonstrated that it will not be constrained by national borders in pursuit of terrorists (again following the lead of the United States); the October 2003 strikes against PFLP targets in Syria are the model.
The antiterror barrier Israel is erecting along the border with the PA is an additional compelling factor. The barrier has been very successful in fulfilling its primary function, deterring attacks. It has also become a symbol of the inevitability of Palestinian statehood, whether they are ready for it or not. The wall, for good or ill, will form the de facto boundary between the two countries. It will also mean the end of Israeli settlements. As such, it will go a long way towards resolving two of the stickiest statehood issues. Abbas has called for Washington to intervene to stop construction of the barrier, but Israel is not likely to listen even if the U.S. reiterates its opposition. The Palestinians could also argue that the truce undercuts the barrier’s original rationale, but it seems more likely that it will become a permanent fixture on the landscape, literally and figuratively.
Internal differences in the Palestinian camp also pointed towards declaring a truce. Abbas is giving the radical factions the opportunity openly to declare themselves objectively in favor of violence. Of course, they never had a problem with that, but when one group breaks ranks and declares for peace, it will concentrate Israel’s attention on the still active terrorists. Hamas has denounced the ceasefire and opposes the appointment of U.S. Lieutenant General William E. “Kip” Ward as security coordinator for the region, sensing American interest in promoting the intra-Palestinian fight. Consequently, Hamas has promised that there will be “no quiet,” though their leadership is seeking a meeting with Abbas to reach a consensus position. They may have to observe the truce temporarily if only to gain a more favorable position in their competition with Fatah over control of Gaza. The Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) has denounced the truce, as have Islamic Jihad and Hezbollah. They say a ceasefire only amounts to a “comfortable occupation” for Israel. Egypt has been working diligently to try to bring these factions under the umbrella, with little evident success. Meanwhile Israel has promised to retaliate for any future attacks. If such violent exchanges take place the pessimists will declare victory, but the attacks will not derail the emerging peace process. Why should they? Israel will be doing Abbas a favor by eliminating his most dangerous opponents.
Mind you, no ceasefire lasts very long in this region, and a truce is by its nature temporary. It is an expedient for purposes of negotiation, and contentious issues remain. External powers such as Iran and Syria who support the more violent terrorist factions will do their best to continue the bloodshed. And both Prime Minister Sharon and President Abbas will face domestic political pressures that will complicate the process. However, recognizing these caveats, there is nothing wrong with indulging a little optimism. Whatever comes out of this process will not be a repeat of Oslo, which elevated an international terrorist to a position of national leadership. And the remarkable changes that have taken place elsewhere in the region have confounded the experts who said such things were impossible. If the truce fails, it fails. But the Palestinians will see their hopes and opportunities continue to dwindle as the region moves on without them. Maybe those who sincerely want peace will come to same realization that the voters did in Iraq; they will only achieve it by standing up to the terrorists in their midst.