Middle East Roundtable /
Edition 4 Volume 1
Eighteen more months at least
by Yossi Alpher, former director of the Jaffee Center
for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University and a former senior adviser to
Prime Minister Barak.
After 36 months of conflict and bloodshed, both
Israelis and Palestinians are worse off. We are further from a peaceful
settlement, our economies are suffering (the Palestinian far more than the
Israeli), and our leaders are increasingly ostracized internationally.
Moreover, our military and political leaders on both sides have erred
grievously in assessing that the use of brutal force could tip the scales in
this struggle. Instead, we have an increasingly dirty war, initiated by
Palestinian suicide bombings but pursued by Israel as well.
Only the extremists have gained. The Islamic radicals and the Jewish
settlers, both of whom oppose an agreed, fair and permanent two state
solution, have moved closer to achieving their perversely shared goal. In
the course of three years, Israelis and Palestinians have progressively lost
the capacity to communicate with one another, and their leaders have lost
all credibility in the opposing camp. The settlements have spread, and the
Palestinian birthrate has further closed the population gap. Soon, very
soon, geography and demography will have defeated the last hope of a
realistic repartitioning of Eretz Yisrael/Palestine into two separate ethnic
states, and Israel will be on the slippery slope toward losing its Jewish
and democratic character.
Paradoxically, in other ways Israel's overall strategic situation has
improved considerably over these three years, thanks to the events and acts
precipitated by 9/11. The American occupation of Iraq has reduced to nil the
danger to Israel of a new Arab military coalition (an "eastern front")
attacking it, thereby radically diminishing the threat of conventional war.
And the United States campaign against Islamic radical terrorism and weapons
of mass destruction in the hands of rogue states has, for the first time,
given Israel a major ally in countering these threats.
Only the demographic/geographic strategic threat has grown. And while it is
entirely within Israel's unilateral capabilities to deal with it, the body
politic of the Jewish people appears to be paralyzed by fear: fear of angry
settlers and their rabbis, fear of hurting our vaunted deterrent profile by
displaying "weakness", fear of making unilateral concessions--fear, indeed,
of recognizing that the strategic benefits of unilateral withdrawal by
Israel far outweigh the tactical drawbacks.
Under these tragic circumstances, the only potential ray of light is the
fence. As an instrument originally designed to protect Israelis from
Palestinian suicide bombers, the fence is a quintessential byproduct of
three years of intifada. Yes, it is ugly and unpleasant, and hurtful to
innocent Palestinians in even its most benign permutation. But a fence
separating Israel from the West Bank, as close as possible to the green
line, could generate the separation both peoples need, and might begin to
delegitimize the settlements lying beyond.
The US administration, which won't pressure Prime Minister Ariel Sharon over
the settlements, the roadblocks and his other obligations under the nearly
defunct roadmap, has seemingly decided to get tough on the fence, make sure
it sticks close to the green line, and prevent Sharon from hijacking it for
political purposes. Perhaps because it perceives that the domestic political
costs in America of exercising this particular type of pressure are minimal.
If it keeps up the pressure, we may end up with a fence that more or less
approximates the borders that Ehud Barak and Yasir Arafat nearly agreed on
at Taba in 2001, during the early months of the intifada.
If the fence begins to function as a border as well and contributes to a
positive separation, it would be the supreme irony of this intifada, which
broke out largely because Arafat could not or would not accept Barak's
terms. But then again, given that the two sides are incapable of solving
their differences through logic and rationality, they may just have to
settle for messy solutions that evolve over time in unintended ways.
But the fence is being built slowly, and it can only reduce violence and
slowly create new facts--not solve the conflict. Nor, beyond applying
pressure on the fence, does the Bush administration appear to have any
realistic strategy for ending the conflict between Israelis and
Palestinians. Neither do Ariel Sharon and Yasir Arafat. Thus, bearing in
mind the American election timetable, we are probably in for another 18
months at least of conflict and suffering.
an internet forum for an array of world perspectives on the Middle East and
its specific concerns. It aspires to engender greater understanding about
the Middle East region and open a new common space for world thinkers and
political leaders to present their viewpoints and initiatives on the region.
Editors Ghassan Khatib and Yossi Alpher can be reached at