Yisrael Harel
Bitterlemons (Opinion)
August 19, 2011 - 12:00am

Until Barack Obama entered the White House, Abu Mazen (PLO Chairman Mahmoud Abbas) was obliged, under pressure from the United States and the Quartet, to negotiate with Israel. But his goal was never to reach agreement. This was graphically illustrated in late 2008 by his refusal to accept the most generous set of principles ever proposed by an Israeli prime minister, Ehud Olmert. Hence Abu Mazen exploited the irresponsible decision by an inexperienced American president to back the Palestinian position, ceased direct contact with Israel, maneuvered it into a corner and proclaimed that it rejected peace.

This was yet another demonstration that the long-term strategy of the Palestinians is to wait. The future, they believe, is on their side, whether for demographic reasons or because of the well-established theory that Israel is growing weaker due to drastic internal polarization and endless, exhausting struggles with the Arabs, and that it will therefore eventually lose its will to survive: the crusader doctrine at its best.

Quite a few Israelis anticipated that the "Arab spring" would generate, alongside a flowering of democracy among our neighbors, more openness and tolerance, less hatred toward the Jewish state on the part of Arabs and particularly Palestinians, and less inclination to negate its very existence. In reality, the outcome was the opposite. Mass demonstrations on the streets of Tunis, Cairo, Tripoli and Homs added yet another dimension to Abu Mazen's reticence to negotiate: a fear that the muqataa in Ramallah would become another Tahrir Square. If the demonstrations threaten veteran regimes that are ten times stronger than that of Abu Mazen, then this would undoubtedly happen to him, too--with Hamas and Islamic Jihad fanning the flames.

The unilateral appeal to the United Nations to recognize a Palestinian state offers clear proof of the PLO leadership's submission to the hysteria of the masses. This is the main reason why the senior echelon of the PLO rejects the heavy pressure applied by the US to avoid this hasty step. Indeed, a sudden change of direction now, when the train is speeding forward, could derail Abu Mazen, with an uprising toppling the Palestinian Authority. This may not be the main reason for the Palestinian refusal to negotiate, but it undoubtedly strengthens the strategy of a total break in contact, at least at the official level, with regard to a permanent status agreement between the state of Israel and the PLO.

Here there enters into the picture another variable, a particularly interesting yet not quite decipherable one, that could affect events. The Israeli protest movement recently presented the government with demands that are restricted solely to economic welfare, particularly that of the middle class with its claim that it is discriminated against. Not a word about the peace process. Indeed, even though the protest movement's originators and leaders are leftists--in some cases on the extreme left--they insist on not allowing their protest to touch the Palestinian issue.

This is not easy: the protesters are subject to heavy political and media pressures to do so. After all, they read in the columns of the most senior commentators and in the "fatwas" of renowned authors like Amos Oz and Meir Shalev that all their economic troubles can be traced to the settlements. The erosion of the middle class, like the pitiful salaries of the hospital interns, are caused by the over-funding of the settlement project. If Israel would just dismantle the settlements and withdraw from the West Bank, huge resources currently invested there would be freed up for funding cheap housing, improving education, health and welfare, and strengthening deprived sectors of society. Indeed, since complete withdrawal would bring about peace with the Palestinians, it would be possible to move funds from defense spending and settlements toward establishing a welfare state without parallel.

To date--mid-August--the smart young demonstrators have rejected this advice and refused to present these simplistic ideas to the government. Of course it's still possible that the protest movement will become enmeshed in routine, yield to the media and embrace this demagogic theory. At that point, it will be interesting to see the result. Will this protest movement, having proved its roots among the people and united many diverse sectors of Israeli society, remain united? Or will it disintegrate along the lines of the political views that divide Israeli society when it comes to issues of peace and security?

My sense is that the Israeli public is fed up with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and no longer obsessed with it. Most Israelis want to concentrate on domestic affairs like the economy, education and welfare. The protest leaders are well aware of this, which is why they keep asking: why aren't the settlers joining our tent cities of protest? Why don't they join our demonstrations? After all, spiritual leaders of the religious right like rabbis Beni Lau, Yuval Sherlo and Avi Gisser were warmly received when they addressed protest demonstrations.

If indeed the protest movement avoids taking a stand concerning the conflict with the Palestinians, we may encounter another interesting scenario: the Palestinians are liable to discover that they went too far in rejecting the opportunity offered by the generous proposals of Ehud Barak and Ehud Olmert. Gone are the days when most Israeli and international media could compel Israelis to concentrate only on the conflict, at the expense of their economic well being.

The current combination of a Likud government and a public that is fed up with focusing solely on the future of the territories is not good news for the Palestinians. If the Palestinians try, by renewing violence, to refocus attention on the conflict, they may be bitterly disappointed. The Israel Defense Forces are preparing to deal sharply with this threat and end it quickly--certainly faster than the first intifada and faster than the terrorist war of the early years of this century, when Palestinian terrorism drowned the Oslo accords in rivers of blood and fire.


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