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For Sharon, Some Perennial Dilemmas in Relations with Palestinian Authority

October 12, 2005
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After its withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and parts of the northern West Bank, Israel is facing a number of acute dilemmas vis-a-vis the Palestinian Authority. Should it enable the Palestinian Authority to acquire arms to fight Hamas in Gaza? Should it allow Hamas to participate in P.A. elections scheduled for January?

Which Palestinian prisoners should Israel release? Should it facilitate easy passage of people and goods to and from Gaza to encourage good neighborliness, or should it tighten border controls to prevent terrorism?

The answers to these questions depend to a large extent on the government’s overall strategic vision of future relations with the Palestinians. With the United States pressing both sides to make progress, circumstances are forcing the Sharon administration to come to grips with some fundamental issues.

For example, Israeli decision-makers are asking themselves whether they can trust the Palestinians with full independence or whether, for security reasons, they need to impose limits on Palestinian freedom.

They also are asking whether they want an integrated economic future with the Palestinians or whether the Palestinians’ economic orientation should be primarily toward the Arab world.

Some government critics argue that unless Israel shows more sensitivity to Palestinian needs, it might not have the luxury of thinking long term because it could find itself preoccupied with a new round of terrorism.

In preliminary talks aimed at setting up a meeting between Sharon and P.A. President Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinians have been making five main demands: Israel should release Palestinian prisoners, allow Palestinian deportees to return, hand over more West Bank cities to Palestinian control, open border crossing points and stop military action against terrorists.

The Palestinian Authority wants to move quickly to show its constituents that it can bring results.

Worried about security, the Israelis are being more circumspect: So far they has agreed only to reactivate joint committees to consider the first four Palestinian demands. They also note that when repeated goodwill gestures to meet nearly identical Palestinian demands in the past produced little in the way of results — or good will.

On the deeper strategic level, the Israeli defense establishment is divided over how much freedom of action Israel should allow the Palestinian Authority. The key question is whether or not Israel should authorize more weapons for the Palestinian Authority.

The head of the Shin Bet security service, Yuval Diskin, argues that it’s in Israel’s interest for the Palestinian Authority to have access to arms to control Hamas. Diskin argues that strengthening the Palestinian Authority in the hopes that it will clamp down on terrorism is a chance worth taking — as long as Israel is in a position to monitor the amount and quality of weapons supplied.

However, others say the Palestinian Authority has no shortage of arms, but rather a shortage of will to use them. Israel repeatedly tried to strengthen P.A. forces throughout the Oslo years, only to find that P.A. guns were rarely if ever used against terrorists, and instead were turned on Israel when the intifada began.

Fearful that this will happen again, Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz is only prepared to approve more ammunition.

Other officials go further than Diskin. They argue that Israel should not be concerned at all by weapons to the Palestinian Authority. The stronger the Palestinian Authority, they say, the better — on the assumption that, no matter how much weaponry the Palestinians import, they won’t be able to match Israel militarily.

The Israeli establishment also is divided over Hamas’ participation in the elections. Israel’s official position is that Hamas can’t participate in elections as long as it has a military wing. In other words, to become a legitimate political party, Hamas must first disarm.

That position is supported by the United States and some E.U. countries. The counterargument is that participation would domesticate Hamas, and the fact of being part of Palestinian institutional life would imply Hamas’ acceptance of the two-state solution to which Israel and the Palestinian Authority subscribe.

However, others see the example of Lebanon, where its ascension to the Lebanese Cabinet did not induce Hezbollah to give up its private army or moderate its radical anti-Israel agenda.

The issue with the most significant long-term ramifications is the question of border crossings. If Israel envisages long-term strategic separation from the Palestinians, then allowing the Palestinians open borders to the Arab world makes sense. Yet security considerations, such as the need to counter weapons smuggling, dictate a measure of Israeli border control.

The same is true of the projected land link between the Gaza Strip and West Bank. Israeli advocates say the link would connect Gaza to the Arab world to the east. Others worry that the Palestinians will take advantage of the link to move arms and terrorists from Gaza to the West Bank, or even to carry out attacks while crossing Israel.

On the Palestinian side, Abbas, disappointed at the slow pace of negotiations so far, hopes to convince the Israeli public that he can be trusted with a far greater degree of independence. His most direct appeal is likely to come during a mid-November conference in memory of assassinated Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, where Abbas will be one of the guest speakers.

Some Israeli critics accuse the government of a shortsighted and patronizing attitude toward the Palestinians that could lead to more fighting, before Israel is able to start instituting any of its long-term strategic goals.

Ha’aretz political analyst Aluf Benn writes that Sharon’s people have forgotten “that successful wars end with magnanimity of victors, and that humiliating a defeated enemy only sows the seeds of the next war.” In an editorial, Ha’aretz suggests that Israel must make gestures toward the Palestinians soon to convince the international community that it wants progress.

“Releasing Palestinian prisoners, opening sea and air ports, transferring considerable funds to the Palestinian Authority and equipping it with effective military tools to strengthen it are necessary to bolster the Palestinian partner,” Ha’aretz writes. “Without these steps, Israel too will not be able to persuade the world that its intentions are sincere.”

As they consider what short-term concessions to make, and how quickly to make them, Israeli decision-makers face a difficult strategic question: Can the Palestinian Authority be trusted with real power — or will it once again abuse any power it’s given to fight Israel?

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