Message for Israel: Leadership Needed

Shibley Telhami holds the Anwar Sadat Chair for Peace and Development at the University of Maryland, College Park.

Dear Prime Minister Sharon:

As you begin your term as prime minister of Israel, you face one of the most important turning points in the history of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict: Things will either get a lot better or a lot worse, but they are unlikely to remain the same. You still hold most of the cards.

You have been elected by the largest majority in Israel’s history and have skillfully formed a national unity government. This gives you an outstanding opportunity to choose between allowing your past to repeat itself or to use it as a lever to propel your nation toward a historic deal with the Palestinians.

A deal will, of course, also depend on the Palestinians. But there is much that you, as the leader of a powerful state whose forces remain in control of much of the Palestinian territories, can do. Certainly, there is much to avoid.

It is a mistake to believe that the current conflict is primarily with Yasser Arafat personally, regardless of strategic mistakes the Palestinians may have made (and, like former Prime Minister Ehud Barak, they have made many). Even if Mr. Arafat believed the use of violence is useful in negotiations, the roots of the Intifada have more to do with the despair of a Palestinian population that has never known full freedom and independence and that has suffered unbearable humiliation during the past three decades.

Many Palestinians, far from being Mr. Arafat’s soldiers, are his opponents. Israeli acts of collective punishment and economic blockades will only intensify their resolve. Many may blame Mr. Arafat for perceived impotence, but their fury will continue to be aimed at Israel.

Although Israelis perceive the Intifada as an aggressive act intended to coerce them into making concessions, the Palestinians perceive it as a right of a people under occupation to demonstrate that, weak as they are, they are willing to pay a high price to get what they believe they deserve.

And although Israelis perceive their tough measures in the Palestinian territories as a way of redressing their fear that Arabs now think Israel is weak, Palestinians see them as an indication of Israel’s determination to force them into submission. It’s a vicious cycle that cannot be broken without acts of leadership.

The cycle cannot be broken by over-focusing on Mr. Arafat. You can win the war against Mr. Arafat, both in the public-blame arena and in the military battlefield. His institutions can crumble. It may even feel like a moral victory to prove that Mr. Arafat was to blame for the failure of the negotiations. But will you win security for your people, let alone peace?

Israelis today have a feeling of insecurity, even though Israel remains the most powerful state in the region. This genuine feeling has resulted from the Intifada and from the unilateral Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon under duress.

But consider this: All strong states in the region understand Israeli power and are responsive to its deterrence. It is no secret that the Syrian-Israeli border has remained quiet for nearly three decades, while the border with the weak state of Lebanon has not. Deterrence works against centralized states that fear retaliation, but does not work against decentralized guerilla groups. The weaker the Palestinian Authority, the more the chaos, the less effective Israeli deterrence.

But the danger is even greater than increased instability.

The region is witnessing the beginning of a transformation of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict from a nationalist one that lends itself to compromise into a religious and ethnic one that does not. The deal at Oslo constituted a formalization of the nationalist framing of the conflict that made a two-state solution possible.

The collapse of the peace process, the focus on the religious aspects of Jerusalem and the tension in Israel among Arab and Jewish citizens may have broadened the conflict into an Arab-Israeli and even into a Jewish-Muslim one. A collapse of the Palestinian Authority will undoubtedly accelerate the transformation and push back peace for another generation.

Leaders must be held responsible for the actions of their peoples, and although Mr. Arafat does not have a full state, he shares the responsibility. There is much that he can and must do, together with Israel, in curbing the violence, if there is any serious chance of negotiations.

But it is wrong to think that the issue is simply one of personal preference—for you or for Mr. Arafat. Despite the unprecedented mandate you have as prime minister, for example, it is unimaginable that you can sign an agreement accepting all the Palestinian refugees into Israel. This is not a matter of courage but a matter of your people’s sense of identity.

Similarly, Mr. Arafat can and must display leadership on many issues. But there are some issues, like accepting Israeli sovereignty over East Jerusalem, on which he cannot overcome the will of his people.

You have an opportunity to test Mr. Arafat by avoiding Mr. Barak’s biggest strategic mistake of not negotiating directly with the Palestinians and relying too heavily on American mediation. The Palestinian-Israeli negotiations involve existential issues that only the parties can resolve and must be built on mutual respect.

You can begin with simple gestures: removing the economic siege, withdrawing the army from areas of friction and demanding of Mr. Arafat things he can deliver, such as preventing his forces from using violence. But don’t expect him to forcefully put down public demonstrations. You have the right to expect reciprocity, if you take the lead.

The current state of affairs can only be overcome by acts of bold leadership, without which both Palestinians and Israelis are fated to bleed for years to come.