It feels like the calm before the storm. There is a third intifada brewing and it’s only a matter of when it begins - probably some time in 2006.
At a meeting between Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas and US President George Bush in Washington, the Palestinian leader pushed for halting construction of settlement blocs and the dismantling of West Bank settlements. Bush called for a crackdown on terrorism.
In stark contrast to what he used to say of Arafat, Bush said, “President Abbas is a man devoted to peace and to his people’s aspiration for a state of their own. And today, the Palestinian people are closer to realizing their aspirations.”
Earlier this week, three Israeli civilians were killed and another three were wounded in the West Bank. Israel, in response, placed movement restrictions on the Palestinians.
The Israeli peace movement has also stepped up calls for a withdrawal from 26 settlements predominately in the southern West Bank and located east of the Separation Wall. The Jewish settlement in Hebron remains the most pressing issue. The redesign of Jerusalem which has continued throughout the Roadmap to Peace process will continue to bolster the position that a final status agreement is unachievable in the present political context and a unilateral approach by the Israeli government will be the only way to achieve national ends.
The mainstream Israeli left, while in opposition, claims to support engagement with the Palestinian Authority as the most effective way to move forward on peace, but it is not clear whether they would follow the same unilateral approach that Sharon has followed if they gain political power.
The increasing popularity of Hamas as a potent political force still hovers over the January 2006 Palestinian parliamentary elections. The US administration, which still lists Hamas as a terrorist organization, will more than likely push Abbas to propose a set of conditions on the organization for its right to participate in the elections. The UN has already warned Sharon that Hamas should be allowed to participate in the elections.
Since the Gaza withdrawal was carried out, almost 60% of Israelis now support the unilateral approach of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. However, support for the dismantling of West Bank settlements is at 34%, with 42% opposed. Sharon would rather bolster his position on the political right so as not to give Benjamin Netanyahu the political space to topple him.
Sharon recently won a vote on the date of the Likud leadership against a faction led by Netanyahu.
As the Palestinian Authority struggles to maintain control of the Gaza Strip, there are some in the West Bank who view the Gaza withdrawal as an opportunity for further disengagement.
There is a dangerous political vacuum emerging that could fuel further extremism within both the Israeli and Palestinian sides. The Palestinians want movement on their demands and the Israelis do not want to make any further concessions. Sharon, in one of the ironies of the age, is barely fighting off the right wing.
In a conflicted state, there is something called the ‘politics of time’ that is always present. There is nothing more dangerous than being static.
There are extremists in Israel who are openly calling for ethnic transfer of Israeli Arabs after the Gaza withdrawal. There is increasing coverage of Israeli Arabs who have been charged or convicted of aiding terrorist acts in the Israeli media. This coverage, in turn, is being misused by the radical right in Israel to vilify the Israeli Arab population at large. This remains a dangerous trend in Israel today.
A recent study by the Mossawa Centre, the Advocacy Centre for Arab Citizens of Israel, revealed that 51 percent of Israeli Jews feel the Arab population should be granted the right to independently manage their education system, cultural life and other community matters, and 60 percent feel that there exists anti-Arab racism in Israel. 35 percent of Jewish Israelis oppose Arabic’s designation as an official language.
Israel probably has a window of five years before the major interests in the region would consider targeted economic sanctions related to the route of the Separation Wall and its continued occupation of the West Bank. Sharon would rather unilaterally implement a fait accompli final deal with a partial disengagement and a permanent annexation of some Palestinian land in the West Bank. The chances of a deal like that having any permanence in the Palestinian mind would be next to nothing.
Ariel Sharon, a man who has shown he can be both bold and ambidextrous in his politics, is still in charge over how the next year emerges.