You don’t hear much about Ariel Sharon, these days, quietly passing his days on a life-support machine with no indication of when or how his coma will end. But were Sharon capable of comprehending and appreciating his legacy, right now he’d be laughing his head off. When everyone else was talking of peace with the Palestinian leadership, Sharon was doing his best to sabotage it, arguing instead that Israel needed to come to mutually beneficial arrangements with Palestinian warlords in discreet fiefdoms. And the source of his delight, today, would be the willingness of Mahmoud Abbas to accept the role of Marshal Petain in a Palestinian Vichy regime. Today, Abbas dines in Jericho with the leader of the occupation, while personally insisting on the maintenance of a blockade on Gaza to starve its people (his people) into rejecting Hamas.
While everyone outside of the paid spokespeople of the Bush Administration concurs that nothing will come of the Administration’s vaunted efforts to revive a peace process by “bolstering” Abbas against Hamas and holding idle conversations with the Palestinian president about hypothetical statehood, Abbas seems determined to go through the motions. In an excellent commentary in the Financial Times (which will be unavailable by the time you read this), Gideon Rachman makes clear the paucity of the “peace” that is on offer to Abbas:
Even some members of Fatah and the Palestinian Authority argue that Mr Abbas is likely to be offered a deal that he can only refuse. One prominent Fatah member predicts gloomily: “We will be offered a state within the borders of the Israeli security wall, which will mean losing huge parts even of the West Bank. The Israeli settlements will stay. Our borders will be controlled by Israel. We won’t be allowed an army. There will be no right of return and the Israelis will effectively take over Jerusalem. This will be presented as a temporary arrangement. But the temporary would become permanent.” Mr Abbas’s allies say that it would be political suicide for him and for Fatah to accept a deal like that. Hamas would take over the Palestinian cause by default.
When I put this scenario to a senior Israeli official in Jerusalem last week, he replied: “The Palestinians are being over-optimistic. They are not going to be offered even that.”
Rachman explains that the Israeli military, backed by a political consensus, has concluded that for security reasons, it cannot risk handing control of the West Ban back to the Palestinians, or even removing the hundreds of checkpoints that make daily life for Palestinians intolerable.
The mood in Israel now seems to mix fear and complacency in a way that is probably fatal to the chances of a peace deal. The fear is a legacy of the Palestinian terror campaign that killed almost 1,000 Israelis. Memories of the suicide bombings – added to the rise of Hamas – have hugely undermined public willingness to take risks with security.
But the suicide bombings have stopped. And just at the moment, life is good. The nightlife of west Jerusalem – which was dead in 2002 – is now vibrant again. Last week, I went to the Jerusalem wine festival, where affluent Israelis sampled the latest Cabernets and Rieslings from the country’s boutique wineries. Palestinian towns such as Ramallah and Bethlehem were just a few miles away. But being behind the wall, they are out of sight and out of mind for the average Israeli. Gaza is sealed off even more effectively. As a result, for all the hand-wringing about Iran and Hamas, Israelis have rarely felt more secure. They feel little need to take risks for peace.
Which means that Mahmoud Abbas is lying to his people and to himself if he believes anything good will come of the ghastly charade in which he has joined Bush and Olmert. Abbas will either be forced to swallow his pride and rejoin a unity government with Hamas at the behest of Egypt and Saudi Arabia (one he realizes how little Washington will really offer him), or else he’ll simply be sidelined. But the last laugh may yet be on Sharon, and those who have bought into his fantasy of peace-through-strength and iron walls. Even in Gaza, bottle-rocketeers are able to construct devices that can sling explosives as far as Ashkelon. Israel still fantasizes about missile shields, but the likelihood of the collapsing Arab regimes around Israel being able to stop Palestinians acquiring weapons that can reach deeper and deeper into Israel is dim.
Israel’s social and political elite, entrepreneurs well integrated into the global economy whose lifestyles are more Californian and than Kibbutznik, will look at the reality unfolding in Israel and wonder why they bother to live there. The world is not a hostile place for Jews, these days, and if your economic and cultural life is so integrated with that of the West, then why bother to risk living at the heart of an increasingly messy and violent Middle East? An Israel that fails to reach peace with its neighbors will likely survive, but it will increasingly start to look like a collection of fiefdoms of religious and nationalist extremism presided over by cynical Russian mobsters. Frankly, I’d say the transition is well underway…