Last updated: April 26, 2013
Alon Ben-Meir: Distrust and the reality of coexistence

"Israel must now learn from its experience with Egypt versus Gaza and Lebanon and apply these lessons to the West Bank"

One of the main impediments to resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the complete lack of trust between the two sides. What makes the conflict even more intractable is that neither side believes that their distrust can be mitigated given the history of the conflict, their contrasting objectives, and the day-to-day experiences reinforced by the constant maligning of each other through their public narratives. This results in an ever-diminishing prospect for reconciliation which inhibits concessions and drives both sides to resort to a zero-sum negotiating posture. Moreover, due to their respective public sentiments (hate and animosity toward the other), pessimism and resistance to change, neither side wants to appear weak. As a result, they refuse to show flexibility and in so doing, distrust becomes further ingrained intellectually and emotionally, creating a vicious cycle which defies reason and reality.

It is clear that if the Israelis and the Palestinians hold fast to their positions, it will be near impossible to allay distrust, leading to a permanent deadlock because distrust cannot be negotiated by simply agreeing to establish a new trusting relationship. In fact, even if the two parties negotiate and reach an agreement, such as the 1993-1994 Oslo Accords, there is still no way to ensure that such agreements could endure given the embedded distrust that both had and continue to harbor against one another, as neither side lived up to their obligations as stipulated by the Accords. But since Israeli-Palestinian coexistence, in one form or another, is the only option, any agreement reached must be based on certain provisions, mechanisms, logistics, and a timeline designed to ensure compliance based on reciprocity that would nurture trust, which is a prerequisite to lasting agreements.

The claims and counter-claims by Israeli and Palestinian officials that distrust prevents them from reaching a peace agreement is baseless, not only because they coexist and neither can change this reality, but because distrust cannot be mitigated in a vacuum. Their relationship must be established on the fact that coexistence is irrevocable. Trust can then be nurtured not only as they negotiate and reach an agreement that meets their principle requirements, but through an agreement based on meeting each other’s obligations in a specific time frame. For example, in 2000 and 2008-2009, the Israelis and the Palestinians were nearly able to reach an agreement on even the most contentious issues, such as the future of Jerusalem and the Palestinian refugees. Nevertheless, they failed to reach a full and final agreement. At close scrutiny, we find that at play were biased and selective perceptions reinforced by historical experiences and nurtured by distrust and concern over each other’s ability or willingness to deliver.

The Israeli withdrawal from Gaza in 2005 provides a classic case that reaffirms the concept that mere withdrawal, which was viewed by Israel as a major move to demonstrate its intentions to end the occupation, failed to achieve Israel’s “presumed objective.” Instead of turning a free Gaza into a prosperous area, building the infrastructure for an independent entity on the way to statehood, Hamas, after wrestling the strip from the Palestinian Authority, used Gaza as a staging ground for launching thousands of rockets against Israel. For most Israelis, this was interpreted as a clear sign that the Palestinians simply do not want peace and cannot be trusted. As a result, Israel was discouraged from further evacuation of Palestinian territories in the West Bank (as was articulated in the Kadima platform), and most Israelis still believe that even if Israel were to withdraw from the West Bank, the Palestinians would still seek the destruction of the state as Hamas repeatedly enunciates.

From the Palestinians’ perspective, however, the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza was a tactical move. They insist that Israel simply wanted to rid itself from occupying a densely populated area of Palestinians, which has no strategic value and is prohibitively costly. Furthermore, the Palestinians are convinced that the Israelis do not consider Gaza an important part of their biblical claim to the entire so-called “land of Israel,” and that Israel has no intentions of vacating other occupied Palestinian territories, especially in the West Bank. Moreover, the Palestinians further argue that although peaceful coexistence has generally prevailed between Israel and the Palestinian Authority in the past several years, Israel continues to expand current settlements and build new ones, a fact that cannot be denied. For this reason, the Palestinians have no reason to trust the Israelis, who presumably support the two-state solution while continuing to act contrary to the logical and practical requirements to effectuate such a solution.

The question before us then is, had the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza been done differently, would the outcome have been any different, or at a minimum, vindicated or repudiated the narrative of either side? My answer is absolutely yes. The Israeli withdrawal from Gaza was precipitous and unilateral with no coordination with the PA and without assessing Hamas’ power, and entailed no phased withdrawal, with no new security arrangement in place and no agreement on trade and commercial ties to foster human-to-human relations that engender trust. Thus, it can be argued that had then-Prime Minister Sharon reached an agreement with the PA about every aspect of the withdrawal, including the number of phases, the length of time between each phase, specific reciprocal moves on the part of the Palestinians, and tight security arrangements, the move would have nurtured trust between the two sides. Surely, both sides would have known full well that any violation of the specific agreed-upon arrangements would stop the process in place, an action from which neither side could benefit, regardless of their real intentions.

It should be recalled that it took three years for Israel to complete its withdrawal from the Sinai. It is true that the difference between the withdrawal from Gaza and the Sinai is significant in scope and span; there should have been no difference, however, in the principles that guided the withdrawal from the Sinai to those from Gaza. Had Israel followed the same pattern, it would be safe to assume that Hamas might not have been able to overthrow the PA in Gaza or win the elections in 2006. Indeed, the Israeli presence, after announcing its intention to withdraw from Gaza, should have lasted long enough to allow the PA to establish its own security apparatus, engage in economic development over the transitional period, and develop a vested interest in the new peaceful arrangements while fostering trust between the two sides. The same can be said about Israel’s abrupt and unilateral withdrawal from southern Lebanon by former Prime Minister Barak under cover of night without any agreement with the Lebanese government, which gave Hezbollah the opportunity to consolidate power. Could a prior agreement with an enforcement mechanism in place have prevented the war between Israel and Hezbollah in 2006? The answer may be speculative but the question remains valid.

Obviously, trust cannot be fostered in an environment of hostility and mutual recrimination. However, distrust is not set in stone; it can and should be alleviated, especially under the circumstances that govern the lives of Israelis and Palestinians. Israel must now learn from its experience with Egypt versus Gaza and Lebanon and apply these lessons to the West Bank. Israeli arguments against withdrawal, citing distrust and national security concerns, are thus unfounded. If these were the real reasons and not the further usurpation of Palestinian land, both concerns could be mitigated by developing a comprehensive planned withdrawal from Area B, followed by C, extending over a period of several years and based on reciprocity on the part of the PA, while continuing and further enhancing security cooperation to ensure an orderly transition. The PA has demonstrated that it has the ability, capacity, and the resolve to deliver and live up to its commitments, to which many Israeli officials attest.

The recent flare-up between Israel and Hamas and the elevation of the Palestinians’ status to a non-member observer state at the UNGA have introduced a new aspect to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Notwithstanding Israel’s military prowess, Hamas was able to justifiably claim political victory, and the PA’s triumph at the UN demonstrated how isolated Israel has become. Nevertheless, Israel remains the pre-eminent power; the Palestinians and all Arab states must come to term with this reality.

In the final analysis, guided by the imperative of coexistence, genuine efforts can and must be made to mitigate distrust through a peace process based on reciprocal and reinforced provisions, to which both Israelis and Palestinians must commit to reach a lasting peace agreement.

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