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by Barry Rubin


The current situation of Israel and Israel-Palestinian negotiations can only be described as bizarre. But understanding future events requires accurately describing what exists now.

--It is in the interests of pretty much everyone to pretend there is a real chance for a peace agreement and that progress is happening. In reality, there is a deadlock and the Palestinian leadership is incapable of making a treaty to end the conflict.

--Mahmud Abbas's strategy seeks to reconcile radical rivals rather than fulfill commitments or make peace with Israel. These forces include: his colleagues in Fatah's establishment; the Fatah opposition which includes the al-Aqsa Brigades' gunmen; Hamas; and Islamic Jihad. To avoid antagonizing them, he has no intention of confiscating terrorists' arms, stopping anti-Israel incitement, burying the goal of eliminating Israel forever, or pressing too hard to stop attacks on Israel

--Abbas will probably not establish a stable government in the Gaza Strip after Israel's withdrawal. Nor will he crack down on corruption, suppress the gunmen creating anarchy in Palestinian towns, or really gain control over security forces.

--Even if Abbas "wins" the next election, a blocking majority of Hamas, Islamists, leftists, and Fatah militants will intimidate him from making the steps needed to reach peace or meet his commitments.

--Things are better than in the four previous years because the level of terrorism is down but this does not mean a solution is in sight. This is again a "no war, no peace" situation. Though few in the West understand this and fewer will admit it, we are in a long interim period before there can be any real solution. Peace is about as far away as it was in 1993, when the whole Israel-PLO peace process began.

--Israel's government will withdraw from the Gaza Strip and hold down terrorism to an "acceptable" level through its own efforts thereafter. Within Israel, redeployment will not be viewed as a disaster but neither will it be seen to bring major benefits.

Given this context, what is European--making a gross generalization for varied views among European states--and U.S. policy going to be like after Israel withdraws from Gaza?

In general--regrettable but true--European governments are indifferent to Israeli security needs and national interests. They just want to achieve something they can call a "solution" as fast as possible to suit their own perceived interests. These include such things as: large-scale trade with Arab states, a calmer situation in the Arab world to reduce the inflow of Muslim immigrants to their lands, scoring points against the United States, posing as humanitarian champions of the underdog, and so on.

As a result, it seems likely they will give Israel nothing for a huge--albeit unilaterally decided--concession. They are likely to be indifferent in diplomatic terms to chaos in the Gaza Strip or the extent of attempted terrorist attacks against Israel. They will ignore Abbas's shortcomings, except to use them as a rationale for pressing ahead faster, and his failure to implement commitments. They will interpret the Road Map as a plan to create a Palestinian state along the 1967 frontiers as quickly as possible.

The much-misunderstood U.S. position is quite different but shares one important point in common. It is also in perceived American interests to pretend there is a viable peace process. American policymakers believe that anything that replaces Abbas will be worse and will do everything possible to help him survive and portray him as a moderate. When Abbas does not keep commitments, Washington may criticize him but will not punish him. It will strive for good relations with Israel and keep pressure limited but is going to ask Israel to give more--at least in small amounts--without getting much in return.

It is not hard to understand the Bush administration's motives. The U.S. government wants to tell Europe and Arab counterparts that it is doing everything possible to resolve the conflict. In fact, that is true since the failure to make progress is due to Palestinian intransigence, the Arab states' refusal to help, and a European policy that encourages both of them to act like this.

q For the United States, the region's main problems are solving the situation in Iraq, promoting democracy, and fighting terrorism. American leaders want to minimize the Arab-Israeli conflict's role as distraction from that strategy. At the same time, they understand it is going to be a long time before any comprehensive solution is reached.

In sharp contrast to Europe, American leaders are in no hurry to get to final negotiations. They know Abbas cannot deliver and fear trying to achieve a peace agreement will produce another total breakdown as happened in 2000, when Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat rejected both the Camp David proposals and the Clinton Plan. So the goal is to give the appearance of progress within the context of a transition stage.

Thus, both the Europeans and Americans are going to start asking in four or five months what Israel's next concession will be, regardless of whether Abbas fails to disarm, energetically stop, or prosecute terrorists. Israel will then have to come up with something that is not too damaging to its security needs. The only thing that would change that scenario would be if Abbas's regime collapses, Hamas becomes too aggressive politically, or a high number of Palestinian attacks destroys the ceasefire.

This is not as pessimistic an assessment as it might seem. In practice, Israel will be criticized rather than pressured. The interim period will continue; terrorist successes rare; U.S.-Israel relations strong. Palestinian suffering remains overwhelmingly self-inflicted. As long as there is no real Palestinian government to stop anarchy and terrorism while developing a real strategy to achieve peace, they will have to content themselves with favorable media stories and European pronouncements that have no effect on the material situation.

Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center, Interdisciplinary Center (IDC) in Herzliya. His co-authored book, "Yasir Arafat: A Political Biography", (Oxford University Press) is now available in paperback . His latest book, "The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East", will be published by Wiley in September. Prof. Rubin's columns are available at

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