Depending on who you ask, the most violent flare up yet in the Israeli crisis either reignited a serious regional conflagration or was a final outbreak of bad behavior before the Israelis and Palestinians settle down into peaceful cohabitation.
In a country not known for its modest rhetoric, fierce salvos have been launched from both sides. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak was quick to cast the blame on Palestinian President Yasser Arafat, asserting that Arafat was the "real cause" of the violence, and that Arafat's failure to sign on to the peace agreement proposed at Camp David was paid for with "the blood of his people." Arafat deputy Saeb Erekat, meanwhile, described the Israeli military's attack on Ramallah and Gaza City as a "declaration of war;" and Arafat himself said, "We will continue this march until we have an independent Palestinian state." The inflammatory rhetoric came after two weeks of hostilities between the two sides that have so far led to the deaths of 95 -- with Palestinians making up the lion's share of casualties.
Protests over the violence erupted in at least seven American cities. The largest, a New York rally in support of the Israeli government, was attended by Senate candidates Hillary Clinton and Rick Lazio, who are both vying for the Jewish vote.
The violence came as a devastating blow to leaders of grass-roots organizations in the United States with a stake in the peace process. Salon interviewed leaders for their responses to the latest developments -- and got reactions that ranged from sadness to disappointment to sheer outrage.
James Zogby is director of the Arab American Institute in Washington.
You can't take Thursday's events out of the context of what's been unraveling over the past few weeks. There has been vigilante violence on both sides, and there has been a situation that has gradually devolved to where we are today. There have been Israeli settlers attacking and murdering Palestinians. There have been attacks on all sides. It's becoming a very volatile and dangerous situation. The problem is that the U.S.'s policy reaction is to target one side. It's only President Arafat who we're telling to stop the violence. It's as if the rhetoric that is generally used for political elections is having an impact on policy. Focusing on one side neither gives the Palestinians the ability to bring the situation down nor does it give the Israelis any incentive to bring the situation down. The Israelis feel emboldened, and the Palestinians feel greater despair and alienation. It also undercuts our ability to act as a broker of peace.
Thursday, the outrageous attack on the headquarters of the Palestinian president using helicopter gunships and boats ... Can we imagine an attack on the prime minister of Israel's office building? These were outrageous assaults -- in the heart of Gaza and in the heart of Ramallah. And not a word of rebuke. Instead, we ask for calm. Again, the criticism was reserved from the Palestinians.
The president and policymakers believe that Barak is vulnerable and needs our support. But guess what? Arafat is extraordinarily vulnerable and needs our support -- which he's not getting. We assume that the Palestinians will do whatever we want them to do, but really they're in the most exposed and vulnerable position of any party in this conflict. Their people are poorer today than they were when peace was signed. They have less freedom to move around in the West Bank.
Today the West Bank is carved into over 100 tiny cantons, and people need to go through Israeli checkpoints to get from one part to another. There are fewer jobs available because investment did not take place because the Israelis wouldn't allow raw materials in or finished products out. The Palestinian areas have been strangled for seven years in the name of peace. Palestinians, true, have control over cities, but no control over anything outside of the cities. You can't function that way -- people can't get in or out. People have lost control of their land because settlement size has doubled since peace was signed. And yet it goes on unabated.
It's a mistaken assumption [that some politicians won't speak out against Israel because they're afraid of losing the Jewish vote.] American Jews are more supportive of peace than they are given credit for. Frequently, as is the case in New York, the appeal is to a very small minority of American Jews who have the most extremist views -- and that's not reflective of most American Jews. What it does to the 250,000 Arab-Americans in New York is that they get written out of the equation. They don't even exist. No candidate even meets with them. The majority of American Jews -- who tend to lean toward peace -- are also not paid attention to.
The Israelis have used excessive and outrageous violence. Live ammunition, helicopter gunships, the use of tanks and the use of antitank missiles against Palestinian offices early on in the conflict was very excessive. Now it's gone well beyond the Israeli-Palestinian setting to demonstrations in Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Oman, Egypt and Morocco -- countries that are strong allies of the United States who are now having demonstrations in their own capitals. We should be very concerned about this.
And it's not a question of regional conflict; it's a question of the unraveling of the U.S. strategic relationship with countries in the region. They're in a position where they're facing their own public opinion. The public in these countries are devastated by what they're witnessing, and they cannot continue to remain silent in the face of that. When they speak out, they're speaking out against us.
Allan Solomonow is director of the Middle East peace program at the American Friends Service Committee in San Francisco and a lecturer in Middle East peace studies at University of California at Berkeley.
People were kind of skeptical about how much had come about from Camp David, which was too little, too late. It should have been initiated a few years earlier. Immediately after Camp David ended, President Clinton criticized Yasser Arafat and indicated that unless the Palestinians would conform to the American preconceptions of what a settlement should be, that he would raise the question of moving the American embassy to Jerusalem. This was the kind of threat that a serious peace negotiator simply does not drop. It profoundly underscored the role that America, while it may say it's facilitating peace, ultimately is doing this only to the extent that it conforms with the perceived needs of the Israeli community as judged by the Americans. Immediately following that, Congress had brought before it several resolutions -- all of them needless intrusions on U.S. foreign policy -- threatening to withdraw all aid from the Palestinian Authority if the Palestinians declared what they understood to have been originally promised to them: statehood.
All of this is vital for understanding the process that led Gen. Ariel Sharon to come to what he calls "Har Beit" ("the mountain of the house") or Temple Mount. If Sharon had been any individual coming to the mosque, that would have been one thing. But he came under the blanket of military to proclaim that, despite Barak's claim he would give up parcels of the city in a final agreement, Jerusalem would remain Israeli -- with no Palestinian claims to it whatsoever. That could not help but be heard by Palestinians as an indication that everything Barak had said at Camp David was for public appearance, that it simply wasn't honest. The fact that Barak's government turned the military and the helicopters over to Sharon's protection underscored that. It was a sign to the Palestinians that the peace process had come to an end. At this point, the United States might have stepped in -- it eventually responded two days later with ambiguous language about Sharon, but the harm had been done.
From the Palestinian side -- and those of us in the liberal Jewish community -- it was the result of seven years since the beginning of the Oslo peace process in which there had been virtually unabated closures of the Palestinian area of the West Bank and Gaza -- an inability to enter or leave. Increasing settlements, roads, less availability of water. Moreover, the Israeli position up until Camp David was to absolutely refuse to negotiate the two most vital to the Palestinian core: Jerusalem and Palestinian refugees.
It's hard to look at everything that's happened so far and see it as anything but a failure both of the Barak government and the United States government to work in a way that the Oslo process had hoped, which is to forge an environment of trust that would have moved each party naturally into continued negotiations. This has led us to two broader regional problems that have very serious implications for U.S. foreign policy.
First, the Europeans have been alienated by a lack of positive American diplomacy in the region. The Europeans have gone off on their own -- they no longer consider the U.S. a model. You witnessed this recently in foreign policy with Iraq, when the French mission flew to Baghdad despite the quarantine. This international erosion has been greatly quickened by the circumstances.
Secondly, we had been trying to appeal to a thoughtful Islamic movement that would be allied to American interests in the region. Because of the hard-nose policy we've taken on quarantining Iraq; and now because of our continuing insistence that Arafat, not Barak, is the problem, the Arab states who had been our allies are now breaking ranks. There are riots on the street, Israeli embassies have been closed and we've been set back for a number of years. The United States is now faced with a difficult choice that would be hard for the Clinton administration to undo because it has been part of the problem. And there's no reason to believe that whoever is elected as the next president has an inkling of how to go about breaking out of this role that binds us. Are we a facilitator of peace, or are we a protector of Israeli sensibilities for domestic purposes?
I would add that there certainly are Jews in the United States who do not agree with the American Jewish Committee. The Jewish population is very divided. Friday morning, there's a meeting of the Board of Rabbis here in San Francisco. At noon, at least three of those rabbis will come downtown and join us in a demonstration in front of the Jewish consulate sponsored by an ad hoc group of Jewish professionals and scholars in the Bay Area disturbed by events and the dramatic increase of violence over the weekend.
Shulamith Bahat is executive director of the American Jewish Committee.
There is great sadness, pain and anguish in the Jewish community. Our hope and dream for peace may not be as close to realization as we thought it would be. I'm outraged by what has happened. The promise of peace was dangling there in front of us. But the Palestinians are not ready for it, and they're missing important opportunities. The events of the last week have taken Israel's Jewish people and the United States (which has a considerable interest in the peace process) major steps back. It will take a long time to restore the trust that has been built little by little. Frankly, if the Israelis who were ready to risk a lot for peace were to ask me today, I would tell them not to. And I don't think they would be willing to risk anything for peace at this time anyway.
It's not a question of blame. I see two people here. On one side, you have the Israelis who democratically elect their government, and are always on the road to peace. On the other side, you have the Palestinian leadership, which has not prepared its people for peace. Instead, they have incited them -- even as they were negotiating with the Israelis -- not realizing that that kind of incitement will end up hurting the Palestinian cause. Where are the Palestinians today? They have nothing, apart from a rampage of violence and murder. Arafat is mostly in control of the situation -- he was in control of it in the beginning, but he probably didn't realize that when you turn on the faucet of violence, you may get consumed in the flood. He should have realized it. But he has enough control that he can arrest [those who instigate violence].
We know that he has had meetings with the leaders of Hamas and with other known terrorists. He may have led them to believe they can do whatever they want. He's playing a very dangerous game that, in the end, will endanger him and the Palestinian people, who will be the victims.
There are two separate issues. First, the Israeli army (where I was once an officer) is acting with unbelievable restraint. Thursday, they hit two Palestinian targets, but they also informed the Palestinians beforehand that they were going to do it so the people could evacuate the targets. One was a police station where Israeli soldiers were captured, tortured and then murdered. The other was [Arafat's] Palestinian complex in Gaza. The message was this: If we want you, we can get you, but we don't want to kill you.
From what we know, and we have very good sources, the violence began before Gen. Ariel Sharon went to the Temple Mount on a visit that was approved by both the Israelis and the Palestinian Authority. If I were Arafat, and had wanted to prove to the Israelis I want peace, I would have been on the Temple Mount and have accepted Sharon rather than incite violence and send the kids from the schools to a site where you knew there would be a riot endangering them. I don't think Arafat cares -- and that's the tragedy of the Palestinians. I believe many of them are innocent people, but they have been led since the beginning of the last century by people who couldn't care less, unfortunately, about their lives. The fact is, this is a 100-year conflict that could have been resolved. The Israelis were there in 1948, ready to accept a very small piece of land. But the Palestinians and other Arab countries were unwilling to accept it at that time. It took five wars, and finally we got to the stage were there seems to have been some progress or a peace agreement.
After the violence subsides, we may be able to get back to the peace process, but we won't be where we were before Sept. 28.