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The phrase ‘no partner for peace’ has been bandied around between Israel and Palestine for some time, with each side accusing the other of failing to accept the olive branch supposedly in the hand of the other. Yet credit goes to the Israelis for deploying that rhetoric first. Late Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon used it to great effect in late 2000.
Although this has always been the position taken by Sharon and the Israeli right, the timing of the anti-Arafat campaign was significant. The Israeli right had never accepted the Oslo Accords under which the PA was established, and Arafat was allowed to return from exile as part of a process that was meant to lead to a final resolution of the conflict and the establishment of a Palestinian state.
However, Sharon’s deployment of the phrase came at a critical moment in 2000 when the peace process – also known as Camp David II – failed to reach a comprehensive solution. At the time, a controversial visit by Sharon to the al-Aqsa Mosque compound provoked an angry and violent reaction from the Palestinians, who justifiably viewed the visit as an attempt to underline Israeli determination never to withdraw from East Jerusalem, which has been under Israeli occupation since 1967. This signalled the start of the second or al-Aqsa intifada (uprising).
The Israelis responded with lethal force, reoccupying parts of the West Bank that had once been evacuated under the Oslo Accords. Thus began a new cycle of violence that left many dead on both sides. As in previous and subsequent confrontations, it was always the Palestinians who suffered the greatest loss of life.
Sharon, who unlike other Israeli leaders never agreed to meet let alone shake hands with Arafat, finally succeeded in destroying him, literally, by laying siege to his compound in Ramallah, only allowing him to leave for urgent medical care in France, a journey from which he returned weeks later in a coffin.
In fact, it was Sharon’s predecessor, Ehud Barak, who first coined the phrase ‘no partner for peace’ after returning from Camp David II and failing to reach a peace deal with Arafat. Amid mutual recriminations for the failure of the talks, Barak laid the blame squarely on Arafat and called him “an enemy of peace”. The failure of these talks and whose fault it was are still a matter of dispute.
Veteran Israeli writer Uri Avnery recalls the moment: ‘On his return, [Barak] denounced Arafat, and the Palestinians in general, as implacable enemies. Not only did he put all the blame for the failure on the Palestinians, but he declared that we had “no partner for peace”. ‘These were fateful words. They have since become an axiom among Israelis, an excuse for all deeds and misdeeds. It allowed Benjamin Netanyahu and his likes to come to power. It was the funeral dirge for the Israeli peace movement, which has not recovered since.’
The violence that followed made the Israeli campaign to discredit the Palestinian side all the easier, especially when Palestinian militants resorted to suicide bombings that targeted Israeli civilians. This was further helped by the global context in the wake of the 9/11 terror attacks in 2001 and President George Bush’s ‘war on terror’. With every Palestinian attack, the Israelis drew parallels with other terrorist attacks elsewhere in the world to bolster their case that ‘there were no partners for peace’ on the Palestinian side.
When the Gaza Strip was taken over by the Hamas in 2006, following Israel’s unilateral withdrawal the previous year, Israel cited this too as yet more evidence that the Palestinians were not interested in peace.
The global context and Palestinian violence (or armed resistance, as some would prefer to describe it) to a certain extent helped the Israelis in their effort to lay the blame on the other side for the failure of peace talks. But only up to a point. The rhetoric could not hide the obvious fact that the Palestinians were in fact under occupation and as such were entitled to fight for their own liberation. Their means for achieving that may be controversial, but no one (except the Israelis and some of their allies in Washington or other Western capitals) questioned the legitimacy of their goal.
Furthermore, with the arrival of Mahmoud Abbas as the new Palestinian president in 2005, following Arafat’s death, this strategy began to ring hollow. Abbas, a man who by all accounts is a moderate pragmatist committed to a peaceful resolution of the conflict, was also found lacking in the eyes of the Israelis. Sometimes he is weak and untrustworthy, other times inflexible (in Israeli terminology, this means that he is not prepared to make the concessions the Israelis want). Abbas has consistently criticized Palestinian militants, especially those from Hamas, on the grounds that the use of violence has played into the hands of the Israelis and has done little to further Palestinian interests. On the contrary, it has been counterproductive to the Palestinian goal of statehood.
The arguments to back up the Israeli claim that the Palestinians are not really interested in a negotiated solution and still harbour the maximalist demands that make peace impossible are summed up by Haaretz columnist Gadi Taub:
‘It is no coincidence that Palestinian textbooks continue to draw the map of Palestine without Israel. It is no coincidence that Palestinian Authority propaganda praises martyrs. It is no coincidence that the PA has not dedicated the enormous resources that the international community has provided it to nation building. And, it is no coincidence that they continue to promise the right of return. The Palestinian leadership does not recognize our right to a nation state of our own in the areas that it sees as its land, and no combination of the details can hide this fact.’
In his United Nations (UN) speech in September 2017, Abbas sought to refute Israeli claims that the Palestinians were not interested in addressing the question of incitement. Abbas told the world audience that an American-led commission had been set up to investigate incitement on both sides, but it was the Israelis who eventually withdrew from the probe. Abbas reminded the audience of the long list of UN resolutions that the Israelis have ignored and called on the global body to stand by the Palestinians in their quest for peace and statehood.
Significantly, the Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu, addressing the UN General Assembly the day before, boasted of Israeli technological prowess, lambasted the UN for adopting anti-Israeli positions and vowed to crush Israel’s enemies in Iran, but made no mention whatsoever of the Palestinians, a clear reflection of his priorities.
The blame game is likely to continue as long as there is no prospect for a solution. In his UN speech, Abbas had a thinly veiled warning for the Israelis: failure to reach a two-state solution would inevitably lead to what some have called the one-state solution :
a bi-national state on the territory of historic Palestine that includes both Gaza and the West Bank – anathema to the vast majority of Israelis.
Israeli writer and peace activist Gershon Baskin laid the blame on both sides for the failure to reach a peace deal:
‘There seems no possibility to even speak about partnerships for peace between Israel and Palestine at this time when no one is speaking or even trying to bridge these gaps and reach understandings. Both societies feel under attack and there has been no progress toward peace in years. The majority of both publics believes that there is no partner for peace on the other side.’
Visionary leaders who can inspire and lead their people is the only way out of the current impasse, he argues:
‘The main task of any leader is to provide their people with security and hope for a better future. So far both leaders deserve failing grades. Only through the development of re-newed partnership can both leaders succeed in their primary tasks and missions.’