Despite its minor character in comparison with other contemporary conflicts, the confrontation between Palestinians and Israelis has a proven destabilizing capability not just on a regional scale, but also worldwide. The Second Intifada has led both contenders into a vicious circle of self-destruction, which is already being mixed with other regional problems to paint a very dangerous scenario for global stability. Despite Israel’s tactical victories, the strategic advantage, in the long term, is slowly leaning towards the Palestinian side. But in both cases, these are illusions and, probably, the end result will be mutual destruction. The time available for preventing this result is increasingly short and it does not seem possible for an agreement to be reached without substantial international pressure.
Second Intifada. The origins of a rebellion
The road that led to the Second Intifada was marked by Israeli distrust and Palestinian ambiguity. For many Israeli politicians and citizens, the creation of the Palestinian National Authority (PNA) after the Oslo Agreements was a strategic victory for the PLO. The First Intifada had permitted the creation of a pseudo-state with international legal coverage; a base from which to plan and organize the next assault on Israel. For Palestinians, it was Jewish egoism and intolerance that systematically blocked any attempt to make progress in the agreements. But the goal of destroying the Jewish State continued alive in the minds of many Palestinians, and the PNA was timid when faced with having to repress extremists.
The outbreak of the revolt was a foreseeable event. The collapse of the conversations at Camp David, sponsored at the last minute by Clinton just before leaving the White House, left the swords up in the air. The visit by Sharon to the Esplanade of the Mosques was just the trigger, which was activated by the Likud leader for election campaign purposes. The Intifada would have broken out sooner or later in any case.
But this second rebellion has been different from the first. Israeli fears were partly confirmed, and the years of the PNA’s existence were used to create a paramilitary force much better organized, trained, and armed than the masses of the First Intifada. The revolt has not been based so much on civilian mobilizations as on armed attacks against the Army and Jewish settlements in the occupied territories. Radical Islamic groups such as Hamas and the Yihad, although apparently beyond the control of the PLO, have contributed to the general strategy of the revolt with waves of devastating terror attacks inside Israel.
The model for the Intifada was the battle of the Lebanese Hezbollah guerrillas against Israel and its allies in Southern Lebanon, which lasted for more than a decade. In fact, the Israeli withdrawal in the spring of 2000 from the safety zone in Southern Lebanon was interpreted as the first Arab victory over Israel. The most radical groups within the PLO and Islamic organizations believed that they could repeat the feat in the occupied territories, with the same scheme of harassment, lightning attacks, and terrorist attacks that had been pursued by Hezbollah.
The Second Intifada has not been as heavily controlled by the PLO as the previous one. Indeed, among the reasons for the outbreak, there is a degree of discontent among the Palestinian population itself, due to the inefficiency and latent corruption in Yasser Arafat’s governments. This lack of control, however, has sometimes been an advantage, since it has made it possible to dilute responsibilities for armed actions and terrorist attacks, making the task of Israel’s intelligence services that much harder, since they are not faced with a single structure, but rather, a series of different organizations.
Israeli strategy, especially since Ariel Sharon is in power, has been focused essentially on dismembering the PNA. Sharon shares the view, mentioned above, that the Palestinian Autonomy has been nothing more than a cover to organize the struggle against Israel more efficiently. Therefore, his goal has been to dismember all Palestinian institutions, get rid of Yasser Arafat, and force a change of leadership that would undoubtedly be controversial, given the internal divisions in the PLO and the widespread surge of Islamist movements. In this power vacuum, Israel could negotiate from strength, disregard the Oslo agreements, and obtain other ones that are more valuable for its security. What Sharon does not want under any circumstance is to repeat the mistake that Ehud Barak committed when withdrawing from Southern Lebanon. If Israel negotiates, makes concessions, or cedes territory, it will be from a clear position of strength, and never under the suspicion that it is giving in to pressure from the Intifada.
The results of the confrontation are still unclear. The loss of human life has been substantial on both sides (some 650 Israelis and up to 2,000 Palestinians so far), but it is evident that the deaths have a greater impact in the advanced Israeli society than among a Palestinian population that, often, finds solace for its miserable existence in its hate of Israel.
The economy is one of those areas that has most suffered from the impact of the Intifada. The situation in the occupied territories is close to ruin, with almost all business activities at a standstill, among them work inside Israel itself, the main source of income for many Palestinian families. The PNA and its institutions have been practically dismantled, and the population lacks many basic services.
But the situation is not much better inside Israel. The lack of Palestinian labour and the increased security costs have accelerated a crisis that had already begun before the outbreak of the revolt. The percentage of the population that is below the poverty threshold is close to 20%, and defence expenses, which had dropped to 10% of GDP, have risen again. Sharon’s greatest political difficulties have been precisely due to economic problems, and the fragile national unity government has collapsed in November 2002, due to the conflict between Labour and the Likud regarding the priority of providing financial aid to the settlers or to social expenses within Israel.
The consequences of an extreme strategy
Yet, as important as they are, the consequences with regards to victims and economic effects will probably not be the decisive factors in the final result of the conflict. Other aspects, hidden at first glance, become more important upon detailed analysis.
The first such aspect is the deterioration of the capability of Israel to survive as the Jewish homeland. The Jewish state, always with a scant population, has traditionally depended for its viability on a constant flow of immigrants from the Diaspora. The fall of the USSR and the massive emigration of Jews from Eastern Europe in the 90s was a timely shot in the arm, but that flow has dropped considerably. Living conditions in their countries of origin have improved in recent years and, above all, the Intifada has made Israel a more unappealing place in which to start a new life. The sharp drop in immigration could be dramatic for Israel, which already has almost 20% of citizens of Arab origin, and is faced with a genuine demographic strategy launched by the Palestinians. Ever since the First Intifada, many Islamic organizations, as well as the PNA itself, have supported an increased birth rate in Gaza and the West Bank as a method of confronting the waves of Jewish settlers. Currently, these territories have the world’s highest fertility rates, with an average of 6-7 children per woman, and a population growth rate of 4,3% per annum. The mere weight of demography may overwhelm the Jews of Israel within a few decades.
A second critical aspect is that the birth of a Palestinian state appears to be inevitable. Virtually the entire international community agrees on this, including the US. Even in Israel itself, and even in the most hawkish sectors of the Likud, this possibility is seen as inevitable in the medium-long term. The proposal of Prime Minister Sharon to build a defensive wall that will, in the future, separate Israel from the occupied territories, leads inevitably to the idea that a border is being established. And that is how hundreds of thousands of Jewish settlers in the West Bank have understood it, and have violently protested against the construction of that wall, which would exclude them from its protection.
The current problem, and the main cause of the quarrels, lies in the conditions in which that state is to be created, and the size of its territory. Some give priority to Israel’s absolute security, and others, to the right of the Palestinians to a viable state. In any case, the Second Intifada has acted as a bloody catalyst for the process of creating a Palestinian State, which had been paralysed for the past few years.
The third factor is the American attitude after the terrorist attacks of September 11th. Everyone is aware that the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is at the root of Arab and Moslem aggressiveness towards the West, which was so tragically manifested in the attacks on New York and Washington. The Bush Administration knows that the final victory against terrorism requires a solution to the Palestinian conflict. In the short run, it is not possible to force Israel excessively, since such conduct would appear to be a concession to the desires of the terrorists. But in the medium term, the US will increase the pressure to reach a negotiated solution. If the attack on Iraq takes place, the solution of the Palestinian conflict would be a logical tit for tat to prevent anti-American feelings from being fanned even further in the Moslem world.
But there is a final factor that is not so favourable to the Palestinian cause. This factor derives from the extreme character of its own strategy. Israeli military superiority has forced them to adopt an asymmetrical strategy model, based on popular mobilization and a mix of guerrilla war and terrorism that requires an enormous sacrifice by the population and strong convictions. Hate for Israel has been drummed into generations of youths, and the goal of destroying the Jewish state will be very hard to wrest from the hearts and minds of the Palestinian people.
But, due to its own extremism, this strategy has a difficult future. Educated in hate, with little training, with an enormous demographic explosion in the offing and a ravaged territory, young Palestinians will be hard pressed to create and consolidate a stable society. Even if a territorially and economically viable state were achieved, the resources and human values required to develop it would not be available, and the most likely future would be chaos and continued fighting against Israel. Even if the aim –only indirectly confessed– of doing away with the Jewish state were achieved, Palestinian society would paradoxically lose its only hope for development and progress. Only the Jewish economic, scientific and technological potential can tug on the Palestinian people, lifting them out of the well of underdevelopment and hate in which they have sunk. As happens so often in conflicts that are carried to extremes, it is possible that, by vanquishing their rival, the Palestinians will sign their own death sentence as a viable society, dragging the entire region down in the ensuing turbulence.
The importance of outside pressure
The problem is not in fact so complicated, if it is posited in a theoretical fashion. Palestinians must have a State that is economically and politically viable, and lets them forget their obsession with the destruction of their Jewish neighbour. But to achieve this, Israel must take a risk, setting aside its dream of colonizing the Jordan Valley, and overcoming the fear that the establishment of a Palestinian state will be just another step in a hostile strategy. These are two complementary attitudes, and will be useless unless they are adopted in a reciprocally mutual fashion.
But in practice, the question becomes complicated to an almost unsolvable degree. Those who govern both communities are unable to make the required decisions; and not because they are short-sighted, but because they depend on public opinions that are marked by decades of violence, victims, and hate. Neither Sharon nor Arafat, nor those who may replace them in the future, have sufficient freedom to make the appropriate decisions, to establish that “peace of the brave” of which people talk about so often.
That is why international action is so important to achieve an agreement. Only with strong external diplomatic and economic pressure will the leaders of both sides be able to justify decisions that, if they were made at their own initiative, would be political suicide. That is why there is nothing worse for this conflict than the idea defended earlier on by the Bush Administration, namely to leave the initiative to both parties. This is probably pure utopia.
Spain can play a notable role in the process leading to this solution. Individually, by taking advantage of its cultural and historical tradition to act as “neutral territory”, as happened during the Madrid Conversations in 1992, or to involve a number of Arab states from the area in the peace process. Within the European Union, by supporting a firm attitude of economic and diplomatic pressure on both parties. In this sense, the EU has a greater freedom of action than the US, whose support of Israel is conditioned by geopolitical reasons and by internal politics.
It is a truism that the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is hard to solve. But it really is so. It has currently entered into a spiral that further complicates all attempts at achieving a solution. Perhaps within a few years it will be impossible. The long-term prognosis is pessimistic for the survival of Israel, which may win some battles, but for whom winning the war is very difficult; on the other hand, the Palestinians will not obtain any benefits from the fall of their hated rival.
Decisive and coordinated external pressure seems to be the only hope of ending the circle of violence, and the European Union may have an important role to play in this diplomatic approach. In any case, the solution will take time, and peace will have to wait, if it ever becomes possible. But attempting to solve this conflict between two small communities, which is contributing to destabilize a large part of world, and which will probably end badly for all, seems to be an inescapable duty for the international community.