Israel and palestine: what now?: Israel must change its basic attitude of fear, guilt and contempt towards the Palestinians, says Ahmad Khalidi

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The Independent Online
THE HEBRON massacre bodes ill for the future of the peace process and for Palestinian-Israeli relations generally. The high hopes aroused by the historic handshake on the White House lawn last September between Yasser Arafat and Yitzhak Rabin have been soured.

The issue of settlers and settlements must now be brought to the fore. Though technically not subject to negotiation until two years from now, the settlements must now be subject to a radical new Israeli approach. First, the Israeli government should commit itself once and for all to halt the settlements and expropriations of land from Palestinians and suspend the wide range of government incentives and subsidies still offered to settlers. Second, it must curb the armed actions and provocations of the settlers which it and previous governments have benignly tolerated. Third, the purpose of maintaining small isolated settlements deep inside Palestinian territory must be questioned. Finally, although the question of security has been monopolised by the Israelis, the Hebron massacre shows that the security of Palestinians is as much at risk as anyone else's.

The Palestinians, for their part, must go beyond psycho-symbolic issues - such as methods of entry and exit at border crossings - at the expense of more fundamental issues. These include the wide-ranging co-operation and co-ordination mechanisms proposed by Israel that would effectively turn self-rule into a partnership with continued Israeli occupation, but also the exceptional status proposed for Israeli settlers and settlements which would grant them true 'autonomy' deep inside Palestinian territory. The shootings at Hebron show just why Palestinians should be wary.

Arafat's style of leadership and the decision-making process within the PLO have both come in for criticism, much of it unjustified. In fact, the PLO's greatest failing has been its failure to make a clear analysis of the main sources of threat in Israel's proposals.

But whatever blame can be attached to the PLO for its erratic and unconvincing negotiating performance over the past few months, something deeper seems to affect the Israeli stance. In essence, the problem seems to be one of attitude. Whereas there has been no evidence of any serious personal difficulties between the negotiators - somewhat surprisingly, given the background of some of those involved - there remains a gulf in attitudes between the two sides.

For the Palestinians, the Gaza- Jericho agreement will mean little if it does not entail a basic change in the way that Israelis perceive the Palestinians as a people. No matter how the history books are rewritten in the shadow of the new era, the Palestinians are unlikely to be reconciled to the notion that they were the transgressors in this historic conflict or deserve less in terms of freedom, dignity and security than the Israelis arrogate to themselves.

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about the development of Palestinian national goals and objectives over the past 20 years has been the readiness of the mainstream of the Palestinian movement to come to terms with the historic loss of its patrimony and to reach out to the other side for a totally asymmetric 'compromise' encapsulated in the two-state solution: Israel in 77 per cent of Mandatory Palestine alongside a Palestinian state in the remaining 23 per cent.

The Israeli mainstream, however, seems to remain immune not only to this particular political formula, but to the more important underlying notion of parity and equivalence between the two sides. Clearly, this has something to do with the sheer imbalance in power between Israel and the Palestinians as a whole. In addition to Israel's nuclear-backed military might, Israel's GNP is around dollars 60bn, that of Gaza and the West Bank around dollars 2bn. But beyond the quantifiable attributes of power that determine Israel's attitude towards the Palestinians lies a somewhat diffuse and unique combination of fear, guilt, condescension and - for want of a better word - contempt.

Israel's existing political and military establishment seems unable to grasp the need to concede mutuality, reciprocity and moral equivalence between the two sides. Its very insistence on the need for an experimental 'interim phase' in the West Bank and Gaza (but not on the other Arab fronts) points to the nature of its attitudinal problem.

Perhaps last Friday's events, which so threaten the peace process, will convince the Israeli establishment that the problems it sees in normalising relations with the Palestinians are a product, in part, of its own attitude. Unless it recognises this, the great achievement of 'mutual recognition' will come to appear not only a political irrelevance but, more dangerously, a moral failure and an omen of a darker future.

The writer is an associate fellow at the Royal Insitute of International Affairs and has been a member of the Palestinian delegation to the Washington and Cairo/Taba peace talks.