Prepared for the IISS/CEPS European Security Forum, Brussels, March 11, 2002

The Israeli-Palestinian new war of attrition: a European perspective

by Alain Dieckhoff, Senior Research Fellow, Center for International Studies and Research, Paris

Whereas in July 2000 the Middle East Peace Process seemed near completion – at least on the Israeli-Palestinian track –, two months later violence engulfed the region showing how fragile the achievements of one decade of negotiations were. Although the situation has not given way to a full scale war, the current "low intensity conflict" has already cost a high price to both parties in human, economic and diplomatic terms. This will leave deep wounds which will not be easily cured. Perspectives are rather grim: violence is not on the wane, but rather expanding; the descent to regional war, even if it is more through insidious deterioration than through choice is still looming ahead. In this paper we will look at three things: assess Arafat and Sharon's current political positions – look at the most probable scenarios concerning the evolution of the situation – examine the European role.

Arafat and Sharon's political position

Shut up in Ramallah since December 3rd, head of a Palestinian Authority that has been undermined by the continuous assaults of the Israeli army, demonized by Israel, the Palestinian leader seems to have lost the game and more and more people are waiting for the post-Arafat era. Although it would be hazardous to speculate on his political fate, it seems indisputable that Arafat's political weakening is partially the consequence of a failed strategy and of tortuous tactics. I do not share the argument, largely spread by Israeli officials and analysts, according to whom Arafat was the initiator of the al-Aqsa intifada, but I do think that he tried to capitalize diplomatically on it. His aim was to involve directly the international community in the management of the crisis, hoping that it would lead to an internationalization of the solution. This hope proved to be wrong. Arafat was able to secure the rhetorical support of his natural allies, the Arab and Islamic world, but unable to get an internationalization of the crisis (through the sending of international observers). Indeed he badly misread the international scene, overstating Europe's influence and the new American administration's willingness to find a way out of the crisis.

On the tactical level, Arafat had contradictory objectives. On the one hand, he approved at least tacitly the use of arms because he saw in this guerilla a way to give a freedom of action to the "generation of the first Intifada"; among his own Fatah movement. Thus he was able to get a new legitimacy as leader of the Palestinian resistance. On the other hand, he wanted still to be recognized by the international community as the chairman of the PA and the sole accountable interlocutor. Thus the recurring calls to a cease-fire and the arrests of Islamist militants and activists. This twofold tactics rendered his message rather obscure and has confused the Israeli public. This structural ambiguity has objectively helped Ariel Sharon to throw discredit upon the Palestinian leader, equating him with Bin Laden. Sharon holds fast to his nationalist vision: he still thinks that Israel's interest would be best served by the dismantling of Palestinian institutions which will weaken, it is hoped, the Palestinian national movement for years. He thought that, in the immediate aftermath of September 11th, the situation was ripe, but had to lessen his expectations when he saw that the Bush administration choose instead to bind solidly the PA to the anti-terrorist coalition by endorsing publicly the prospect of Palestinian statehood.

Things changed in late November-early December after new suicide attacks against civilians inside Israel: this time the US was convinced that Arafat played a double game and considered that the reprisals against the Palestinian Authority – now defined as an entity supporting terrorism – were legitimate acts of self-defense. This American understanding has clearly played into the hands of Sharon's aim to delegitimate Arafat but has yet stop short of endorsing his definite toppling down. The American parameter is still putting some constraint on Sharon, which has also to take into account his Labor partner in the national unity government, which wants to maintain at least minimal contacts with the Palestinian side.

Three possible scenarios

Although it is rather difficult to decipher the future because the situation on the ground is quite complex, I would suggest three possible evolutions.

Without doubt the general trend of the last 17 months has been a growing militarization of the conflict: on the Palestinian side, stones and cocktail Molotov have given way to more and more mortar shells, drive-by shootings and suicide bombings; on the Israeli side, to the shootings of snipers have been added "extra-judicial killings", shells by tanks, bombings by helicopters and airplanes. However, even if Sharon has declared Arafat irrelevant, contacts between Israelis and Palestinians have never completely stopped at the security and political level (the most regular meetings are those between Shimon Peres and the speaker of the Legislative council, Abu Ala'a).

The most likely scenario in the short term is the carrying on of the "low intensity conflict" and on-going contacts. A progressive de-escalation that the EU (with Miguel Angel Moratinos and Javier Solana) and the US (with General Zinni) have tried to achieve during the last months is only possible if two conditions are met. First, a growing weariness of the populations coupled with an awareness of the deadlock of militarization. In such a context the pragmatics in each camp ("old guard" of the PLO, left and center figures in Israel) could take the lead. Such a change could only occur if a second condition is met: the outline of a political perspective. The Peres-Abu Ala'a initiative, which provides for the immediate establishment of a Palestinian state on the 42% of the West Bank already under total or partial control by the PA and the resuming of negotiations for a final settlement, is clearly such an attempt to refuel the political process. Unfortunately such a revival should overcome both Sharon and Arafat's reluctance: the former thinks it is already too much, the latter it is too little. An exit from the current crisis will not be easy to manage because it requires a close synchronization between lull of violence and diplomatic action.

The second scenario is the worst one. If the violence is growing (especially increase of suicide attacks inside Israel), the temptation to dismantle totally the PA will be irresistible. The aim would be to close the Oslo parenthesis by reasserting Israeli control over the West Bank and the Gaza Strip either by taking over directly the A zones or by putting Palestinian proxies into place. In a climate of hardened violence, Sharon will benefit from a double support for such an objective. Within Israel, the general mood will be one of "patriotic union": If human bombs are blowing up in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, the feeling that Israel is fighting for its very existence can only grow and with it the belief that the only way out is a complete military defeat of the Palestinians. In such a context Sharon who has already garnered an appreciable support from the Bush administration will get an ever-freer hand to act against the PA. At a time when an American power undertakes a wide fight against "international terrorism", suicide attacks can only deepen US understanding for Israel's own will to defeat terrorism (of course, reduce the Palestinian struggle to its terrorist outbreaks is debatable but what interests us here is the fact that the terrorist paradigm is now part of a global vision largely shared by Israel and the US in the post-September 11th situation). However, the destruction of the PA and the re-occupation of the Territories would surely not be the end of the game: the Palestinian guerilla would go on, at least for a while, with the Islamist groups (Hamas and Jihad) taking a leading role. This would barely be a blessing for Israel.

Finally, there is a third scenario. It implies that the Palestinians choose to restrict their attacks to the territories occupied in 1967, to the settlers and the soldiers. This trend was clearly noticeable in February but it is still too early to affirm that we are witnessing a strategic change. Let us assume it is. Even if Israeli leaders will still depict attacks on settlers and soldiers within the Territories as terrorist acts, they are clearly seen as acts of resistance by the Palestinians and get even a certain amount of understanding from the outside. Such a situation will not be without consequence within Israeli society: indeed, restricting the use of arms to the Territories will surely increase the internal rifts. The public statement taken, late January, by hundred of reservists who have stated that they will refuse to serve in the Territories because they do not want to support an immoral occupation is a clear indication that the purely repressive answer is openly challenged by some. These dissenting voices will become more numerous if Palestinians attacks are concentrated on the Territories. Indeed such a move will be interpreted as signaling that the Palestinian political aim is only to get rid off the occupation in order to build a Palestinian state besides Israel. A majority of Israeli Jews still think that it is, in the long term, may be not the best, but the less bad solution. Going in that direction requires from Arafat that he makes the utmost efforts to control the activities of the Islamist groups and that he hinders them from bombing civilians in Israel: ambiguity has to stop.

If the Israeli-Palestinian confrontation is focused on the Territories, political options will become once again credible. A negotiated agreement specifying the terms and conditions of Israel's withdrawal would be the best solution but if this way is closed, there is still another issue: a unilateral withdrawal. More and more people in Israel have put the idea forward, from the right to the left. The former minister of Foreign Affairs, Shlomo Ben Ami, has presented the most sophisticated account of this plan. For him, the land vacated by the army (80% of West Bank, last third of the Gaza strip) should be handed over to an American-led multinational force, which would also supervise the dismantling of the settlements. At the same time negotiations would start on the basis of the Clinton parameters, with the Palestinians, in order to organize the transfer of sovereignty to them. Of course, a unilateral withdrawal goes not without problems. One of the most acute is surely that it could reinvigorate the Lebanon syndrome i.e. be seen, as the Israeli withdrawal from south Lebanon (May 2000), as a sign of weakness and, thus, fuel hostility towards Israel rather than dampen it. However, despite its shortcomings, the unilateral option could rise on the top of the agenda if there is no diplomatic breakthrough in sight while violence goes on in the Territories. 

The European role

We can discern three stages in Europe's involvement during the last 18 months.

During the first phase (September 2000-2001), the EU – as an entity or through its Member States – was very active in order to set up a lasting cease-fire, first in coordination with the Clinton administration (Sharm el-Sheikh summit), than alone, as the Bush administration staid in the background. Good will was there but all the different attempts failed because the parties were unwilling or unable to stop the violence. On a more diplomatic level, the EU has kept through its high representative and special envoy continual political contacts with Israelis and Palestinians. Even if the practical outcomes have been limited, the EU has been right to do so. Indeed political dialogue has in a time of crisis a virtue in itself because it prevents the constitution of a "bloc logic" which can only harden the confrontation.

Then came September 11th, which opened a new phase. Attacked on its own soil, the US had no choice but to assume clearly a leading role on the international scene. This led to a renewal of a multidimensional presence whose Middle Eastern outcome was the conditional endorsement of Palestinian statehood by Bush and Colin Powell. The new American attitude was indeed welcomed by the EU, but Europe seemed so relieved to see the US back that it was content with a junior status. This retraction was eased by the immediate post-September, which saw the national logic prevail, as each "big" European country chooses to play it alone, diplomatically, and military, rather than foster cooperation with its European partners. This partly self-inflicted marginalization of the EU as a community of nations was regrettable, even more so because the American insistence on the (legitimate) military fight against terrorism took a growing place on their agenda to the detriment of diplomacy. The prioritization of terrorism had a direct impact on the Middle East: Arafat was de facto disqualified as an interlocutor as long as the Palestinian semi-underground groups were not totally disarmed and dismantled. Thus the US sided objectively with Sharon and his harsh reprisals tactics.

This "reductio ad terrorem" – obvious in President Bush's State of the Union speech – has finally led the Europeans to a reassessment of their position: Force cannot be the only game in town, politics matters. Here begun the third phase (February). It has been characterized by a series of European proposals, which, although they differ in their details, have one thing in common: They aim at restarting a political process. The general framework has two pillars: new elections or referendum in the Territories in order to give a new legitimacy to the Palestinian leaders – immediate proclamation of a Palestinian state whose precise outlines will then be negotiated with Israel on the basis of UN resolutions 242 and 338. This "stock of ideas" came up immediately against two major difficulties: enduring differences among the Fifteen, Great Britain and Germany insisting on the priority of security considerations (a recipe for inaction in my view because calm will not come through by miracle: a political "cover" is essential) – staunch opposition from the US and the Sharon government (except Shimon Peres) which are sticking to the Mitchell report and the prerequisite of seven days of complete calm. Even if the Europeans are able to bridge the differences between them, this new set of ideas has no chance to lead somewhere without an American assent which seems illusory. Does it mean that Europe is powerless? I don't think so, but the EU should be much more resolute in using the means it has already as a civilian power.

Two questions have been singled out as worrying by the EU: terrorism and settlements. In both cases the EU has means to press hard on the parties. Europe has heavily subsidized the Palestinian Authority out of a right assessment: Palestinians need their own public institutions in order to carry out their self-determination right.Nevertheless, the PA cannot take this financial aid for granted; it is conditional on a political accountable behavior. The EU has been clearer than ever by stating that the PA has to dismantle the terrorist networks of Hamas and Islamic Jihad and to prosecute suspects. If Arafat's apparent good will does not materialize, the EU should made it clear that it will reduce the funds channeled towards the Palestinian institutions (not the population). Of course, Europe has to take into account the specific situation of the Palestinians as a people under occupation, but as a power committed to the rule of law, Europe cannot tolerate that a state in the being, financially backed by it, shows ambiguity towards para-military groups which perpetrates killings against civilians within a sovereign state.

On the Israeli side, the EU has repeatedly stated that the Jewish settlements in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip are major obstacles on the road to peace. It is high time for the EU to give an effective translation to its declarative diplomacy: The EU should strictly apply the "rules of origin" to the goods produced in the Territories and exclude them from the benefit of lower tariffs. Sure, the economic impact of such a measure will be limited but the Israeli leaders will not miss its symbolic meaning. The statement of the European Commission (November 2001), which specifies that the goods from the settlements cannot benefit from the preferential treatment included in the EU-Israel association agreement, should be applied without delay.

Coercion in the short term should go along with proposition for the medium and long term. Europe could have an eminent role in three fields: resumption of the negotiations; peacekeeping; long term solutions.

When serious negotiations resume, one question will inevitably arise: At what point renew negotiations? Should only signed agreements serve as a starting point? Legally yes; politically no. Proposals and ideas raised from Camp David (July 2000) to Taba (January 2001) cannot be pushed aside as if they never were on the table. They are part of an "acquis diplomatique" which the EU has been partly entrusted with keeping. Indeed, at Taba, the Special Envoy was the sole third party witness of the negotiations and he has kept a memorandum. This document will be of tremendous importance when negotiations for a final agreement resume.

Even when the violence stops, there is a risk – especially after such a bloody crisis – of relapse into violence. To avoid such a negative development, the EU, which has endorsed the principle of "third-party monitoring" should restate its readiness to assume an active role of peacekeeper. With a clear mandate and the cooperation of the parties in implementing it, a peacekeeping force would have a positive input. For Europe, such an involvement would perfectly suit its wish to have a military capacity. Indeed, crisis management (humanitarian tasks, peacekeeping, peacemaking) has been explicitly included in the Amsterdam treaty and forms the backbone of the nascent European defense system.

Finally, the EU should play a greater part in the final status questions by suggesting creative solutions. In 1998, two working groups (Palestinian refugees, water) have been set up under the aegis of Mr. Moratinos. The documents presented within these informal groups should serve as a basis for defining a common European position. The fear expressed by some Member States of interfering with the negotiations between the parties is baseless, not only because there are no negotiations today, but because when these difficult questions will be tackled it will be a positive thing that the EU's position is known (after all, President Clinton forwarded also his proposals on the territorial basis of the Palestinian state, Jerusalem and the refugees in late December 2000). It might also be advisable for the EU to support second-track diplomacy.

These different steps would give more visibility and coherence to the European position towards the Arab-Israeli conflict. As in the Balkans, Europe can play a constructive role in the Middle East. This role is not contradictory to the one played by the US but complementary. It will be decisively enhanced if transatlantic links are strengthened in a more multilateral setting, an evolution that is however far from obvious today.