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Debate (Matter of Public Interest)

Middle East: Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

Senator MASON (Queensland) (12.45 pm)—A few weeks ago the Israeli Defence Force completed its withdrawal from the Gaza Strip. Several thousand Jewish settlers from about 21 settlements scattered over the territory were removed by the IDF, some peacefully of course and some by force, thus ending almost four decades of Israeli presence on this very small piece of land abutting the Mediterranean Sea.

The Israeli withdrawal is to be welcomed. Indeed, the status quo, while perhaps still sustainable from a military point of view, was arguably no longer sustainable from a political point of view. Something had to change in the dynamic of this conflict that has been tearing the region apart for decades now and, of course, sending periodic shockwaves throughout the rest of the world. The Israeli withdrawal from Gaza is one such step. As Israel’s Ambassador to Australia, Mr Naftali Tamar, wrote recently in the Australian, the hopes are that the Gaza withdrawal will achieve several objectives.

He wrote that it will:

Reduce friction with the Palestinian population, who will find themselves under the governance of the Palestinian Authority rather than the Israeli government; give Palestinians the opportunity to break out of the cycle of violence in those areas no longer under Israeli control; dispel claims by the Palestinians regarding Israel’s overall responsibility for the Palestinian population in the Gaza Strip; and allow for any future permanent status arrangement by clearing all Israeli settlements and installations. In addition, the plan carries with it the potential for improvement in the Palestinian economy and living conditions.

The ambassador, it seems, is quite optimistic. There are, however, far more sceptical views. For example, the American columnist Charles Krauthammer wrote:

The Israeli abandonment of Gaza is a withdrawal of despair. Unlike the Oslo concessions of 1993, there is not even the pretense of getting anything in return from the Palestinians. Nonetheless, unilateralism is both correct and necessary. Israel has no peace partner—Mahmoud Abbas has nothing to offer and has offered nothing—and in the absence of a partner, there is only one logical policy: Rationalize your defensive lines and prepare for a long wait.

Gaza was simply a bridge too far: settlements too far-flung and small to justify the huge psychological and material cost of defending them. Pulling out of Gaza leaves behind the first truly independent Palestinian state—uncontrolled and highly militant, but one from which Israel is fenced off.

If Israel can complete its West Bank fence, it will have established a stable equilibrium and essentially abolished terrorism as a regular and reliable means of attack—i.e., as a usable strategic weapon. That will leave the Palestinians a stark choice: Remain in their state of miserable militancy with no prospects of victory or finally accept the Jewish state and make a deal.

So Krauthammer writes. There is of course truth and merit in both positions. There is a need to provide Israel with defensible borders and a hope that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict can finally be resolved in a peaceful manner through the creation of a Palestinian state.

However, we need to be watchful for this end is far from certain. Statehood is not—as recent history indicates— always a magical solution. There is a lot more to it than just a piece of land with a flag and a national anthem. The Palestinian-Israeli conflict can only be fully resolved if a free, democratic and prosperous state of Israel exists in peace next to a free, democratic and prosperous state of Palestine. Palestine cannot be allowed to degenerate into another impoverished, backward cleptocracy run by crooks, thugs and fanatics—

what David Frum calls a ‘Mediterranean Somalia: an unstable failed state in which gangs compete for power and extremist Islam finds a sanctuary.’

Unfortunately, Yasser Arafat’s tenure as the leader of the Palestinian Authority has not laid any useful foundations for a healthy Palestinian state. In a long cover story for the latest issue of the Atlantic Monthly David Samuels paints a frequently heartbreaking picture of the betrayal of the Palestinian people by some of their leaders. Writes Samuels:

The amounts of money stolen from the Palestinian Authority and the Palestinian people through the corrupt practices of Arafat’s inner circle are so staggeringly large that they may exceed one half of the total of $7 billion in foreign aid contributed to the Palestinian Authority.

It is absolutely appalling. And sadly, Palestinian democrats and liberals who want normal lives and a decent future for their people and their children are stuck between the rock of corruption and the hard place of extremism. We have to remember that unfortunately too many on the Palestinian side still do not believe in the two-state solution, but a one-state solution with Palestine from Jordan to the Mediterranean and the Jews into the sea. Hamas leader, Dr Mahoud Al-Zahar, told Arabic newspaper Asharq Al-Awsat recently:

We do not and will not recognise a state called Israel. Israel has no right to any inch of Palestinian land. This is an important issue. Our position stems from our religious convictions. This is a holy land. It is not the property of the Palestinians or the Arabs. This land is the property of all Muslims in all parts of the world.

As an Israeli group, Palestinian Media Watch, notes of Hamas:

The Hamas website publicized numerous posters that declare the same religious victory theme. The Hamas poster below, showing a face of Hamas founder Ahmad Yassin laughing, superimposed over a somber religious Jew, presents the Sharon evacuation plan as a victory of the Koran over the Talmud. The words on the poster: ‘Our Koran proves that we were right and your Talmud proves that you were wrong ...’ Another Hamas poster shows a rifle and the Koran with the words: ‘With those two together the victory has been achieved.’

Hamas, by the way, is in a very strong position to win the parliamentary elections in Gaza scheduled for next January. But as Israeli finance minister Mr Ehud Olmert said recently, the pullout is a ‘calculated risk’. He said:

There comes a time when you have to take a risk in order to break this cycle of violence. Israel has now withdrawn from Gaza. Soon it will be vacating virtually all of the West Bank, and the ball will very much be in the Palestinian court. It will be time for the Palestinian leadership, as well as the Arab leadership in general, to demonstrate to the world the commitment to a parallel future. It will be time for a final and unequivocal recognition of the right of Israel to exist as a Jewish state. It will be time for the final and unequivocal renunciation of terrorism as a political and military weapon. It will be time for the end of the obsession with Israel—that sliver of land less than one third the size of Tasmania, stuck in the middle of a region stretching from the Atlantic to Central Asia.

It will be time for no more excuses, distilled, quite appallingly, in a statement by one Arab participant in last year’s World Economic Forum in Davos. He said:

We cannot reform ourselves as long as Israel occupies Arab lands.

No more misplaced blame for the appalling lack of freedom and opportunities for tens of millions throughout the Middle East. It will be a time also of great challenge and great opportunities, both for the peoples of the Middle East and for the rest of the international community. President Bush said very recently that the Gaza withdrawal will create an opportunity for the Palestinians to begin laying the foundations of a peaceful, democratic state. He said: I see relations with a peaceful Palestinian state ... that is founded on democratic institutions. That’s what I believe can happen and should happen. ... in order to ultimately defeat terror—whether it be in Palestinian territories or Iraq or Iran—there must be open, transparent societies based upon rule of law.

Fortunately, the Palestinian National Authority Chairman, Mahmoud Abbas, seems to understand what is at stake. He said a few days ago before a Palestinian youth parliament:

‘lesser jihad’ [had ended and that the Palestinian people were now] standing before the ‘greater jihad’, which is construction, development, and achieving security and tranquility for our people. We want to live like the rest of the peoples of the world. After the evacuation of the settlers from Gaza, a solution needs to be reached for the West Bank and Jerusalem and a just solution must be found for the refugee problem.

He continued:

We will sign a peace treaty with Israel. In that way, we will have peace and they will have security. Chairman Abbas later reiterated in a talk with the wounded and disabled in Gaza that the Palestinians are now ‘standing before the “greater jihad”, which is the development of the homeland and its construction and changing our people’s lives’. He said:

From here we will begin to develop, to build, to invest, and to protect our land and homeland ... The road ahead is by no means smooth, even if we assume that it is paved with good intentions. Controversial points remain, like those mentioned by Chairman Abbas, such as Jerusalem and the so-called right of return by Palestinians and their descendants to their former homes in Israel proper. There seems to be very little hope for compromise at least on those two issues.

After visiting Israel, just before Christmas in 2003, I came away with an abiding hope that one day, on the grey hills of the Holy Land, Israelis and Palestinians will be able to, if not in the words of Martin Luther King: ‘Sit down together at a table of brotherhood,’ then at least, at long last, sit alongside each other in peace.

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