The Jews of Israel are facing a cruel dilemma. They came home to find peace and safety in their homeland of Israel; to find an end to that vulnerable status of a perpetual wandering minority; an end to exile, alienation, and powerlessness; and the beginning of a normal national existence. Instead, they found neighbors who were not reconciled to their living again together in this tiny piece of land the Jews have regarded as home for 4,000 years. How do you share a home with someone who says, "You have no right to be here"?
The Arab assault on the Jews that began immediately and has continued for more than half a century made it clear the Jews could not control 2 million Arabs without eroding the moral character of their tiny state and, with that, its support in the world. So leader after leader decided to end the Israeli occupation of Palestine and any pretense that Israel could become a binational state in which one people ruled another. After Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres promoted the Oslo agreements, Ehud Barak, Ariel Sharon, and Ehud Olmert, prime ministers all, made dramatic proposals in search of a live-and-let-live relationship with the Palestinians -- and all were rejected. They offered to withdraw from the West Bank and Gaza in words and withdrew from them in deeds. Did this bring peace? No, it brought terrorist attacks by suicide bombers who menaced any kind of normal life within Israel. Prime Minister Sharon voluntarily withdrew every last Jewish settler and soldier from Gaza. It meant forcing close to 10,000 Jews out of their homes. Did it bring peace? Did the Gazans say, "Good riddance," and get on with building their own society? No, they hunted the Jews who had left. They turned Gaza into a launching pad for thousands of rockets against the Jewish people. Never even for one day did they cease. This was true even before Hamas seized control. Then, when Hamas did take control, the terrorism escalated.
In yet another effort to find peace, the Israelis risked their own security by dismantling security barriers and checkpoints -- down from 147 to 14 in the West Bank -- and so providing mobility for people in commerce. They have "not been getting much credit for it," in the words of former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, but the economic results are dramatic. Wages in the West Bank were up 24 percent in 2008 over 2007; agricultural exports from the Palestinian Authority to Israel increased from 30,000 tons in 2007 to 92,000 tons in 2008; the number of permits for Palestinians to work in Israel rose from 21,000 to 23,000.
The trouble has been the absence of any responsible governance among the Palestinians -- no capacity to deal with terrorism and violence, no command-and-control structure, no political backing for Palestinian officers to go after sensitive targets, and no legal apparatus to try those who might be arrested. Terrorist operatives have gone in one door one day and out the next. So when successive American administrations have pushed for negotiation between the parties, the Americans have all discovered, as the Israeli columnist Nahum Barnea put it, "that they want an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement more than the Israelis and the Palestinians want it."
The Obama administration began unwisely. The president made an uncompromising demand for a full freeze on construction in the settlements, imposing no requirement on the Arabs. That missed the real point of contention. According to a recent poll of Palestinians, halting construction in the settlements is not important to them. The evacuation of the settlement outposts is much more important to them. For the Israeli public, the settlement issue was a nonstarter without a compensating concession by the Palestinians. In any event, the previous Olmert government had greatly reduced permits for construction settlements, and very few permits remain.
Now the administration has initiated a more promising policy. At September's three-way summit in New York, it achieved an agreement by all parties to commence negotiations with no preconditions. Everything is on the table.
Israel is now committed fully to two states for two peoples. At the United Nations, Obama voiced his unreserved support for Israel as the state of the Jewish people, one of the core issues. The peace negotiations were to begin in a matter of weeks.
Obama's previous efforts had been rebuffed. His speech in Cairo in June, which he thought would open a door to the Muslim world, did not gain any takers. The Arab rulers refused to enter the room, and most kept their distance. According to a recent poll released by the International Peace Institute, public hostility to the United States and to Obama remained high, and it appeared that only 1 in 6 Palestinians has a positive opinion of America, and only 1 in 4 has a positive opinion of Obama. The only one who responded to Obama was Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, who made public his commitment to have two states for two peoples. Here we had a government built around right-wing parties yet able to pass a resolution supporting the two-state solution.
Netanyahu's approach holds that peace will come from the bottom up, not the top down. It is both about economic development and about bringing security under control. The PA had been paralyzed, its security organizations scattered and ineffective, so it was left to the Israeli Defense Forces to control things on the ground while the terrorists hid. Several hundred gang leaders created chaos in the territories, holding back commercial and economic life, demanding protection money, killing and wounding Arabs and Jews alike. The PA simply didn't have the capacity to deal with these gangs.
A new approach came from Israel's General Security Services in 2007. The GSS director approached the Palestinian prime minister, Salam Fayyad, offering the wanted men a deal. If they ended their involvement in terrorism and violence, gave up their weapons, and placed themselves under the protection of the PA, they would be taken off the wanted list and would neither be arrested nor killed.
There was to be a three-stage trial period. First, the wanted men would be under the protection of the security services, restricting their movements; second, they would be given relative freedom of movement in the area; and third, they would be allowed to return home and live a normal life as long as they adhered to the terms of the agreement.
The plan worked. Nine rounds of wanted men who have been processed, almost 80 percent of the members of the original list of gang leaders, have left the world of crime and terrorism, and the ground is quiet. Now terrorists from other organizations such as Islamic Jihad and the Popular Front have approached the Palestinian security organizations wanting to come in from the cold and get on the list of parolees. They want to go home, and they are willing to abandon terrorist attacks and crime.
The security organizations that had lacked control over the territory were suddenly in charge. Add to this the projects of American Lt. Gen. Keith Dayton, who, also in 2007, began training the special Palestinian forces and helped begin security cooperation with Israel. The new security forces began to take over responsibilities for the cities. Nablus was the first city, Jenin the second. Terrorist activities in these cities virtually collapsed, as the terrorist infrastructures were located and dismantled and the public police took over on the ground and, this time, did it seriously.
Today, Hamas is as much of a danger to the PA as it is to Israeli citizens. In fact, these Palestinian security services have now confronted wanted Hamas operators and done it much more brutally than the IDF would have done it. As Ben Caspit reported in Maariv, an Israeli newspaper, "The Palestinians are not fighting for us but for themselves. They are not protecting our lives, but their own. The terrible scenes from Hamas's takeover of Gaza, the executions in the streets, the kneecapping, the officer who was thrown off the 15th floor have all done their part." The Fatah organization realized that if it did not hit Hamas with all its might, Hamas would hit it.
This doesn't mean that the terrorism capability of these organizations is completely gone, but the success has fed on itself. Most of the credit is due to Fayyad, the Palestinian prime minister. He has changed the way things are done. He asserts he will be the Ben Gurion of the Palestinians -- i.e., he will build the foundations of a state before the Palestinians declare a state, so that when they do, the infrastructure of governance will exist. A critical part is that the PA is starting to exert control over the territories.
The president, Mahmoud Abbas, has also gained confidence as the leader of Fatah. He has focused on consolidating his own authority and gaining the upper hand over the rival Hamas movement, breaking both its social infrastructure and its terrorist network. Now his popularity is growing. In a recent poll, he was supported by 55 percent, compared with only 32 percent in support of Ismail Haniyeh, the leader of Hamas in Gaza; 64 percent believe that Haniyeh is harmful to the interests of the Palestinians.
This progress will take more time. The Israelis will not buy words; they will buy only deeds. They will not accept the West Bank as a platform for rocket attacks that could reach every major Israeli population center. That is why they believe that the IDF should have complete freedom of action in the West Bank to respond to terrorism and crime. That is why the only Palestinian state that Israel can accept is, in Blair's words, "one that is secure and properly governed."
The peace process must be the beginning of the future, not the beginning of the end. There is still a ways to go, but the progress being made by the Palestinians, especially in terms of controlling the terrorists and criminal gangs, is one of the most promising developments to have occurred in decades.