By Mark Mellman - 06/09/09 06:50 PM EDT
So it was with great pride that I listened to President Obama speak of America’s unbreakable bond with Israel while also acknowledging the need for a two-state solution and the imperative for Arab states and the Palestinians to recognize Israel and foreswear violence.
Rather, it is very recent history that weighs heavily on the consciousness of Israelis as they contemplate life next to a Palestinian state. In Israel, the Gaza example looms large.
When Gazans rained down over 8,000 missiles on Israel, there were no Israeli settlements in Gaza, there were no Israeli troops in Gaza and there was no Israeli occupation of Gaza.
After Yasser Arafat rejected Israel’s offer of a Palestinian state on 95 percent of the West Bank and 100 percent of Gaza, the uprooting of most Israeli settlements and Palestinian sovereignty over East Jerusalem, the Palestinian leader unleashed a wave of terror instead of just saying yes.
Five years later, unable to envision real progress from negotiations, Ariel Sharon took an unprecedented step, announcing the unilateral Israeli pullback from Gaza. In a move that produced national trauma, Israeli troops forcibly removed thousands of Jewish settlers from their homes in Gaza and dismantled 21 settlements.
As a result, when rocket attacks on Israel from Gaza increased by 500 percent, beginning in 2005, the Israeli occupation had already come to end. However, even without Israeli settlements, even without an occupation, peace was far from breaking out. Polls found over half of Palestinians supporting armed attacks against Israeli civilians inside Israel.
Therefore, Israelis reasonably ask, “What will life be like after an agreement is reached? Will rockets still fall on kindergartens? Will bombs still explode at pizza parlors, discotheques and at bus stations? Will half of Palestinians still give aid, succor and support to terrorist attacks?”
The Gaza example calls into fundamental question the notion that dismantling settlements and ending occupation will bring peace. Anyone who asks Israelis to make concessions for peace must be able to explain why the plan they proffer will bring an outcome different from that which the Gaza disengagement wrought.
Would-be Middle East peacemakers often ascribe importance to “confidence-building measures.” Sharon’s withdrawal from Gaza was in many ways the ultimate confidence-builder, and Palestinians responded with violence, not olive branches. As a result, Israelis lost confidence in the notion that their concessions would be reciprocated with peace.
When governments hold a legitimate monopoly on the use of violence, agreements between states have meaning. However, when terrorist groups armed with sophisticated weapons and suicide bombers have free rein, agreements between governmental authorities are inadequate. Public opinion must also be committed to a peaceful resolution and an end to violence.
Peacemakers need to focus as much effort on moving and molding public opinion as they do on obtaining the signatures of political leaders on communiqués and treaties.
President Obama began to make the case for peace to the Palestinians and the Arab world. Unless that case is made repeatedly and successfully, however, official negotiators will be left with hollow agreements at best, and, at worst, an Israel unwilling to see the history of the Gaza pullout repeated and Palestinians still backing terror as a tool of political struggle.
Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has worked for Democratic candidates and causes since 1982. Current clients include the majority leaders of both the House and Senate.