Israel and the Palestinians: Is Peace at Hand?
Israeli Minister Matan Vilnai on Israeli security and negotiations with the Palestinians.
Published: Tuesday, March 15, 2005
"We have to discuss it with the other side. We have to sit, both sides, to discuss the issues and to try to reach an agreement." Matan Vilnai
The passing of former Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat in November of 2004 and the subsequent election of Mahmoud Abbas, aka Abu Mazen, by the Palestinian people has ushered in a new era and a re-opening of opportunities in the Arab-Israeli Conflict, according to Matan Vilnai, Minister in the Israeli Knesset. These prospects and their implications were the subject of a lecture delivered by Minister Vilnai on Thursday, March 10, 2005 at UCLA entitled, “Israel and the Palestinians: Is Peace at Hand?” The minister, a distinguished former general in the Israeli Defense Forces, is currently challenging Ehud Barak for the leadership of Israel’s Labor Party and was invited to campus by UCLA’s Israel Studies Program. Offering his perceptions of the current Middle East situation, Minister Vilnai identified three developments that have helped “reopen the window of opportunity since the Oslo Accords.”
Policy of Disengagement
First is the policy of disengagement from the Palestinian Occupied Territories introduced by Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and ratified by the Knesset. According to Minister Vilnai, the policy of disengagement consists of a number processes which include fighting terror, separating from the Palestinians, arriving at a two-state solution, and constructing a security fence along the “green-line.” Speaking on separating from the Palestinian Territories, the minister said that Israel “must have our own Jewish-democratic state. If we are not going to separate, it is only a matter of time, the demographics will change and they will be the majority, and you can understand what is the meaning of a majority of Palestinians between the Jordan Valley and Mediterranean. Therefore, we must separate from them; they will have their own state, and we will have our state.” He did admit, however, that a complete disengagement from the Occupied Territories would have to include open and frequent discussions with their Palestinian counterparts. “We have to discuss it with the other side. We have to sit, both sides, to discuss the issues and to try to reach an agreement. There is no other way and what we are doing now with the disengagement is exactly this; to fight terror, to separate from them, and to sit and talk,” said Minister Vilnai.
Election of Abu Mazen
A second development in the Arab-Israeli Conflict is the election of Abu Mazen as the new Palestinian Authority President. According to Minister Vilnai, Abu Mazen is “a real leader that never believed in terror. He has been against terror all his life and now he must take action.” While some have criticized U.S. President George Bush and the Israeli government for placing too much pressure upon Abu Mazen by demanding a level of security he cannot deliver, the new President of the Palestinian Authority has been able to bring militant Islamic groups to the negotiating table, and limit the number of attacks against Israel. After taking office in January 2005 his pledge to end more than four years of conflict has revived hopes for peace with Israel after Arafat's death.
According to Minister Vilnai, the involvement of the United States in the Middle East is another key development to solving the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. “From our [Israeli] point of view, and from the Middle East point of view, it is really important, because no one dared to think a year ago that democratic elections would take place in Iraq, in Afghanistan, and in the Palestinian territories,” said the Minister, attributing these outcomes to U.S. involvement in the region. He went on to discuss the current situation in Lebanon, saying that the U.S. and Israel should be concerned and involved with Lebanon, where public demonstrations have led to the imminent withdrawal of Syrian military personnel and intelligence operatives from the country. Islamic groups in southern Lebanon have longed posed a security threat to Israel, most notably the operations undertaken by Hizbullah, he said. Ultimately, he concluded, building democratic institutions and governments in the Middle East would benefit Israeli security and improve the economic viability of the region.
Wrapping up his discussion of the current state of Arab-Israeli negotiations, Minister Vilnai identified a major issue that could derail negotiations that is, terrorism. He said that “one terror act in a populated center in Israel could change the whole mood and direction.” Extremist measures and acts of terrorism are not solely the problem of Israel, said the Minister, instead, it is a greater problem that encompasses the region and should be addressed by the leaders of all the Arab countries. He was sure to include in his remarks that Jewish extremist groups can also be blamed for terrorist acts and that this was a concern of the Israeli government and that the appropriate steps would be taken to deal with these groups accordingly. As long as the Palestinian Authority and Abu Mazen remain relatively successful in clamping down on terrorist activities, the two sides should be able to discuss the issues and reach a solution that makes sense for the Palestinians as well as Israelis.