Editor’s Notes: Worlds apart

By David Horovitz July 1, 2005

For all the stated areas of common ground between Ami Ayalon and Jibril Rajoub, they are sparring – and over fundamentals, at that

Shikaki: Despite what it says, the PA won’t act [against Hamas]. Editor’s Notes

By their joint smiling acknowledgement, Ami Ayalon and Jibril Rajoub are good friends. By their joint smiling acknowledgement, too, there’s a considerable degree of trust between them.

On Monday morning, at a media conference in the American Colony Hotel organized by the Medialine news agency, Rajoub nods his acknowledgement as Ayalon recalls their joint success, when each headed his respective domestic security apparatus, in curbing Palestinian terrorist attacks on Israeli targets in the first three quarters of 2000, before the outbreak of the current round of conflict. Ayalon was head of the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) at the time, Rajoub his Palestinian equivalent.

‘I met with Jibril Rajoub every month,’ Ayalon remembers. These weren’t meetings where each side attempted to dictate terms to the other, he elaborates, but serious working sessions designed to ensure security. The result: ‘Only one Israeli was killed in a terrorist attack before the outbreak of the intifada that year.’

For all the strengths of their personal partnership, Ayalon is nonetheless anxious to stress that the wider context in which they were working was critical. The Palestinians at that time, he says, saw ‘light at the end of the tunnel.’ They believed ‘that Israel was about to end the occupation.’

And the lesson Ayalon wants to draw from that: ‘The more there is hope in the Palestinian street, the more hope there is for Israeli security.’

Ayalon won’t play the blame game. Time and again in this joint event he refuses to be drawn on why it was that peace did not break out five years ago. His face is turned determinedly forward. He takes pride in the fact that 430,000 Israelis and Palestinians, he says, have signed the ‘People’s Voice’ petition he is championing in partnership with Al-Quds University’s Sari Nusseibeh. This six-point ‘Statement of Intentions’ to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – which essentially promotes an accord along the lines of outgoing president Clinton’s eleventh-hour plan, with territorial compromise based on the 1967 borders, no right of refugee return to Israel and an ‘open’ Jerusalem as ‘the capital of two states’ – now falls within the Israeli political consensus, he asserts. ‘In my opinion, it falls within the Palestinian political consensus as well.’

Ayalon is, unsurprisingly, a firm supporter of disengagement – as a first step toward a pullout from most of the West Bank. But he is withering in his criticisms of the prime minister’s presentation of it, especially to the settler public. Instead of holding ‘humiliating’ discussions with them over the process of their evacuation and financial compensation, Ariel Sharon should be highlighting the imperative – to ensure a democratic, Jewish Israel – that is impelling the pullout.

‘The settlers are not merely our brothers,’ Ayalon says. ‘They are the pioneers of the past 35 years. We owe them an explanation.’

The ramifications of that prime ministerial failure, for Ayalon, are acute: The degree of internal Jewish violence that will accompany the pullout, he believes, will correlate with the degree of public understanding of what is at stake. The greater Sharon’s failure to explain, the greater the potential scope of violence.

He adds, incidentally, that he is certain that most of those Israelis who oppose disengagement ‘don’t want to stay in Gaza. What they oppose is leaving the West Bank’ – the perceived next step.

Rajoub listens politely to Ayalon’s comments and endorses much of what his former security partner says. He explicitly confirms one of the ‘People’s Voice’ six points, declaring that the Palestinians have no quarrel with Israel in its pre-1967 borders and that ‘even the fundamentalists recognize the existence of pre-1967 Israel.’

He says he thinks disengagement ‘will be a turning point’ in Israeli-Palestinian relations, and notes that Palestinians regard a successful pullout as being in their ‘national interest.’

But Rajoub urges Israel to coordinate the evacuation with the Palestinian Authority – ‘we don’t agree to a unilateral disengagement.’ If there is coordination, he says, the PA will ensure that disengagement proceeds smoothly – by which he means without Palestinian attacks on the departing Israelis. He leaves unsaid what might occur if there is no such coordination.

ON THE face of it, then, we have heard presentations from two like-minded security chiefs – one, Ayalon, now out of office; the other, Rajoub, the PA’s serving National Security Adviser – bonding across the great divide, both asserting the viability of a two-state solution, with Ayalon declaredly ready for the most dramatic territorial compromise in order to achieve it.

And yet for all the stated areas of common ground between them, these two trusting friends are sparring, too, however politely – and over fundamentals, at that.

For all his readiness to compromise and his unwillingness to assign blame, Ayalon on several occasions lets fly with stinging, bitter accusations relating not to the Arafat era, but to the current regime of Mahmoud Abbas.

When Rajoub asserts that the PA’s security forces can’t take effective action against those he calls extremists and fundamentalists so long as ‘Israel is operating in Palestinian towns,’ Ayalon firmly disagrees. ‘I know what the Palestinian security forces can do. They have the capabilities.’

And that relatively mild objection pales in comparison to an outburst Ayalon delivers regarding Abbas’s ‘truce’ with the likes of Hamas and the Aksa Martyrs Brigades – a truce Rajoub both robustly champions and accuses Israel of breaching. (Israel, it need hardly be stated, is not a formal party to the deal.)

Ayalon castigates the ‘truce’ as nothing less than a ‘surrender agreement.’ By specifying that solving the issue of Palestinian refugees requires their return to land and property inside Israel, Ayalon says, Abbas has potentially pushed off the prospects for a permanent accord ‘by 15 or 20 years.’ As a consequence, Ayalon continues, ‘I’m really concerned about the reality after Gaza and the reality after we pull out of the West Bank, if we do.’

Ariel Sharon and Abbas apparently pursued a doomed dialogue of the deaf at their summit on June 21 – with Sharon urging Abbas to crack down on terrorism as a precondition for Israel relaxing aspects of its security measures, and Abbas asserting that he wouldn’t have the public credibility to take on the killers until Israel eased those measures. To witness the same kind of disconnect between even such relatively allied figures as Ayalon and Rajoub only underlines the extent of the gulf.

LATER THE same day another prominent Palestinian, public opinion pollster Khalil Shikaki, offers a series of further insights into Palestinian thinking and how it accords, or doesn’t, with the Israeli state of mind.

Shikaki speaks at length of the growing support in the West Bank and Gaza for Hamas – which his latest survey shows heading for some 33 percent, compared to 44 percent for Abbas’s Fatah, in forthcoming Palestinian parliamentary elections. On the whole, he says, Palestinians are tending toward Hamas not because of its destroy-Israel ideology, but because Fatah is overwhelmingly perceived as corrupt while Hamas is not. (Indeed, the Post’s own reporters, notably Matthew Gutman, have brought back numerous stories from the field in recent weeks indicating that Palestinians have been voting for Hamas over Fatah in municipal elections out of a sense that the Islamists will do a more effective job of keeping the electricity on and otherwise running ordinary municipal affairs.)

Disengagement, Shikaki makes plain, will likely further boost Hamas: Three quarters of Palestinians, he says, regard the pullout as ‘a victory for the armed struggle.’

As things stand, the Ramallah-based pollster goes on, Abbas cannot claim credit for the Israeli pullout – he could do that only if the pullout were accompanied by an easing of travel restrictions, the opening of ports and similar Israeli steps that would enable him to demonstrate to his people that his ‘diplomatic activity’ was paying dividends. Which brings us back to that dialogue at the Sharon-Abbas summit, and Sharon’s concern that any such relaxation of security precautions, in the absence of a genuine anti-terror campaign by Abbas, would merely invite the murders of more Israelis.

Does Abbas have the wherewithal to tackle terror? Shikaki notes that there are 55,000 members of the PA’s various security forces, although only about a third of them have guns. Israeli military sources told the Post this week that Hamas is building a ‘people’s army’ numbering in the low thousands. Presumably, then, if there were a will, there’d be a way – albeit not an easy one: ‘Violations’ of the PA truce, Rajoub had noted in passing, are ‘mostly carried out by people who belong to the security mechanisms.’

Rajoub had also claimed at one point that the PA ‘will not tolerate any kind of violations of the cease-fire.’ But Shikaki’s adamant assessment is that ‘despite the road map [obligation to dismantle the terror groups] and despite what the [Palestinian] Authority says, it won’t act.’ Not, that is, unless ‘there is a real sense that the political process is moving forward’ – a political process that, as far as Sharon is concerned, cannot move so long as the terror groups are free to choose if and when to restart intensive bombing campaigns.

Shikaki’s June survey shows that 60 percent of the Palestinian public is opposed to efforts by the PA to collect arms from the likes of Hamas – and this won’t change, he says, unless or until the Palestinian ‘threat perception’ is reduced, principally over West Bank settlement expansion.

Abbas can ‘get away’ with minor efforts to confiscate weaponry, but not with an overt campaign to close down the bomb factories. The Palestinian public is not demanding collection of arms so much as clean government, says Shikaki, ‘and the PA is doing next to nothing on that.’

Despite this, he reports, Palestinians ‘have not given up’ on Abbas; indeed 60 percent of the 1,320 interviewees for his poll said they were satisfied with the PA chief’s performance since his election.

But the mistake that Abbas’s PA is making, Shikaki concludes, echoing what Vice Prime Minister Ehud Olmert told the Post in an interview last week, is that ‘it is portraying itself as weak. And if you portray yourself as weak, you have little chance of deterring anyone from challenging you.’

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