Prominent Israelis and Palestinians evaluate where the two sides are.
As the war in Gaza drew to a close and the Israeli election approached, Times editorial writer Marjorie Miller traveled to Israel and the Palestinian territories. What follows are edited excerpts of interviews with two Israelis and two Palestinians addressing U.S. peace efforts, Israeli settlements and what to do about the Islamic militant group Hamas.
Retired Israeli major, general and member of the Likud Party
They say there is no conflict you cannot bridge. This is wrong. Here you have three parties. Israel, the Palestinian Authority and Hamas. It's one too many. [U.S. special envoy] George Mitchell has to understand that Hamas is not a part of the solution, Hamas is a part of the problem. What are we going to talk to Hamas about, three states for two people? So he should first announce that the American position is that Hamas is the problem and not the solution. He has to say that the U.S. will support Israel in every reaction, because we have to react to every cease-fire violation. He has to put as much pressure as possible on Egypt to fulfill its part in isolating Gaza.
Hamas is like Hezbollah, it is not in the game of two states for two people. It is against the existing Jewish entity in the Middle East. At the same time, Iran helps Hamas, and Hamas gives them another outpost in the vicinity of Israel. A second one. One was built by Hezbollah in the northern part of the country.
Now the name of the game is to provide security to the Israelis. I would be much more satisfied if my government understood that this last war should have been to dismantle the Hamas regime in Gaza -- to win this war not on points but in a knockout. They didn't complete the closure of Gaza.
I think the best gift Israel could have given to [President] Obama, to us, to the Palestinians, to the Egyptians and even to George Mitchell was a Gaza Strip that is not controlled by Hamas.
We say we trade land for peace, but really, we compromise and get more terrorism. This is the wrong policy. Nobody believes today we will give land for peace.
We need security. Then we need a partner who is ready to go to a historic compromise, someone who is strong enough to deliver. I don't object to a two-state solution, but at the end of the day it's about terrorism and security.
Former Israeli Mossad chief and head of the Shasha Center for Strategic Studies at Hebrew University in Jerusalem.
The United Nations, the European Union, Russia and the United States laid down three conditions for negotiations with Hamas. Two of these are not only valid, they are essential. First, that Hamas accept all previous agreements the Palestinian Authority entered into with the international community. Second, that it refrain from all acts of hostility.
But the third condition, that Hamas recognize Israel's right to exist, is an ideological one. This is something we have never demanded of anyone else in the past. We didn't demand it of Egypt. We signed peace agreements with Egypt even as it continued to press for the annihilation of Israel until after the Yom Kippur War.
We should engage Hamas -- not directly but through a national unity government, and propel them into a position where they will see the necessity of doing business with us. Hamas is not a religious movement. It's not like in Iran, where you have a religious leadership. Hamas is a temporal secular movement of people who do have deep religious beliefs, but their decisions are reached by political bodies. This is very important. Hamas leaders have been proved to be pragmatists when it's been in their interest.
Destroying Hamas is not a question of going in for a week or two weeks and having a shootout. To accomplish such a mission, you have to take over territory for a sustained period of time. You have to shoulder responsibility for all the people in that territory. If we're going to do it, we would have 1.5 million people suddenly under our jurisdiction. Secondly, if we want to go in and destroy Hamas, I don't know what it will take, but I would remind you that when [former Syrian President] Hafez Assad decided to destroy the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria in the 1980s, the number of fatalities was around 20,000.
In my view, whoever becomes prime minister of Israel in February or March ultimately will sit down and talk to Hamas. Any of the three candidates will do so, though each and every one of them says they will never do so. It will be determined by the facts of life. You cannot manage a conflict without engaging with those who are fiercely and resolutely pursuing the conflict. You have to find ways of bringing down the level of hostilities, and to do this, you have to engage with those who are involved in it.
Palestinian Authority prime minister
We continue to subscribe to a two-state solution to this conflict. But Israel's settlement expansion has not only not stopped, it has actually accelerated. Since the negotiations at Camp David in 2000, the settler population has increased by 100,000. So, for our people looking at this process going back to the start of the Oslo peace process, which was supposed to bring this conflict to an end by May of 1999, they begin putting pieces together and they see that this has not worked. Therefore, they conclude that it is not going to. You talk about the peace process, and people say, "What peace process?"
I think that can change if you look at the obligations on the Israeli side -- obligations which they accepted, including a freeze on all settlement activity. If statehood is the key delivery here, our thinking is that it is going to emerge on the territories occupied in 1967. A settlement freeze is not going to solve the problem of the existing settlements, but it prevents a bad situation from getting worse.
Sooner or later, Palestinians are going to be reunited. I view that as our most important objective. A peace deal with Israel cannot be implemented under conditions of separation [between Hamas and Fatah]. We need to reunite the country. I can tell you that there is nothing more catastrophic from the point of view of our national aspirations than separation. The very existence of a sub-unit of the Palestinian occupied territories as a different Palestinian entity is an existential threat.
Look at the facts on the ground. How can you implement commitments you make if you are not in Gaza? How can you think that you can reach an agreement that is going to be put before the people for referendum when you are not in Gaza? Because if you are not in Gaza, that means that the rift is still there, and if the rift is still there, it means that, chances are, our referendum is not going be successful.
I think it is important to tell [George] Mitchell and the Obama administration to engage with Hamas so that they can help us get this unity. Or at least they should give us a green light, a signal that a unity government is OK with them, because it wasn't OK with [George W.] Bush. Bush didn't want a unity government.
Let us reunite, let us have elections next January, whenever it's constitutionally mandated or whenever the parties agree. And if Hamas wins the elections, Hamas wins the elections.
Political pluralism is a must, and this is the value of democracy. I mean, look at Israel. Do all Israeli parties have the same message? No. Yet they are able to concentrate themselves in a government and do business with the world. We ought to be able to find a way to either agree politically on one platform, or at least to agree as to how to manage the process in a bloodless way. That's my message to the world: We Palestinians are like everyone else. We all have our political differences, deal with us this way, let us find our way.
President of Al Quds University in Jerusalem
On the surface, it's true, there's no constituency for peace on either side right now. Everyone is angry and frustrated. But if you go deeper on both sides, there is still a majority willing to accept a peaceful settlement. The problem is that no such settlement is in the offing. People assume peace can only come if the people want it. But as soon as it comes, the people will want it. It's high time the international community does something different by making such a settlement come to us. Israelis and Palestinians aren't capable, rational parties at this time. Both sides need grown-ups led by the U.S. and the EU. People have to be told the price that has to be paid for peace.
Right now, all signs are leading toward radicalization. The worst scenario is the reality that is emerging, the worst kind of apartheid based on religious discrimination. It uses God as justification -- because God is on my side you cannot live certain places, enjoy certain rights.
If any solution is available, it's a two-state solution. Failing the ability of both sides to get a solution, what we will see is ongoing conflict for many years, and life for people on both sides of the fence is going to be so unbearable and ugly that moderate people will pack up and leave. All that will be left are fundamentalists on both sides.
It's still possible to prevent this from happening. People have to take matters seriously for once and step in in a forceful way to extricate us all, Jews and non-Jews, from this mess. People really do want to live in peace and have normal lives, Israelis and Palestinians. President Obama -- not Mitchell, Obama -- has to be forceful. In his television interview with Al Arabiya, he didn't commit to a timetable. Without a timetable, politics is meaningless. For Iraq and Guantanamo, he fixed a timetable.
Remember that President Bush made unprecedented statements, better than any president before him, for a Palestinian state. It was good talk, but then he left us simmering in this mess. Meanwhile, he allowed settlements to grow, he allowed assassinations, including of political leaders, targeted killings before the invasion of Gaza. A siege was imposed on Gaza. They refused to recognize the results of our democratic elections.
Hamas is the elected leadership of the Palestinian government. If the U.S. wishes to address us, it should address us as a people. Hamas has been elected. So has Abu Mazen. The boycott of Hamas and pretending they're part of the axis of evil is a crazy policy and tragically stupid. I don't believe Hamas will, in the foreseeable future, recognize Israel's right to exist. But you don't have to run after Hamas to make change, you can run after the people who support Hamas, win them over by providing a political alternative. This is the secret weapon -- not money, not guard dogs to sniff out bombs, not training security forces to shoot or combat riots. The secret weapon is an acceptable peace agreement. An end to occupation. Enough is enough.
Former spokesman for Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin
The Arabs keep looking at us and wondering if we've gone soft.
Military force does not solve the problem in Gaza, but maybe it helps create a situation in which Hamas thinks it cannot risk another round of this. After all, despite all the rhetoric, Hezbollah has been quiet since the war in Lebanon in 2006.
But this war was difficult, very difficult. A modern state like Israel is caught in a street fight where sometimes you have to behave like a bully in order to survive in such a savage environment. But what do you do? They suck you into urban areas. I'm a democrat, I uphold the values of democracy. However, they take advantage of the sensitivities of democracy, they use women and children as human shields. This even happens to a superpower like America in Fallouja, and no one dares drag you to The Hague.
Peace is not high on the agenda in the upcoming Israeli elections, but whoever wins has to remember what is at stake. Iran is the existential threat, and everything else pales. We have to fix things on the Palestinian front to focus on the real threat. I don't mean to underestimate the value of peace with the Palestinians. It's strategic. We all know the permanent solution to the Palestinian problem. It's the 1967 borders with some give-and-take.
To most Israelis, it is important that we remain both a Jewish and democratic state. We cannot go in the direction of a binational [Israeli-Palestinian] state or we will end up either with an apartheid state or a state with an Arab majority.
Hamas spokesman in Gaza
I believe President Obama is serious about making a change. I know during a presidential campaign, people will say things rhetorically to persuade people to vote for them. But now he is the president, and I expect something very different regarding Hamas.
You can't ignore Hamas. Ignoring Hamas is like sending your postman to the wrong address, because Hamas represents the majority of the Palestinian people.
The United States may consider us enemies; that's fine. But we are the proper addressif they are going to really succeed in their mission to achieve peace.
More than just the Palestinians, even the Arab and the Muslim countries, all the people look to Hamas with respect. [With the war in Gaza] we became the representatives of the soul of the Arab and Muslim aspirations. So if Mr. Obama understands the anti-American sentiment in the region, the bitterness and hatred toward America, Hamas could play a role in changing that image. If the U.S. opens and engages with Hamas, that means the Arabs and Muslims will look to America and see there is real change.
If Israel is really serious about achieving peace with the Palestinians, and really has the intention that the Palestinians should have a free and independent state, along the 1967 borders, we have said that we can offer a 10- or 20-years' truce. When people are being injured or killed, people actually become extremist or radical. But if we have a period of calm or cease-fire, and there is no more killing, the people can actually think in a proper way, and find a way for confidence-building. If the Palestinians have their own state and you have that 20 years of truce, that means that the new generation will decide how they could coexist, how they can cooperate with each other, or how to achieve atonement.
But if Palestinians are still living in refugee camps and all the time being a target for the Israeli Apaches and F-16s, then what do you expect?
The first step is to help the Palestinians to have their free and independent state, and then you go ahead from there to see the next step. But if the Israelis insist on their belligerent approach, they will never achieve peace or get the hearts and minds of the people in the Arab world.
As Muslims, we can live in this region. As Jews, they can live in this region, but you have to lay the foundation for something like this. We are not saying that Jews have never been in this land. This is the land of Abrahamic faiths. Everybody has his own prophets. So everybody has, one way or another, the right to be in that land. But how we accommodate our life together in this region, this is something that will need time to heal the wounds.
The answer is to end the occupation, and let the Palestinians live in peace when they have their own independent state. You see the people in Algeria, in Vietnam, in Afghanistan -- they were able to defeat the superpowers because they had the determination to live free, and to die for the good cause.I saw Mel Gibson in "The Patriot." We consider his action to be like suicide bombing. And suicide bombing to us, when somebody sacrifices his life, this is what we call martyrdom. And I saw Mel Gibson, and he did a lot of martyrdom operations when they were fighting the British.
Director of the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research
The Israeli-Palestinian issue hasn't seen much change, but the domestic Palestinian environment has changed dramatically during the last three years. Today, the percentage of Palestinians who think there might be some diplomatic breakthrough in the next five years is 15% to 20%, at best. They support the peace process; they want the peace process to succeed. But they also don't believe that it's that effective.
The intifada showed the Palestinians that even if it doesn't give them anything, it gives them some satisfaction. The definition of victory among the Palestinians is not necessarily "what gains have I made." Instead, one way to define victory is the amount of pain and suffering you inflict on the other side. They inflict pain and suffering on you, so if you are able to inflict pain and suffering on them in return, then that is part of the definition of victory.
In the case of Gaza, there wasn't a great deal of pain and suffering inflicted on Israel. But, until the last minute, Israeli towns, including major cities like Beersheba continued to come under rocket attacks, anywhere between 20 and 50 rockets every day. That is pain and suffering. Still not comparable to the pain and suffering the Palestinians have to go through, but it's still pain and suffering.
Remember that early on it was Hamas that wanted dialogue and reconciliation and it was [Palestinian Authority President] Abu Mazen who imposed conditions, very tough conditions. Abu Mazen used to say there would be no talk unless Hamas not only apologized for what it did but also returns to the status quo in Gaza. These demands were dropped months ago. For Abu Mazen, the top priority was progress with the Zionists. He believed he needed that progress before he engaged Hamas, that progress would empower him and he could then go talk to Hamas from a position of strength to force Hamas to make concessions. But months ago, he discovered that he didn't have that [progress with Israel] and that changed his calculus completely. The peace process was no longer his top priority and uniting the West Bank and Gaza became his top priority.
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