We in Israel are cautiously optimistic about the potential for peace. We hope and pray for peace every day. We have proved time and again our willingness to make painful sacrifices for peace.
And yet there is healthy skepticism here. It comes from decades of dealing with the Palestinian Arabs in similar situations. Does new Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) mean what he says? Can he deliver? And, will the international community try to force Israel to give up on essential elements of her security in exchange for illusory promises, which are not kept?
We are willing to listen and willing to try to create new paradigms that might break the deadlocks. Sharon's disengagement plan is one such shift. It came at a time when the Palestinian Arabs were waging a full-fledged war. In December 2003, Sharon decided to 'declare peace' - and allow the Palestinian Arabs decide if the terms would be set with or without their participation.
As things have developed, Arafat's replacement brings a window of opportunity, which Abu Mazen initially appears to be trying to exploit to the benefit of all. Of course, 40 rockets and mortars on Jewish settlements just a day after declarations of a mutual cease-fire is of more than a little concern - especially to the targeted families.
Everyone expected this barrage. Everyone knew that Israel would not react as before. This, in fact, was Abu Mazen’s test – not Israel’s test.
But Abu Mazen's response of firing senior security officers, holding them responsible for the failure appears to signal a change in style and substance that is cause for optimism.
During his short reign as Prime Minister, under Arafat, Abu Mazen clearly stated that the content of Palestinian television was firmly under the control of the Ra’is. Now that he is in that chair, Abu Mazen took immediate steps and ordered a reduction in the messages glorifying terrorism emanating from that source. From an analysis by watchdog Palestinian Media Watch it would seem that there is change, but still a long way to go. The traditional anti-Semitic Friday sermons have been toned down, with some of the abuse ‘transferred’ to other academic and current affairs programming.
But life is not so simple. The Hezbollah are trying to derail the peace, by increasing payments to Palestinians carrying out terrorist attacks, and even recruiting assassins.
Israel's friends are also making the situation more complex by using phrases that sound innocuous, but are very loaded. In response to Palestinian concerns about Israel cutting up Palestinian territory into an unmanageable array of cantons, an agreement was negotiated between all the parties that the West Bank would have territorial contiguity and that safe passage would be arranged between this contiguous territory and the geographically separate Gaza Strip. The solution is not unique. Think of Alaska - separated from the rest of the USA by a “small” country called Canada, but nevertheless an integral part of the USA. As long as real peace is implemented, this is doable.
Of course, in the past this did not prevent the Palestinian Arab propaganda machine from making a subtle change in the message, which has a huge difference in meaning. For some time, the Palestinian propaganda machine has spoken of a "contiguous Palestinian state.” This subtle change forces a situation that destroys any hope of peace and paves the way to blame Israel for being absolutely unable to agree to what, on face value, sounds like a reasonable demand. People are supposed not to notice that physically lining the West Bank and Gaza destroys a 'viable and contiguous' Israel.
Certainly, in the atmosphere of fragile hope we find ourselves today, one would expect experienced diplomats to be very careful not to fall into this 'nomenclature trap.’ Unfortunately, whether by accident or design, some of our best friends have fallen into it.
On February 7th, the British Minister of State for Foreign & Commonwealth Affairs, Baroness Symonds, stated in parliament that the ultimate aim of the Roadmap is "a future viable and contiguous Palestinian state, living with a secure Israel." I took a look at the Roadmap, but couldn't find the word contiguous. But the misreading of the peace plan adopted by the parties is not unique to the UK.
In the run up to the recent Aqaba conference, the new US Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice similarly advocated a contiguous Palestinian state as fundamental to the success of the current peace process.
Contiguity in the West Bank with safe passage to Gaza is important and accepted by the parties. A demand for a 'contiguous Palestinian state' is an extremist Palestinian position designed to defeat the chances of peace, which politicians may be innocently repeating.