Pessimism is a steady companion these days for advocates of Middle East peace. A lame-duck Israeli government is negotiating with a weak Palestinian leadership in the twilight of an unpopular U.S. administration. Few forecast success.
But a quiet revolution is stirring here in this city, once a byword for the extremes of violence between Israelis and Palestinians. In 2002, in response to a wave of suicide bombers from Jenin, Israeli tanks leveled entire neighborhoods.
From that rubble, now newly trained and equipped Palestinian security officials have restored order. Israeli soldiers have pulled back from bases and are in close touch with their Palestinian colleagues. Civilians are planning economic cooperation — an industrial zone to provide thousands of jobs, mostly to Palestinians, and another involving organic produce grown by Palestinians and marketed in Europe by Israelis. Ministers from both governments have been visiting regularly, often joined by top international officials. Israeli Arabs are playing a key role.
The aim is to stand conventional wisdom on its head. Instead of a shaky negotiated peace treaty imposing coexistence from the top down, a bottom-up set of relationships that lock the two societies together should, proponents argue, lead to a real two-state solution.
“We got a clear American message that the Palestinian state will start from Jenin,” asserted Col. Radi Asideh, the deputy commander of the Palestinian security forces here who have recently received new Land Rovers and AK-47 assault rifles. “The plan is to have a security model that can then be implemented all over Palestine.”
Those may sound like the hopeful words of a credulous officer. But here is Gen. James L. Jones, special U.S. envoy to the region in an interview this week after visiting Jenin: “I see this as a kind of dress rehearsal for statehood, a crucible where the two sides can prove things to each other.”
And Ehud Barak, Israel’s defense minister, in an interview in his Tel Aviv office, said: “So far, Jenin is a great success. The Palestinian police have created a different mood there. We need to see money being poured into projects now to keep the momentum going. If done right, we think this could become an example.”
As one Western official involved in the plan noted, Israeli defense officials do not make a habit of speaking well of Palestinian police, so Barak’s words are telling. Still, Barak’s last point is also crucial because, unsurprisingly, not everyone agrees on what it means to do it right.
Each side in the triangle — Israelis, Palestinians, international donors and facilitators — argues that it has done its part but that things are moving too slowly because of the others.
Israel says Palestinian forces still do not deal with terrorists and so its forces must continue night incursions. Palestinians worry that the focus on Jenin will take away from the broader issues that need to be solved, like Jerusalem and refugees.