It was September 1993, and things that hadn't seemed possible in a really long time were suddenly thinkable. Yasser Arafat, a Palestinian who had spent years leading a guerrilla resistance movement, and Yitzhak Rabin, an Israeli who fought the Egyptian army in the Negev desert in 1948 at the birth of the state of Israel, shook hands with President Bill Clinton, and with each other, at the White House.
More unthinkable events have happened, too: Israel has recognized a self-governing Palestinian state on land it took in the 1967 war. Palestinians — who had for decades denied the very existence of Israel and fought to push the Jewish state into the sea — have recognized, and live side by side with, Israel.
But now, once again, the news is full of death, killing and counter-killing. That sunny moment at the White House in 1993, which brought hope along with a sober recognition of how much work there was to be done, seems a really, really long time ago.
Why do individual extremists on either side have the ability to radically alter situations?
This latest escalation comes on the heels of the collapse of U.S.-led talks. What should the U.S. do here?
In the long term, are the causes too grave for the peace process to ever be successful?
We consulted a panel of experts for the Inside Story.
Daniel Marans: Why has the situation escalated this much?
Dan Kurtzer: There's a history in this conflict of individual actions having very profound implications.
On the positive side, you had Sadat’s visit to Jerusalem in 1977, which achieved a breakthrough in the Egypt-Israel peace process. Even though it took another year and a half for a treaty to be signed, it was a heroic act of an individual that started it.
On the other side, the negative side, you have individuals interested in inflicting pain that leads to tremendous ramifications. This horrific killing of Israeli teenagers and the revenge killing of a Palestinian teenager created an atmosphere in which only radicals benefited. They both ended up provoking each other and led to this new round of violence.
This horrific killing of Israeli teenagers and the revenge killing of a Palestinian teenager created an atmosphere in which only radicals benefited. They both ended up provoking each other and led to this new round of violence.
U.S. ambassador to Israel, 2001–05
This comes on the heels of the collapse of U.S.-led talks. What should the U.S. do here?
Well, it is unlikely that the U.S. will be able to take the lead in doing anything. The primary reason is that we have no relations with Hamas. The model we will probably be looking at is the 2012 model, when Egypt took the lead and called in the U.S. to help work on the Israeli side. When the two sides are ready for cease-fire talks, that is probably the model you will see unfolding.
The peace process is never dead because there is not peace. As long as there are people on both sides that would like to see this conflict end without periodic violence, there is a chance for peace. The question is whether President Obama will end the pause on talks and restart Secretary of State John Kerry's talks in a more robust fashion. I would like that to happen, but it is probably unlikely, especially before the elections.
Daniel Marans: Why do individual extremists on either side have so much power to radically alter the situation?
Gershon Baskin: The best example of this is Yigal Amir, who assassinated the Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. He killed not only a prime minister, but also the peace process. Why is it the power of these extremists? There are certain elements in our culture, much more so on the Palestinian side, but also on the Israeli side, in which there is some kind of admiration for extremism. That extremists are the real thing. And moderates are seen as soft and naive and wishy-washy.
If Hamas is doing this because it feels it must in response to Israel’s crackdown in the West Bank, what do you think of Israel’s actions leading up to this?
I really don’t think Hamas was behind the [kidnapping]. It could be the two suspects, who both the PA and Israel have arrested in the past. But not on Hamas’ orders.
Hamas is at its weakest point now. The Rafah border opening on the border with Egypt was contingent on Fatah reconciliation, which is why they conceded to all of Fatah’s demands.
For the last years, Israel has been saying that if IDF [the Israel Defense Forces] pulls out of the West Bank, Hamas will take over. After weeks in the West Bank attacking Hamas, they arrested 500 people and shut down a few nursery schools. If this is Hamas’ power in the West Bank, then let them rule.
There are certain elements in our culture ... in which there is some kind of admiration for extremism. That extremists are the real thing and moderates are seen as soft, naive and wishy-washy.
Israel Palestine Creative Regional Initiatives
What do you think of the current escalation overall?
There is almost no good way of ending this. The longer it goes on, the worse it is going to get. [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu did not want this situation to escalate in the way that it did. He almost had no choice once Hamas started with the rockets.
They have an opportunity to find a solution through [Palestinian President] Abu Mazen. There is no third-party mediation going on now, but there are a lot of people offering their services, including yours truly. Hamas was not interested, and neither was Israel. Israel wants to destroy as many operations and bunkers they can and kill as many Hamas leaders as they can.
But at the end of the day, if there is a mediated cease-fire between Israel and Hamas, Hamas will declare victory and so will Israel. No one is really thinking of the other opportunities and different outcomes. Israel has the opportunity to let the people of Gaza know they are not the enemy. That outcome, negotiated through Abu Mazen, should include the opening up of the Gaza economy and easing or ending of the blockade.
Daniel Marans: Why has the situation escalated this much?
Aziz Abu Sarah: I look at it a bit differently. I don’t think that extremists have so much power. I think they have the ability to ignite an already volatile situation. It is a trigger. People on the ground were ready — I mean, there were no developments in the peace process, Palestinian life has been getting worse and worse, a lot of incitement was happening.
So you're saying the root cause is the occupation and the ongoing mistreatment of Palestinians?
I put the fault at the continuing occupation and lack of a plan for an end of the conflict. It is not necessarily people against people. It is something the governments are creating.
I would blame the Palestinian government as well. They do not have a plan for how to get out of this. This is frustrating Palestinians and turning them against it. The PA are not willing to continue their U.N. bid. They are telling the people not to protest and not to be violent. But they are not providing a vision. Palestinians are not going to continue being oppressed with no way.
I don’t think that extremists have so much power. I think they have the ability to ignite an already volatile situation. It is a trigger.
Aziz Abu Sarah
Middle East Justice and Development Initiative
How does this end right now in the short term? And how would you like to see it end in the long term?
There are two options for how it ends in the short term which can lead to distinct consequences. The first one is a few hundred Palestinians killed and Israelis angry over rockets falling on their cities and blaming all Palestinians for it. This will help people gain votes. We have seen [Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor] Lieberman make his move already. Everyone looks tough and strong.
The second option is that the situation gets out of control and it turns into a third intifada.
For the Palestinian government I have a hard time believing that Abbas can maintain the status quo for much longer. Unless he makes a change in his approach, the PA will collapse. Palestinians feel that the PA's only function is coordinating security with Israel. So the Palestinians police the West Bank, even while Israel occupies it. If I were an occupying power, if I were Israel, I would be quite happy with the arrangement.
The Palestinian Authority must give Israel a true ultimatum, not just a bluff, and say they have six months to find a solution or the PA will change its approach and seek one state with equal rights. If Israel wants to continue being an occupying power, and officially in charge, we will not police it for them.
The above panel was assembled for the broadcast of "Inside Story."
For future hard-hitting conversations, find Al Jazeera America on your TV.