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A Political Arabesque ? - The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict
 
We are ready for peace, peace based on justice. We hope that their [Israel's] response will be positive.

25 January   |   2005   |   Subject  Middle East & North Africa (MENA)

These are the words of Mahmoud Abbas, or Abu Mazen as he is widely known in many circles, the newly-elected President of the Palestinian Authority, as he offered 'the hand of peace' to Israel earlier this month.

There is no doubt that the recent Palestinian elections were a success in terms of participation, pluralism and also public law and order. From election monitors to politicians, from non-governmental organisations to independent observers, the consensus remains that this was a successful exercise in democracy - possibly the most valid exercise to date in the whole Arab world. Not only that, but Abu Mazen also obtained a solid popular mandate of over 60% of the votes. The fact that some factions did not take part in the elections does not in my view detract from the critical relevance of this event that symbolised the peaceable and orderly rite of passage for the titular head of the Palestinian people from Yasser Arafat to one of his erstwhile associates and seasoned political leaders.

And a rite of passage it certainly was, for I still remember the inexhaustible number of articles I read both during the time that Arafat was bed-ridden in a hospital in Paris and later on after his death. Some editorials, like the one from the Economist entitled A new beginning? Well maybe focused on what it described the tantalising hopes for a resumption of the process for peace between Israel and the Palestinians. Other opinion pieces tried to apprise both Arafat's leadership of the Palestinians as much as the conflict itself. The renowned editorialist Thomas Friedman talked about Arafat's vanishing Footprints in the Sand , whilst President Jimmy Carter reviewed the past two decades in his Casting a Vote for Peace and King Abdullah II of Jordan expounded the future in his The Road from Here and suggested that history holds a moment of great potential today even in the midst of crisis and uncertainty. Afif Safieh, Palestinian Delegate to the UK and the Holy See, opined in the Guardian that Arafat was the Palestinian De Gaulle, whilst the syndicated columnist Rami Khouri wrote about the ongoing confrontation between the Jewish Zionist national and Palestinian Arab nationalist movements.  

But that is almost history! It is time to assess the situation today, a mere few weeks after Abu Mazen's election and the start of President Bush' second term on the themes of liberty and freedom. And in this short period, Abu Mazen has been transformed into an icon - and like most icons, it will be difficult for him to measure up to the expectations placed upon him by the Palestinians, Israel, the USA and the European Union. From salvaging the peace process and creating a viable Palestinian state to redressing corruption and re-organising the security apparatuses as much as infrastructure of the country, everybody looks at Abu Mazen these days for a solution. I empathise with this man since the burden of the future in the region is placed - squarely, and I would argue unjustly - upon his shoulders. So can he deliver now?

In an insightful commentary entitled The Election of Abu Mazen and the Test of Pragmatism , Dr Bernard Sabella of Bethlehem University and of the Middle East Council of Churches wrote on 11 January 2005 that Abu Mazen's election signalled 'the end of the Intifada as we have known it in the Palestinian occupied territories for over four years now'. He argued that the Palestinians want change, that the confrontation with Israel should now find channels other than armed ones and that Abu Mazen's pragmatism would win the day. Sabella aptly reminded his readers that Abu Mazen 'is not a miracle man' but that he carried the possibility of making peace with Israel and bringing dignity to his Palestinian people. He concluded that pragmatism seems to be the order of the day on the Palestinian side, but wondered whether Israel and the USA are willing to invest into this pragmatism or whether the outcome will be another vicious cycle of confrontation.

Therein lies the crux of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In the midst of all the political hyperbole, everyone - from the newly-reconstituted US Administration to the EU mandarins, from the Arab states to the movers and shakers in the Palestinian and Israeli political establishments - now needs to re-address the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by keeping three principles very clearly in their minds in order to find a possible resolution to this long-festering conflict.

The first principle is that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a result of the illegal occupation by Israel of Palestinian lands. The issue cannot be subordinated - simplistically, expediently or exclusively - to a question of 'terrorism' and violence from the Palestinian side but rather to one that also takes into account the fact that Palestinians have been steadily and inexorably disenfranchised of their lands by an occupying force. So let us by all means combat terrorism and violence, but let us also remember that they are tied to an occupation of land. The second principle is that violence, mayhem, carnage and murder do not resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Put bluntly, I believe the second Intifada woefully hijacked Palestinian strategic goals. Palestinians shot themselves in the foot, resulting in Israeli retaliatory violence and enhanced repression that caused further misery and despair. Both PM Ariel Sharon and President Mahmoud Abbas should now condemn publicly all forms of violence - including structural violence that is symptomatic of Israeli manoeuvres. And the third principle is that the Palestinians are the weaker party and it is well nigh impossible for them to 'deliver' all that Israel and the USA exact of them if they are not helped by outside parties - notably by the USA in its quest for global freedom.

How can this be done? On 12 October 2003, just over a year ago, Israelis and Palestinians of good will got together in Geneva and hammered out a peaceful settlement that, while totally unofficial, called for the steps that have long been recognised as the only true hope for a permanent peace. The Geneva Initiative, as it became known, calls for two neighbouring states with two capitals in Jerusalem, the evacuation of most Jewish settlements and the incorporation of the rest into Israel in exchange for an equivalent amount of land for Palestine. It also calls for a limit, to be set by Israel, on the number of Palestinian refugees who can settle in Israel, and compensation or resettlement for the rest.

This is a chance for peace that has been approached, and then squandered over and over, as one party or the other lost the necessary nerve. This time, everyone will again have the same old opportunities to fail the test. There are bound to be attacks by Palestinian extremists which will allow PM Ariel Sharon to dig in his heels and say he will negotiate only if the new leaders crack down on radicals. Mr Mahmoud Abbas and the Palestinian leadership will also be under extraordinary pressure to resist any further concessions and to stand firm against Israeli and US pressures. Yet, despite the frailty of any legitimate chance for peace, I strongly disagree with Barry Rubin, Senior Fellow of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, who wrote in Understanding Palestinian Politics that 'if a crab tries to climb out of a barrel, the other crabs pull him back down out of spite'. I believe that the overwhelming majority of Palestinian men and women, including much of its leadership, enjoy peace-loving and democratic instincts that remain sadly untapped by the world community in the quest for a comprehensive solution that does not yet fully subscribe to the three basic principles I elicited earlier.  

It remains a self-fulfilling prophecy that both parties need to be ushered toward the negotiating table. But first, Israel should start helping the negotiations, and also shoring up the credibility of reformers within the Palestinian constituency, by implementing a total freeze on settlements and beginning to address a withdrawal from the West Bank. It should also end the provocations let alone the tit-for-tat attitude that so very much marks Israeli tactical thinking. The Arab Gulf states should also use their huge budgetary windfalls from the surge in oil prices to provide a Palestinian development fund that would help rebuilding projects for Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank. And as for the USA, it should perhaps examine the reason why so much of the world dislikes it and conclude that its global interests and freedom-seeking mission necessitate that it become an honest broker who would lead both parties to a just resolution of the conflict.

Let me be forthright: I lay a key portion of the blame for the impasse and deterioration of the situation on Israel. Much as Palestinians have engineered their own undoing on numerous occasions, it still is their land that is under occupation. In fact, since Abu Mazen's election, I have often wondered whether an old warhorse like Sharon could mend his ways. I believe so, and my hopefulness comes not from any astute political analysis but rather from the Talmud and the wonderful stories that are part of the Jewish lore. Just as Resh Lakish is remembered for his transformation from bandit to scholar in Talmudic times as an example of human potential for redemption, I am praying that PM Sharon would lead the way not only in terms of a first redeployment in Gaza but with a bold initiative that would accept Abu Mazen's 'hand of peace'.

Once those confidence-building measures are adopted, and there is a noticeable improvement in the human reality of everyday life for Israelis and Palestinians alike, it might be possible to embark upon radical steps that would put into place the framework for a just, secure and peaceful resolution of the conflict. And hand-in-hand with this bold initiative would begin the gradual but relentless transformation of peoples' perceptions about the 'other'. Delivering the eleventh Roskill Memorial lecture entitled The long march to a law of peace at Churchill College, Cambridge, on 18 January 2005, HRH Prince Hassan bin Talal of Jordan reminded us that the UNESCO Constitution of 16 November 1945 states emphatically that, since war first begins in the minds of men, it is in the minds of men that defences for peace should be built .

Between short-term goals and long-term objectives, there is a lot that needs to be done forthwith. It is my hope that the leaders of the world - in the region and further afield - would assume their responsibilities to ensure that this new window of opportunity that taunts yet again Israelis and Palestinians alike is not squandered but leads instead to a real solution. This entails that Israel and the Palestinians should re-commit to the process of peace and 'walk the walk' in earnest intent.

However, I also admit that such a window of opportunity will not for last long no matter how hard all well-wishers nurture it - or alternatively how fast the parties themselves try to scupper it. So I do hope peace takes root soon, or else the Abu Mazen of today with all his iconic status as a repository of hope will soon become the Yasser Arafat of tomorrow in another dilapidated Mokata'a -like isolation in Ramallah and everyone will yet again face insufferable lose-lose scenarios.

To paraphrase the late British philosopher and social critic Bertrand Russell, the greatest difficulty in understanding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not the intensity of the logic that is required for a viable solution. For I believe that logic to be translucently clear. Rather, it is the freedom of imagination that remains hampered by those political blinkers constantly shading the truth and often feeding on the personal greed for power.

© Dr Harry Hagopian   |   2005   |   25 January

 

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