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Israel-Palestine: The Hazards of Political Meltdown!
In wartime, truth is so precious that she should always be attended by a bodyguard of lies - Winston Churchill

27 September   |   2008   |   Subject  Middle East & North Africa (MENA)

Have you ever felt as if you are moving forward in time, even in full motion, but that objects around you remain stock-still? I am not talking here about some arcane theory of quantum physics but more basically about the political dynamics of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that affect willy-nilly everyone in the Middle Eastern region and well beyond.

Over the past three decades, numerous meetings, negotiations, pledges, declarations and frameworks of agreements have come and gone but the political situation between Israel and the Palestinians has remained stubbornly intractable. The Camp David Accords of September 1978 and the Oslo Accords of September 1993 are both illustrations of this cheerless reality. At the time, many people thought that those uncertain agreements would become beacons of hope, and yet they are now part of the disappointing political lore of the region. Subsequently, the USA, Russia, the EU and the UN came together in Madrid in 2002 and constituted the Quartet in order to shepherd Israelis and Palestinians toward peace. Five years later, on 22 November 2007, the Annapolis meeting tried once more to energise the sluggish and faltering efforts of the Quartet.

Yet, despite those boosters, things today are as uncertain, as volatile, treacherous and roadmap-unfriendly, as they have ever been in the past. The Quartet Berlin Statement of 24 June 2008, for instance, had expressed “the urgent need for more visible progress on the ground in order to build confidence and support progress in the negotiations launched in Annapolis”. But only yesterday, at the latest meeting of the Quartet in New York and in the presence of its part-time envoy Tony Blair, only verbal husks were offered in the shape of a mild encouragement that negotiations between the parties could still yield an agreement before end-year. Mind you, the final statement also expressed deep concern about increasing Israeli settlement activity, which it said has a damaging impact on the negotiating environment. As such, it called upon Israel to freeze all settlement activity including so-called natural growth, and to dismantle settler outposts erected since 2001. By the same token, it also condemned acts of terrorism against Israelis including rocket attacks from Gaza and stressed the need for further Palestinian efforts to dismantle the infrastructure of terror and to foster an atmosphere of tolerance.

But let me roll back the months slightly in order to define more clearly the perilous stasis affecting those events. On 27th May, the Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad addressed a letter to the European Union in which he conveyed his reservations over the potential upgrade of EU-Israel political and economic relations. In his letter, he admonished that construction has continued in at least 101 settlements (not including Jerusalem-area settlements). Similarly, Israeli authorities have issued tenders for 847 new housing units since Annapolis, as compared with 138 housing units tendered in the 11 months prior to Annapolis. Meanwhile, Israeli authorities demolished at least 185 Palestinian structures, including 85 residential structures, in the first four months after Annapolis. The number of checkpoints, roadblocks and other physical barriers to movement now exceeds 600. And, of course, Israel has yet to comply with the 2004 ruling of the International Court of Justice, which held that settlements and the Wall that are built in the Occupied Palestinian Territory (OPT) are illegal, and which requires Israel to stop constructing the Wall, remove those parts already built and provide reparations.

Barely a week later, on 2nd June, a press release following a three-day visit to Israel and the Palestinian Territories by a European Parliament delegation highlighted those same deep concerns about the overall situation. Although the delegation affirmed [correctly] the beginnings of Palestinian economic recovery, it added that the movement of people and access of goods needs to be ensured. Palestinian compliance in this field is not enough; a change in Israel’s policies is required. The existing policy of roadblocks and the impact of the route of the “separation barrier” seriously hamper on-going efforts, strongly backed by the European Union, to achieve economic recovery. We have observed considerable and continuous expansions of settlements [such as Maskiot, a former military outpost, in the Jordan Valley] which are illegal, and incompatible with the objectives laid out in Annapolis, and with the Road Map, making a two-state solution impossible.

On 10th June, an Open Letter was sent to the president of the European Commission, Jose Manuel Barroso, by a large number of Non-Governmental Organisations. In it, the signatories highlighted the centrality of human rights to EU-based values, and added that Palestinian citizens of Israel and the occupied territories continue to be denied equal access to services such as water, education, housing and land. Israel continues to forcibly evict and displace Palestinians in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, including through the construction of the Separation Barrier, as well as in the Gaza ‘buffer zone. Israel continues to deny Palestinian spouses of Israeli citizens, as well as spouses and family members from a number of other Arab states, from obtaining full legal status in Israel.

Much of this is “old cheese” to many veterans of the Middle East. Yet, an additional - dangerous and divisive - component has now crept into the equation in the form of a highly combustible feud over Gaza whereby Hamas wrested control of this strip from the Palestinian Authority and in the process split it from the West Bank. In so doing, this tiny and overpopulated plot of land has alarmingly become not only a nemesis to the Israeli government but almost in equal measure to the Ramallah-based Palestinian Authority and many Eurocentric powers. Yet, irrespective of negotiations, handshakes and even hugs between the Palestinian incumbent president and the Israeli outgoing or incoming prime ministers, almost everybody acknowledges that no peaceful solution could be concluded inter partes without Gaza. In the meantime, and irrespective of this political standoff, a strangulating blockade of Gaza by Israel is also leading to a humanitarian implosion that is coupled with a massive breakdown in trust between the Palestinian leaderships of Fateh and Hamas. Given such truths, even the most well-meaning efforts remain moribund and exacerbate further humanitarian dramas and political tensions.

It is true that the Palestinian Authority has made some noteworthy strategic security gains in the past twelve months, largely in terms of re-establishing law and order in some parts of the West Bank such as Jenin (which has become the new role model for good governance). Yet, Israel has not relaxed its security measures in return, and the Palestinian economy has not witnessed much growth. Instead, Palestinians in Gaza have been left to struggle with a blockade that left homes, hospitals and factories without electricity, crippled the water supply and sanitation infrastructure, with raw sewage in evidence in several neighbourhoods, and emptied hospitals from essential medicines.

However, things have taken even further turns for the worse. Despite a hudna (or truce) brokered between Hamas and Israel on 19th June, the economic blockade against Gaza continues unabated on the one hand, and relations between the Palestinian factions have deteriorated on the other. The recent major confrontation between the large PLO-friendly Hillis family in Gaza and the security forces loyal to Hamas further strengthened the latter’s firm control over the strip. Prospects for inter-Palestinian reconciliation, and for a concomitantly sustainable peace process that would embrace all Palestinian factions, has become increasingly elusive. Ever since June 2007, the West Bank and Gaza are tugging in opposite directions, with each faction entrenching its positions in the territories. No wonder the Palestinian people are being bedevilled with increasing socio-economic ills and a gnawing sense that their leaders are absent from their mundane realities.

So where does one go from here today? Could a seriously weakened Palestinian leadership in the West Bank negotiate peace with Israel when it is engaged in a war of attrition in its own backyard in Gaza? And could a fractious Israeli leadership - with possibly a new prime minister and more difficult potential allies - muster the political will to move forward with the peace option as a strategic choice that addresses the core issues of the conflict?

It is clear for me that there are two matters here. The first one is that of inter-Palestinian reconciliation at a time when the geo-political cleavage between Fateh and Hamas is creating a dangerous sense of drift that could well lead to a civil war given that the stakes are constantly being ratcheted up by both sides. The second one is whether the Israel of Tzipi Livny and the Palestine-to-be of Mahmoud Abbas are reading from the same political script and ready to conclude real peace.

True, there is no shortage of mediators such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt or Yemen endeavouring to facilitate reconciliation between both factions. However, such efforts have not yet come to fruition since Hamas and PLO / PA goals have become increasingly more incompatible - with the latter asking for a restoration of the status quo ante that existed before the Hamas forceful takeover of Gaza in June 2007 and the former refusing to play second fiddle in the intra-Palestinian camp. My own rather low-spirited assessment remains that such reconciliation will be quite tough, at least in the present circumstances, as both sides are busy attracting patrons and backers and wagering over who blinks first. In fact, the Islamist Hamas camp seems in a somewhat bolder position due largely to the inability of the Palestinian leadership to make the Israelis budge from their positions on key issues and produce any palpable solution that addresses the Palestinians’ woes or at least assures them that the endless talks are not merely an Israeli tactic to avoid a settlement by simply perpetuating its micro-management of the conflict. This is sad in human terms - to put it mildly - because it is rending the Palestinian hopes for statehood and dooming a whole people - along with its Israeli neighbours - to more tears, fears, tensions, provocation and exasperation.

In fact, the much-publicised setting sail on 5th August of a first boat with sixty Palestinians, Israelis and internationals from fifteen countries carrying medical supplies to Gaza highlighted the deadly impact and nefarious consequences of the Israeli blockade upon well over one million Gazans. But it also underscored the fact tat Gaza is now truncated from the West Bank and paying the price of Palestinian brinksmanship over power, control and secular versus religious allegiances.

However, those internecine problems between ideological adversaries should not distract us from the occupation of Palestinian land for over 41 years. In fact, upon the 60th anniversary of the creation of the State of Israel, the Geneva-based World Council of Churches underlined the moral ills of this occupation when its ‘action week’ It’s time for Palestinians and Israelis to share a just peace called for equal rights and an end to discrimination, segregation and restrictions on movement.

Parallel with this ecumenical initiative, a Letter to the Independent daily newspaper signed by a host of influential leaders including Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Baroness Jenny Tonge postulated, To acknowledge and respect these dual histories is not, by itself, sufficient, but does offer a paradigm for building a peaceful future. Many lives have been lost, and there has been much suffering. The weak are exploited by the strong, while fear and bitterness stunt the imagination and cripple the capacity for forgiveness. We therefore urge all those working for peace and justice in Israel / Palestine to consider that any lasting solution must be built on the foundation of justice, which is rooted in the very character of God.

A more hands-on approach for peace entitled European Strategy for the Stabilisation (ESS) of Israel-Palestine (2009-2024) was proposed earlier this month within the context of the EU Neighbourhood Policy by the upcoming pan-European Newropeans political movement. Stipulating that the Israelis and Palestinians should themselves be the driving force behind the process, it suggested eleven principles that will focus on the final objectives, the main points and the general way of proceeding and produce the levels of stability and coexistence necessary for a culture of peace within future generations. This long-term strategy, the ESS added, would cooperate with local partners toward reaching an agreement in two decades.

As a supporter of Newropeans and its pan-European objectives, I consider that this initiative is laudable, more so since the EU to date has been more of a financial payer and less of a political player. However, it remains subject to unfortunate flaws that are inherently not new either. For instance, it tends to overlook the harrowing fact that there will be nothing left to make peace over in one or two decades since the Palestinian territories will have been gobbled up or split up entirely by 2024. A quick reference to Alain Gresh’s Israel-Palestine: Verités sur un Conflit, Sari Makdissi’s Palestine Inside Out or even Ilan Pappe’s The Israel / Palestine Question define the critical matrices of control impacting the conflict now - not in fifteen unpredictable years. Moreover, I am quite familiar with a number of similar initiatives - from Oasis of Peace to One Voice - that have already been operating on grassroots levels and with younger generations in Israel-Palestine. As their leaders would tell us, their projects are credible and helpful, but they do not yield per se substantial political dividends.

Palestinians are facing two challenges, one that necessitates sorting out their own messy backyard and another that they pursue the thankless task of negotiating peace with Israel. As President Mahmoud Abbas stated in an interview with Stephen Sackur on BBC World earlier this month, one of his roles is to instil hope in his people despite the hopelessness of their actual situation. But hopes and frustrations aside, what is the political crunch? Will Palestinian statehood ever come to fruition given the political speculators we deal with today? Will international will, or international whim, prevail in the end? Does the Quartet - or the onetet, as the Palestinian General-Delegate to the Russian Federation Afif Safieh describes it in the sense that the USA often pilots the process alone - have anything to contribute toward peace?

There are many different ways of looking at the impasse we face today, but one overarching principle is to avoid the vagaries experienced during the Oslo and Taba processes when the considerable progress achieved painstakingly over many long years was deleted and resulted in a complete breakdown of trust, tit-for-tat violence and an unyielding occupation. The focus should centre on four components, namely consolidating the ambit of Annapolis by including the indirect Israeli-Syrian negotiations into the process, giving up on the illusory belief that the wholesale decimation of Hamas is feasible, freezing all Israeli settlement activities and finally reviving the historic Arab Initiative adopted in Beirut in 2002 and re-adopted by the Arab League in Riyadh in 2007 as an overarching basis for full peace between Israel and the Arabs. In a nutshell, this proactive initiative would offer Israel full-scale Arab recognition in return for its implementation of UNSC Resolutions.

Would those four components move the process forward in earnest? I often feel perplexed and exasperated by the inability of Israelis and Palestinians to bridge the gaps separating them in order to reach an agreement, let alone by the animosities between Hamas and Fateh that keep reaching new crescendos whilst their leaders pledge dialogue and brotherhood. But I also often remind myself of Richard North Patterson’s novel Exile that remains to my mind one of the best tutorials of this conflict. In the book, two central characters articulate their own views over what is happening at the heart of this conflict.

Zev Ernheit, the Jewish character, muses sorrowfully “that so many Jews and Palestinians don’t give a damn about one another’s stories. Too many Palestinians don’t grasp why three thousand years of death and persecution make Jews want their own homeland, or how suicide bombings alienate Jews and extend their occupation. Too many Jews refuse to acknowledge their role in the misery of Palestinians since 1948, or that the daily toll of occupation helps fuel more hatred and violence. So both become clichés whereby Jews are victims and oppressors; Palestinians are victims and terrorists. And the cycle of death rolls on.”

Conversely, Fatima Khalil, the Palestinian character, suggests, “I sometimes think of all these young people - our students and the Israelis sent to be their jailers, both frightened of each other - and imagine them on a tragic collision course from which neither can find an exit. But, except for the soldiers who die here, the young Israelis can leave their nightmare behind. Our nightmare never ends.”

This week, a weighty coalition of twenty-one leading aid agencies and human rights organisations released a damning report in which they stated that “the Middle East Quartet is failing - making inadequate progress towards improving the lives of Palestinians [and not] improving the prospects for peace.” They added that “the visible progress on the ground” had not materialised, and that “unless there is a swift and dramatic improvement, it will be necessary to question what the future of the Middle East is for the Quartet.” The report equally highlighted the dire Palestinian situation centred on settlements, access and movement both within the territories and outside them as well as conditions in Gaza.

This fourteen-page report is essential reading that highlights the lamentable failure of the Quartet for effective peace-making or even objective peace facilitation. It stresses that there has been no change in a number of the ten main objectives set by the Quartet to help improve the daily lives of Palestinians and an actual deterioration in five of them. But the inertia of the Quartet is partly due to American recalcitrance in nudging Israel by deeds rather than by words to move forward with peace. Yet, like any international grouping, the Quartet is as strong, or as weak, as the collective political will of its members. Sadly enough, the political will for painful decisions is sparse and as a representative of CARE International indicated, “We are facing a vacuum in leadership. The Quartet’s credibility is on the line”.

Given all those negative developments, a number of pundits opine that the Palestinian struggle for self-determination can only be fulfilled through a bi-national (one-state) solution. In this context, unity, rather than separation, is being mooted anew by some Arab and Jewish intellectuals. It reminds me of the ideas proposed by the Hashomer Hatzair movement in the 1930’s and later discussed by some Jewish academics within the framework of the Brit Shalom movement. It acknowledges the existence of two national groups, with each forming a distinct entity within a single state, yet this alternative is anathema to the Jewish identity of their state and would not expressly be more amenable to a large rump of Palestinians either.

Hand-in-hand with this trend suggesting a bi-national solution, I would argue that if the continuing stalemate is not shaken with a breakthrough soon (as promised rather obliquely yesterday for the umpteenth time by the US Secretary of State), the degradation of the overall situation would reach such a high pitch that it could even lead to the collapse and dismantlement of all the structures of a Palestinian Authority that is increasingly being viewed by a number of Palestinians as nothing more than a convenient fig-leaf for occupation. If this were to happen, in itself another unfortunate regression for peaceful aspirations, a civil war could well loom in the horizon and presidential as well as legislative elections could bite the dust. In the meantime, the burden of the occupation would again shift to Israel in accordance with the Fourth Geneva Conventions.

Am I being far too gloomy - perhaps even a touch radical - in my analysis of the situation and its attendant consequences? If the Palestinians of all political persuasions and confessions are serious about their state-to-be, they should first knock their heads together, renounce their own jingoistic agendas and aim for a national consensus in the face of the existential challenges staring at them. However, parallel to the Palestinians doing their homework, the world community should also wake up to its peace-making responsibilities and address concretely - not only verbally and at times financially - those issues that are the hub of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and that have been hashed and re-hashed ad nauseam but remain unresolved to date due to Israeli intransigence and an anaemic political will by the US, the EU and much of the Arab World.

Yesterday, at Yarkon Park in Tel Aviv, Sir Paul McCartney rocked Israelis with a whole string of Beatles songs - and the song Give Peace a Chance (that has almost become an unofficial peace anthem worldwide) got a spectacular reception. Earlier, he had met with ten staff and youth leaders from the One Voice Israel movement that attempts to empower Israelis and Palestinians to push for peace and a two-state solution. He informed them that his father had once told him “that regular people don’t like wars and don’t want conflict” and that he brought with him “a message of peace”.

I used to be a fan of the Beatles during my student years in France, and I hope that Sir McCartney’s sincere echo that most people want peace and spurn conflict would indeed reverberate at long last amongst Israelis and Palestinians alike, empower both peoples toward peace-making and lead toward a [re]solution of the conflict on the twin axes of justice and security.

After all, could anybody truly suggest a viable alternative? Lest we resolve this conflict soon, would the future not become even bleaker? Would we not open more Pandora boxes that spawn extremism, cause bloodsheds and come to haunt us even more? Would it not become inevitable that the mounting tensions would lead to implosions let alone explosions?

We do not have the right to sit idly by, shirk our responsibilities and in the process taunt the hazards of political meltdown.

Every man must decide whether he will walk in the light of creative altruism or in the darkness of destructive selfishness - Martin Luther King, Jr

© Dr Harry Hagopian   |   2008   |   27 September


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