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Political Tempests in Israel & Palestine!
On 8th November, the 66-foot yacht Dignity chartered by the US-based group Free Gaza and carrying twenty-seven activists on board sailed from Cyprus to the Gaza Strip...

13 November   |   2008   |   Subject  Middle East & North Africa (MENA)

... It braved choppy seas and defied an Israeli naval blockade to call attention to Israeli sanctions against the Hamas-controlled territory and to bring in a shipment of humanitarian supplies. Although Israel had threatened to block its passage, Dignity managed nonetheless to dock unimpeded in a Gaza harbour.

This publicity stunt, with some arguable advocacy weight to it, occurred at the same time that the political landscape between Israel and the Palestinians, let alone within each of those two parties, was being ratcheted up again. Four days of rioting and unrest in the northern town of Acre inside Israel, resulting in the arrest of 64 people, kicked off when an Arab Israeli man drove into a Jewish neighbourhood during the Yom Kippur [Day of Atonement] holiday. He was remanded into custody for three days on charges of reckless endangerment, speeding and harming religious sensitivities although he pleaded in his defence that he was a pacifist who was also one of the founders of a community co-existence committee in Acre. However, the incident highlighted the ongoing acute polarisation between the Jewish and Arab residents of Israel, so much so that the president of Israel called for reconciliation between the two communities, whilst its outgoing prime minister admitted openly that there has been discrimination for years against the Arab Israeli population.

Such riots erupted whilst tensions between West Bank Palestinians and hard-core Israeli Jewish settlers in Hebron also rose to a higher pitch with renewed brawls between the two protagonists. Add the fact that the tastes of decent journalistic freedom were further stretched when two Israeli private television channels - Two and Ten - broadcast previews of their phone interviews with Yigal Amir who is serving a life sentence for the murder of the late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin [on 4th November 1995] only days before Israel commemorated the 13th anniversary of his premature death.

On a parallel plane, Tzipi Livni showed political uniqueness when she gave up forming a new coalition government in Israel rather than concede to the political blackmailing of the Shas ultra-orthodox party and called instead for a general election on 10 February 2009. Equally, Hamas, in a tactical move that reflects regional overtones, boycotted the Palestinian national reconciliation talks sponsored by Egypt in Cairo, suggesting that the host country had ignored to clarify its objections.

One would think that this is enough to remind my readers that the Middle East remains awash with political turpitude and violent omens. Nothing new there, one might add cynically, were it not for the fact that the outgoing prime minister tapped into his outspokenness about the future of Israeli-Palestinian relations and started admitting to a few belated truths.

Indeed, PM Ehud Olmert surprised pundits by coming up with startlingly soul-searching statements in his ‘legacy interview’ of 29th September with the Israeli daily Yediot Aharonoth. In exchange for peace, he suggested, Israel should withdraw from “almost all” of the West Bank and share its capital city, Jerusalem, with the Palestinians. He segued that the Jewish state should be ready to give up the Golan Heights as part of a negotiated peace deal with Syria. He even dismissed as ‘megalomania’ any suggestion that Israel should act by itself to destroy the Iranian nuclear programme.

In a sense, Olmert was repudiating the traditional defence strategies pursued by Israel since 1948. But it was decidedly unimpressive: after all, the outgoing prime minister chose the moment he had lost power as his epiphany for articulating a few salient truths rather than when he yielded it and could have therefore made a difference. It is equally unimpressive that Olmert never applied even the tactical steps necessary to improve the lives of ordinary Palestinians or offer them a real stake in peace. No wonder the Annapolis initiative 2007 proved a damp squid, an elegant political sleight of hand, meant to perpetuate a combination of the inertia, bias and ineptitude of the Bush Administration and its political acolytes.

In the midst of all those fears, the Arab initiative that had been adopted at the Arab Summit of Beirut in 2002 and rebooted repeatedly by the Arab League suddenly became popular currency in Israel. Strange really, since Israel had in the past pretty much spurned this pan-Arab offer and continued its colonial policies of Palestinian land whilst the Quartet remained henpecked politically and the Bush Administration had hung a reckless “not available” signpost outside the White House. Yet, even as President Shimon Peres applauded this very initiative at the UN conference on inter-religious tolerance, he was simply picking and choosing the bits of the initiative that suited Israeli interests rather than dealing with a whole package that would lead to peace with the whole Arab World. So does Israel seek at long last a peaceful solution built on a foundation of accepted international law and legitimacy that treats both sides as co-equals enjoying the same rights of statehood, sovereignty and security? Or is Israel again playing at clever prevarication and endeavouring to stall for time again?

Meanwhile, whilst reams of analyses and prolix statements are being churned out annually to lament the lack of peace, the situation on the ground for Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza worsens every week and their dreams for a viable statehood based on the much-vaunted two-state solution becomes increasingly more remote and less applicable. Just peruse the 49-page report issued by the World Bank on 23rd October: it is a timely reminder of how the Palestinian economy is suffering from a severe and debilitating lack of investment due largely to Israeli restrictions on movement despite enhanced international aid. The report states that massive foreign aid “has succeeded in doing little more than slowing down the deterioration of the economy, despite ever larger volumes”. It notes also that the Palestinian per capita gross domestic product in 2007 is 40% lower than its peak in 1999, and that investment has “dropped to precariously low levels” with virtually no new public investment in the last two years. It points to the fragmentation of the West Bank into “a multitude of enclaves, with a regime of movement restrictions between them” as a main reason for the economic deterioration. Moreover, the report underlines that “the physical access restrictions are the most visible, with 38% of the land area reserved by the government of Israel to serve settlements and security objectives”. Key constraints include the expanding population of Jewish settlers in the West Bank and Arab East Jerusalem (totalling roughly 461,000 people), anti-Palestinian violence by settlers that creates a “permanent state of insecurity”, the increasing number of Israeli walls, roadblocks, and checkpoints, and Israeli restrictions on Palestinians’ access to their own land and water.

A grave report of this nature brings analysts and commentators out of their offices to decry the situation and assert that what is needed is an impartial external mediator who would bring the two parties together. Not surprisingly, some sources are now mooting that the new American president-elect Barack Obama is the man for the job. But I rue he is not so, since the problem besetting the two peoples runs much deeper than the efforts of one man - even a mighty one.

No American president alone - irrespective of the clout s/he carries with the office - can produce a magical formula for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. A key problem for peace lies within the heart of the Israeli political thinking that remains a nation at war with itself as much as with some of its neighbours. We have all witnessed on television screens the way settlers in the West Bank vandalise Palestinian property and clash with the police every time it attempts to remove their illegal outposts. Peace-seeking political or community leaders are now fretful of assassination attempts against them not unlike that of Yitzhak Rabin in 1995. Last month alone witnessed an attempt to kill Ze’ev Sternhell, a supporter of the Akhshav Shalom [Peace Now] movement that documents settlement constructions. The Israeli government - due to a combination of ideological, political, colonial, demographic and pecuniary interests - has simply been disinclined to dismantle even the remotest illegal outposts let alone the bigger settlements in the West Bank. The majority of those illegal constructions are not rogue constructions; they are government-funded ones receiving water and electricity services. Add to that the recalcitrance of political parties to endorse a viable [just] peace model, let alone to calm tensions on the streets as politicians such as the right-wing Likud party, Benyamin Netanyahu, busily stoke the fires with hard-line rhetoric from the opposition benches of the Israel Knesset [parliament]. Such political mauling is largely for power-seeking purposes, and is being done in this instance so Netanyahu could return to power at the expense of Tzipi Livni, the new Kadima leader.

Today, I suggest we stop using the current Palestinian divisions as an excuse for political indolence. Palestinians are deeply disunited, we know, with fetid ideological posturing by those who are not always amenable to sound pragmatism and whose positions are also exacerbated by regional and global powers averse to a solution so they maintain their own political leverages. We know all this and more, with Gaza almost using its pariah state defiantly against the world, even when the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) states that it had run out of food supplies for the 750,000 Palestinians in the Strip who depend on the UN for their food supplies. Sadly, the Gaza residents have to resort to candles to light up their houses or solicit hospital and food supplies because Israel tartly refuses to allow supplies into the territory. True, Palestinian disunity is a central stumbling block for international mediators to end the violence and lift the Gaza blockade, but one wonders whether we in the West did not also contribute to such disunity with our daft boycott of Hamas.

However, let us not forget in our indecent political haste that all Palestinians - whether in the Hamas bastion of Gaza, in the PLO fulcrum of the West Bank or in east Jerusalem with its new secular mayor Nir Barkat - are an occupied people. Israel, as the occupying power since 1967, should ab initio freeze all settlements and reduce the roadblocks strangulating the Palestinian economy. It should not prop up the Palestinian negotiating leadership with vacuous words and barren gestures alone. Instead, as Richard Cohen wrote in the Washington Post on 18th July in Hunker Down with History, it should pull out of most of the West Bank to defensible - admittedly not impervious - borders. Simply put, it should implement a solution whose formula has not changed radically since earlier UNSC Resolutions or later Taba negotiations so that an independent - sovereign, contiguous and viable - Palestinian state co-existing peacefully and side-by-side with Israel emerges at long last.

This week, the latest meeting of the Quartet concluded with more futile perorations by the UN Secretary-General and redundant admonitions by its special envoy Tony Blair. Nothing new there, but unless Israel shifts its positions in real terms, the Palestinians start negotiating as one body, the Arab world assumes its collective responsibilities and the Quartet shifts significantly all its four-speed levers, the situation would not only remain tense but the region would continue to be buffeted by political tempests with alarming regularity. Ultimately, more internal ructions and external bushfires would erupt … and I am afraid that neither Barack, nor Hussein, nor Obama would manage to save the day.

© Dr Harry Hagopian   |   2008   |   13 November


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