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Israel-Palestine & Lebanon: Roads or Maps for Peace?
I suppose many political - and perhaps even some inquisitive - eyes were riveted on television screens as the Sixth Fateh Congress was taking place in Bethlehem...

16 August   |   2009   |   Subject  Middle East & North Africa (MENA)

... This event was critical for Fateh if it were ever to maintain its assertion that it still constitutes the backbone of the Palestinian national movement. After all, there had not been a gathering of this nature for twenty years, and it was high time for Fateh members to come together to discuss their future directions, elect fresh and younger faces to both the Central Committee and Revolutionary Council and also to reflect at this time of uncertainty and weakness upon the delicate balance between resistance and authority as future bipolar options for the Palestinian people.

I would suggest that the Congress was a qualified success - not so much for its plethora of proactive achievements but for the fact that it dodged further fractures or dissensions and even made some discernible headway. I was rueful that the members of Fateh in Gaza - some 190 of them - were disallowed from joining the meetings in Bethlehem, since the authorities in Hamas erroneously coupled their participation with the release of Hamas prisoners in West Bank gaols. However, three political directions emerged from this large-scale meeting: those who wished to resort to resistance and drop the peace option altogether, those who occupied the middle ground and those who were content with something less than full statehood. The very fact that those discussions occurred in the plenary sessions as well as corridors of power was a healthy phenomenon, and PA President Mahmoud Abbas deserves due credit for stewarding Fateh successfully through this critical week.

However, impressive discourses on al-talahoum al-watani or national solidarity - particularly when delivered rhetorically and eloquently in Arabic - are not uncommon in the Arab political psyche. So I would like to go beyond the obvious words and explore their real impact on the ground today. In order to do this, I would like to illustrate how people at times honestly or wilfully misconstrue situations in such ways as to buttress up their own political standpoints.

The first example is an op-ed column in the NYT last Sunday entitled Green Shoots in Palestine II in which Tom Friedman commented about how political realities in the West Bank have begun moving in the right direction for the first time since the collapse of the Oslo peace accords in 2000. For me, Tom Friedman is one of those veteran journalists on the Middle East scene and a friend of many of its intellectuals such as Dr Kamal Salibi in Beirut, so I do not choose lightly to cross verbal swords with him. However, whilst his analysis might well be accurate, I believe his reading of this situation is inaccurate.

In a nutshell, and whilst acknowledging the burgeoning Israeli settlements and an Israeli occupation army, Friedman argues that life in the West Bank has improved a tad, partly thanks to “a new virtuous cycle [of] improved Palestinian policing that has led to more Palestinian investment and trade [and] led to the Israeli army dismantling more checkpoints in the West Bank”. His op-ed quotations indeed refer to a sense of commercial and financial optimism in West Bank towns like Nablus, and he attributes part of it to the rule of law that the US-funded and Jordan-trained Palestinian National Security Forces are implementing in the West Bank. He argues further that communication within the West Bank has improved due to the removal of roughly two-thirds of the forty-one manned checkpoints that Israel had set up, and - crucially - that this potential would “give the post-Yasir Arafat Palestinians another chance to build the sort of self-governing authority, army and economy that are prerequisites for securing their own independent state.” His final clincher is that all this should be done almost independently of Gaza and Hamas because they will join the process anyway if it were to become a reality.

But parallel with Tom Friedman’s conditional optimism, I also heard Israeli PM Netanyahu stating during his weekly cabinet meeting that the dismantling of settlements in Gaza was wrong and should not to be repeated, and that Palestinians must recognise the Jewish identity of the State of Israel. His ministers echoed the same line, and his defence minister expressed “concern” at the decisions adopted by the Fateh Congress in Bethlehem. But in my own mind - and in the minds of huge numbers of Palestinians let alone other Arab and Muslim peoples world-wide - something here simply does not square up!

Mind you, I concur with Friedman that there now is a noticeable development in law and order in the West Bank although I did not personally count the number of makhsomot or checkpoints removed by Israel. After all, the EU Quartet envoy Tony Blair has been emphasising the improvement in the rule of law at every single opportunity. Moreover, I also agree that the economy has indeed shown timid green shoots in some towns. All this is well and good, and it will hopefully improve even further, but the gaping flaw in this less-than-impartial approach lies in the fact that Palestinians have not been struggling for decades merely to trade their land for a measly and quasi-sustainable economic reservation that is at the beck and call of an Israeli master who was - and would still remain for all intents and purposes - its real owner. Rather, the Palestinian national struggle and its sacrifices have aimed to create and establish an independent and sovereign state adjacent to Israel - one that enjoys international legitimacy clothed in International law as well as the real accoutrements of statehood and control over its own destiny - not simply a flag, diplomatic passports or VIP cars, endless statements or unending economic subsidies.

But can this still happen the way we are going now, or in the way that Tom Friedman depicts elegantly in his op-ed? I do not believe so, nor incidentally do millions of Palestinians living in their homeland or in the Diaspora, unless one alters the mindset that is feeding the logic behind peace-seeking. Otherwise put, I do not deem that Israeli politicians wish to midwife the birth of any Palestinian viable state! And so long as Israeli politicians resist the idea with their myriad pretexts, they inevitably affect Israeli overall public opinion and push it toward more - not less - intransigence. Look at the facts: every time there is real movement forward in the peace process, Israeli politicians up the ante, add pre-conditions, re-interpret existing ones and thereby make further Palestinian counter concessions harder and ultimately less popular.

Let us take settlements as a topical instance. President Obama and his negotiator George Mitchell have focused almost exclusively on settlements after prying loose from PM Netanyahu an impossibly-caveated commitment for a two-state solution. Today, there are roughly 300,000 Israeli settlers living in the West Bank, and another 200,000 in the Arab eastern part of Jerusalem. The continued multiplication of settlements - whether by building new ones or stretching out existing ones - renders a viable state even less feasible. According to Americans for Peace Now, 4,560 new housing units were built by PM Ehud Olmert whilst he and his Kadima party were actively negotiating for peace. Those visiting Israel and the Palestinian territories today would come across new building projects in Beitar Illit or Kiryat Sefer whose settlers receive heavy governmental subsidies, in addition to some two-hundred religious communities that have settled on Palestinian land and claim it as their religious birthright. Only this week, the Israeli watchdog organisation Yesh Din referred to twelve mobile houses - Kochav Yaakov - built on private Palestinian land. As Anshel Pfeffer wrote in the daily Ha’aretz, about halfway between the Palestinian cities of Nablus and Ramallah, a chain of settlers’ outposts is spread out towards the east, potentially cutting the West Bank into two, with a new road connecting these outposts and leading down to the Jordan Valley.

Settlements are one of the so-called final-status issues (including final borders, Jerusalem, right of return for refugees and natural resources), and there still remains an implicit understanding that a number of them will be annexed into Israel in exchange for other areas - land swaps - that will form part of a future state. Yet, how can Palestinians believe their leaders, let alone those of Israel or the Quartet, that peace will eventually take hold when Israeli measures appear to consolidate Palestinian boundaries along the present lines and create non-contiguous territorial parcels that will become at best municipal plots with no claim for sovereignty or even sustainability? In the language of previous agreements, Palestinians will in all likelihood be permitted to run their affairs in Area A of the West Bank that comprises a mere 17% of the West Bank that is not even composed of one territorial unit but of thirteen non-contiguous areas, Israel would continue to exercise full control over 59% of Area C and furthermore maintain security control over the additional 24% of Area B. Sadly, a mere statement by Israel that it would freeze any settlement activity till end-2009 as a gesture toward the USA and a way of encouraging Arab countries to enhance ties with it not only lacks any real confidence-building element to it but is a patently dishonest ploy.

Is this the solution that Israel would wish to impose upon Palestinians? In fact, different responsible sources report that Israel is now also issuing entry stamps to some US and EU citizens at its border posts that restrict travel to the “Palestinian Authority only”. Perhaps a dreadful parallel might be the US issuing visas only to majority-black Harlem in Manhattan or to the Mashantucket Pequot reservation in Connecticut. This procedure not only violates the Israeli-Palestinian Interim Agreement of 1995 [also known as “Oslo II” or “Taba”] but seems also to draw up the demarcation of those territories as an Israeli map for a future Palestinian state. Hence, Israel appears to be de facto transforming and elevating a pre-existent jurisdictional arrangement into a border between itself and the areas that the Palestinian Authority “controls” at the moment.

As I see it, the political logic of incremental steps toward peace-making of the sort we worked on in the 1990’s during the different Oslo phases is simply untenable today. President Obama surely realises that the option for a two-state solution is perilously close to its expiry date - for demographic, geographic and psychological factors. As do incidentally Israeli PM Benyamin Netanyahu and Hamas leader Khaled Mash’al in Damascus or else they would not have both abruptly performed their political volte-faces by endorsing the two-state solution. With a conflict whose roots did not start in 1967, but rather in 1947, and with the constant prevarications, it is essential now to formulate new and radical thinking to the process of peace-making - and not solely focus on policing forces or economic stimulus packages. This can be best achieved if we turn the whole mechanism of peace-making as embodied in a rather otiose and discredited roadmap on its head and move directly from piecemeal initiatives meant to lead toward eventual scenarios to a robust document shaping this final agreement. In other words, we shift from roadmaps that neither have roads nor produce maps, into one where we draw the final map and then devise the roads leading to it. In legal anthropological terms, we shift from settlement toward resolution. Once this document - whose contours are well-known to many political pundits anyway - becomes final, the UN would adopt it as a Security Council Resolution and the international community comprising the Quartet members as well as the Arab League would oversee the whole process by steering the negotiations specifically towards implementing its goals. Granted, there will be severe opposition to it from many lobbies, but the stark choice facing the US Administration is between salvaging (if still possible) the two-state solution, becoming mired down with the eye-watering minefields of an increasingly mooted bi-national state or else simply surrendering to chaos, animosity, radicalisation, violence and ultimate terror. Unlike Friedman’s facile thesis, this approach could at least inject an impetus in the peace negotiations, guarantee Israeli security and strengthen the Palestinian Authority as well as offer Hamas the option of joining the process or risk staying out in the cold.

Let me now move onto Lebanon that is agonising over the results of its own parliamentary elections of 7th June, whose parties are quibbling over ministerial posts and whose prime minister designate Sa’ad Hariri - head of the largest Al-Mustaqbal party - is struggling for the past seven weeks to form a new Council of Ministers. Although a formula of 15+10+5 has been agreed upon in terms of the number of ministries that are attributable to the “majority”, “opposition” and to President Michel Suleiman as the balancing centrist bloc, it seems that some parties are now re-questioning it and suggesting its alteration to 12-10-5-3, with the last three being the Druze share independently of the majority as a reflection of their latest political re-configuration. Moreover, competition remains fierce on key portfolios such as foreign affairs, finance, interior and telecommunications and on the choice of ministers. Besides, two looming imponderables to add to the fray are the recent political stunts by PSP leader Walid Jumblatt as well as the heightening of tensions between Israel and the Hizbullah party.

So are we witnessing a sense of rebirth in Lebanon, or is the country heading toward further fragmentation?

Let me start off with the Lebanese parliamentarian Walid Jumblatt, leader of the Druze community in Lebanon, who recently created an uproar when he delivered a speech to members of his Progressive Socialist Party in which he seemed to separate himself from the 14th March Coalition. Indeed, if Walid Bey were to take his party into the Hizbollah-led opposition camp, it would theoretically erase the recent electoral victory of the 14th March Coalition and tilt the political balance against them. So do his latest political moves indicate that Jumblatt fears he will be shunted to the shadows, and needs to prove that the Druze community of 300,000 he leads are more relevant than ever, and that he cannot be relegated to the political margins?

I think his moves go beyond simple political muscle-flexing. Jumblatt seems concerned that a renewed Hezbollah war with Israel - perhaps in retaliation for an Israeli attack on Iran or even an isolated showdown in Lebanon - could endanger his community. Given the lessons he learnt in May 2008, he would wish to keep the Druze out of that conflict, perhaps through a rapprochement with Hizbullah and its patrons. Although this is symptomatic of his astute political manoeuvring, I would add that the way he chose to reach this target remains unconvincing. Jumblatt is often viewed as the weather vane of Lebanese politics, but I submit that it is the present geo-strategic realities of the region that have convinced him to reverse his previous anti-Syrian and pro-American positions and to put away his ideas of Arab democracy as embodied in the Cedar Revolution of 2006. After all, Lebanon today is not a functioning democracy but a jumble of parties - some more powerful than others - and Jumblatt might now understandably try to make his peace with them, lest he fails his community first and foremost.

Another factor affecting Lebanese politics today other than the interminable shenanigans surrounding the formation of the new national-unity government and the Jumblatt index is the increasingly high decibels flying and bellicose statements between Israeli politicians and Hizbullah. Such sabre-rattling could become dangerous as it might - even if unintentionally - spin out of control, but I am not yet convinced by the facts on the ground or by my own sources that a war is imminent in the next few short weeks. Mind you, I might end up eating political humble pie, but I do think that the new round between those two adversaries would possibly come later in the year or even in 2010 although it will be much fiercer than the war of June 2006. At the moment, though, both sides are menacing each other, and it is a popular axiom that politicians speak when they do not wish to act - and usually keep silent when they are on the verge of any drastic action.

As someone who has often written against Israeli expansionist policies in the Middle East, whether in Syria, Lebanon, Jordan or Palestine, and supported non-violent resistance against occupation (in the case of Lebanon, it is the Shaba’a Farms and part of the Ghajar village), I have a few queries. Why does Lebanon have to become the sole Arab vanguard of resistance to Israel when all other countries - without real exceptions - are engaged in direct or indirect talks with it? Does Hizbullah have the right to take the whole of Lebanon into another destructive confrontation with Israel and risk ruining the infrastructures of the country let alone its income from tourism and business investments? Should it wage another war - regardless of the number of advanced rockets it has in its arsenal, and their range into the heartland of Israel - when it knows that the outcome will be wholesale devastation upon most Lebanese people? Can a principal political party - one that is not the Lebanese state or its official army, nor enjoys the full support of many Lebanese with the exception of a large rump of the Shi’i community and some other allies - yank the country into such a high-risk confrontation simply to perpetuate the ethos of its raison d’être as a military resistance to Israel? Should Lebanon remain the battleground for endogenous and exogenous agendas? To my mind, these are not questions that detract from the quintessence of necessary resistance in the face of unjust occupation, but are primarily strategic ones. If I were a Hizbullah leader today, I would stymie Israel by calling its bluff and not joining the new Lebanese government so as to checkmate Israeli fallacious claims that its presence within the cabinet gives the Jewish state the green light to attack the whole country. Would such a tactical move not prove its political nous and strategic sagacity by turning the tables against Israel, deflating its pretexts, forcing Americans to apply prophylactic measures and in the process endearing itself to most Lebanese? After all, Hizbullah does not own the whole country, and should not act as its sole real estate agent, in the way that the other communities in Lebanon have acted in the past during their own heyday by devaluing or overriding their neighbours as if they too owned the country. But if Hizbullah insists on its course, it alienates further other communities that now feel marginalised or done up, and does a disservice to its legitimate rights and claims. Besides, is it not quite axiomatic that Hizbullah would still know that its arms are ready to resist - and possibly even repel - any attack?

But for those who believe that all the political troubles in Lebanon are brewed only at home by a bunch of cantankerous and sparring figures, let me also highlight that this tiny country remains hostage to outside powers. There is an ongoing competition by the Arab World - largely spearheaded by Syria, Saudi Arabia and to some extent Egypt - as well as by non-Arab powers such as the USA, Iran and the EU / France to choreograph Lebanon’s destiny. Following the Syrian retreat from Lebanon in 2005, the Saudi kingdom and its allies had acquired the upper hand. However, this changed substantially once more over the past year - not least as a result of the Obama election - and it is clear that Syria now plays a pivotal role in future developments of Lebanon. Although there is no way that peace could be established in the country without its consent, this is not yet fully forthcoming because Syria expects in return its rewards from the West, the Arab World or even Lebanon.

But what is the status of the Lebanese actors themselves? It is a well-accepted fact that a majority of the present political leaders in Lebanon were once militia chieftains of one genre or another, carrying with them their heavy baggage let alone memories of mutual mistrust and unspeakable violence. At times behaving as clan leaders rather than as politicians united around the same nation, it therefore becomes easier for outside forces to use their internecine and sectarian differences to divide, conquer and promote regional or global interests. As Patriarch Sfeir repeats at every Sunday sermon, those divisions can also be exemplified within the Lebanese Christians as they too are being used as pawns in an ongoing chess game.

Let me quote a blurb by William M Thompson from The Land and the Book - an illustrated travelogue of the Holy Land written in 1870, seventy three years before Lebanon gained independence - which I received from Edinburgh last week. In it, Thompson makes some admittedly gloomy observations about the deep fissures within this country some one-hundred-forty years ago. They still hold much water today and should be food for sober thought by Lebanese politicians and readers alike.

Lebanon has about 400,000 inhabitants, gathered into more than six hundred towns, villages and hamlets...The various religions and sects live together, and practice their conflicting superstitions in close proximity, but the people do not coalesce into one homogeneous community, nor do they regard each other with fraternal feelings. The Sunnites excommunicate the Shiites - both hate the Druze, and all three detest the Nusairiyeh. The Maronites have no particular love for anybody and, in turn, are disliked by all. The Greeks cannot endure the Greek Catholics; all despise the Jews.

No other country in the world, I presume, has such a multiplicity of antagonistic races; and herein lies the greatest obstacle to any general and permanent amelioration and improvement of their condition, character, and prospects. They can never form one united people, never combine for any important religious or political purpose; and will therefore remain weak, incapable of self-government, and exposed to the invasions and oppressions of foreigners. Thus it has been, is now, and must long continue to be a people divided, meted out, and trodden down.

What is required today is a serious application of the interests of the whole country above the hyperbole of different sectarian communities or their leaders. Is it at all possible for all the Lebanese to battle against their confessional instincts and start thinking together as Lebanese men and women even though they know that major decisions are taken outside their shores? Moreover, it might also be useful to give more weight to the office of the president who seems ready to effect the necessary changes - constitutional or otherwise, whether on domestic Lebanese issues, on those affecting Lebanon’s external relations or even on the 422,000 Palestinians living in refugee camps under deplorable conditions - in order to extricate the country from its unyielding and recycled impasses as much as to counter the powerful conglomeration of competing external forces.

To wrap up, let me start with Israel-Palestine and re-iterate my fear that the two-state solution is fast becoming an increasingly unavailable commodity at a time when Gaza and the West Bank are drawing apart more and more and when Gaza is enmeshed in ever-increasing cycles of radicalism, discrimination and even lawlessness. After all, the recent bloody incident at the Ibn Taymiyah mosque in Rafah when Imam Abdul Latif declared his Salafist ‘Islamic emirate’ is proof enough of the seriousness of some of the cause-and-effect consequences of the Palestinian bitter feud. Therefore, a new way of thinking is necessary, one that oversteps the tried and failed methods of the past and opens up a chapter of bold - and perhaps R2P - diplomacy. As for Lebanon, given that foreign interests govern to a large extent what happens in this country, it therefore becomes incumbent upon politicians to remember that what goes round comes round in terms of influence and so tuck away their helter-skelter interests and exercise their collective responsibility toward Lebanon - including those over Israel - perhaps by appropriating the slogan “Lebanon First” collectively as a pan-Lebanese and Arab one rather than that of one party alone.

I acknowledge that some of my thoughts are counter-intuitive and would surely be resisted tooth and nail by those who would jump eagerly on their high horses. But let me conclude again with a favourite word of mine that was coined in 1974 by the late Palestinian author Emile Habibi in his The Secret Life of Saeed. “Pessoptimism”, a blend of optimism and pessimism, reflects well my mood … until I find some reason to turn optimistic again or else to yield to predictable pessimism.

© Dr Harry Hagopian   |   2009   |   16 August


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