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Israel-Palestine: Positives or Negatives Ahead?
Last week, I attended a meeting on Gaza at the House of Commons that brought together as speakers a former Anglican Bishop in Jerusalem, the Palestinian General-Delegate, a Labour Member of Parliament and a Liberal Democrat Peer in the House of Lords...

3 March   |   2009   |   Subject  Middle East & North Africa (MENA)

... The interventions were powerful in terms of their descriptive analysis of the dynamics on the ground in Gaza and the wider Palestinian territories as much as their vivid highlights of the dour realities facing Palestinians today.

They also were - quite expectedly - as unanimous in their condemnation of Israeli aggression and discriminatory practices as they were in their hopes for a just and peaceful settlement of this seemingly intractable conflict. Yet, once stripped of the expressions of hope or even effectual perorations, I did not discern much political vision or realistic and coherent analyses that would lift us out of this morass and lead us all toward a possible resolution restoring justice and dignity for Palestinians, security for both peoples and peace for all. Was this because the event, or perhaps even its venue, were not conducive to a more profound discourse, or was it because even such savvy “in-people” whose fingers are on the political pulse did not have any solutions to proffer other than those that have faced constant blind alleys in the past?

Readers might recall that President Obama recently appointed Senator George Mitchell as his envoy to the Middle East. Yet, we have forgotten that this veteran politician was already toiling for peace in Israel-Palestine eight years ago although we all have little to show for it on the ground. 2000-2009 are nine years that included the death of Yasser Arafat, the formation of the Kadima party, the Palestinian legislative elections, the debilitation of the Palestinian Authority and its loss of Gaza to Hamas, the Hezbollah-Israel war in southern Lebanon, the Annapolis-led re-launch of an otiose roadmap, the Hamas-Israel war in Gaza, the relentless expansion of Israeli settlements and concomitant dispossession of Palestinians (including the recent evacuation notices against Jerusalemite residents in the al-Bustan neighbourhood of Silwan) and the latest elections in Israel. One could be forgiven to observe that the prospects for peace are alarmingly more remote and less practicable today.

So as the Palestinian factions multiply their chequered efforts toward reconciliation in Cairo, and with 87 donors pledging almost $4.5 billion at Sharm el-Sheikh to help the Palestinian economy and rebuild Gaza after the three-week Israeli offensive, I just wonder whether there is a cyclical sense of dejà-vu here, with a viciously unending saga of reconstruction and destruction? Palestinians build their land, Israel destroys much of it in successive wars that it claims are for self-defence, and then international and regional donors step in to try and raise yet more funds to re-build that same decimated infrastructure or its affiliated institutions. This time round, it even looks more complex since aid agencies suggest that reconstruction could be hampered further by an inability to deliver essential material such as cement and steel to Gaza due to the Israeli-led blockade. Does any of this make sense at all anymore? Is there a deliberate policy of pacification, or does it simply point to the lamentable fact that such projects - laudable, generous and manifesting goodwill - are futile and even daft minus any durable political settlement?

As David Rosen, the former chief rabbi of Ireland, now based in Jerusalem as head of inter-religious affairs for the American Jewish Committee, commented at Davos in Switzerland on 31st January during the economic forum, “You have a complete breakdown of trust: ‘It’s my toy!’ ‘No, it’s my toy!’ We need someone who can move the parties beyond their own pain and vulnerability.” I agree with my friend. However, we need more than identifying the owner or nature of the toy. We need also to underline the immediacy of the situation since the peace train has already left the station and is almost beyond reach.

But what peace train you might well ask with incredulity? Until quite recently, as my epektasis writings, publications and interviews all point out, I would have naturally - and intuitively - opted for a two-state solution so long as a number of pre-requisites came together. To start with, the Palestinians - mainly Hamas and Fateh - would need to get their own severely dilapidated house in order and agree to reach a consensus that overcomes their own [largely] politically-motivated and solipsistic interests. Israel would then have to withdraw from the West Bank and Arab districts of East Jerusalem, as it did from Gaza in 2005, on the basis of International law and UNSCR 242 and 338. Any territories it might retain in the West Bank would have to be swapped - mutatis mutandis - with land from the Israeli landmass. Such withdrawal would entail ipso facto a phased pullout by Israel from its myriad settlements in the West Bank and Arab Jerusalem - save the land swaps - at the same pace that Palestinians meet the security and governance metrics acknowledged by all sides. The Quartet could then re-discover part of its mission and become the arbiter on whether those metrics are being met by both sides.

But can one still catch this steaming peace train that carries away with it the skeleton of a two-state solution? After all, most people still claim to favour this option - many mainstream Israeli politicians, the leadership of the Palestinian Authority, most Arab governments, and almost the entire international political comity. But a two-state solution predicates a sovereign Palestinian physical state adjacent to Israel that would be viable, contiguous and in control of its lands and resources. Sadly, my own experience and estimation would argue that such a Palestinian vision embracing the West Bank and Gaza is inexorably becoming a chimera. Today, a snaking and ugly concrete barrier, with its electronic watchtowers, as well as 500 checkpoints dotted across Palestinian territories, together cleave West Bank cities from one another, Jerusalem from the West Bank, most of the West Bank from Israel and Gaza from all other geography. Moreover, the persistent growth of settlements is now by far the central impediment that makes the birth of any Palestinian state today harder to envisage than twelve short months ago - even after the much-vaunted but rather vacuous political shenanigans of Annapolis in 2007.

Let me make a small calculation to underscore the problem today. In 2005, when Israel left Gaza, it deployed 45,000 police at a cost of $2.5 billion to remove 8000 settlers. Yet, according to figures compiled by B’Tselem, the Israeli human rights group, the West Bank has 121 Jewish settlements with a population of [over] 280,000 - or 35 times more than in Gaza. So who will manage to ‘unsettle’ those settlers in view of the concatenation of religious beliefs, secular interests, political weaknesses and psychological traumas? An inexpungeable fact is that by wilfully - and in a political sense malevolently - increasing the number of settlers, Israeli governments have ensured that it will be harder to implement a genuine peace agreement. In other words, they have knowingly reduced the odds for peace. The fatalities from the Gaza war, the killing of animals, the bombing of buildings and the damaging of cemeteries, are frustrated and punitive tit for tat measures that have left their livid scars on a whole population. In fact, I was moved this week by a report from World Vision that the prolonged exposure to violence and poverty has left hundreds of thousands of children in Gaza facing severe mental health risks.

My own barometer confirms that Israelis have become more radical over the past two years. Whilst none of the parties won over 25% of the vote in the parliamentary elections last month, the results showed nonetheless a crucial hardening of Israeli public opinion and an outcome that will make any irenic initiative more implausible. As Gideon Levy wrote in his editorial, Rabbi Meir Kahane can now rest in peace since his doctrine has won the day. Twenty years after his Knesset list was disqualified, and eighteen years after he was murdered, Kahanism has seemingly become legitimate in public discourse with the transformation of racism and nationalism into accepted values. Today, Avigdor Lieberman calls for a ‘test of loyalty’ as a condition for granting citizenship to Israeli Arabs, while Kahane called for the unconditional annulment of their citizenship - an impossible choice between their transfer to the Palestinian state or their deportation. But Palestinian grassroots are more resilient today: they reject defeat or flight from their homeland, and continue their soumoud (steadfastness) more as a sign of defiance against Israeli aggression and vengefulness than as an article of faith in their own future.

So what I fear might well happen in the foreseeable future is a continuation of redundant political negotiations that are devoid of any strategic choices for peace. Israel is quietly enlarging its settlements (Shalom Akhshav indicated this week that the Israeli Housing Ministry has a blueprint for 73,000 new settlement units in the West Bank), Palestinians are being led by the nose kicking and screaming all along, and the pro-Israel lobby (including AIPAC) is being mobilised to obstruct any robust American moves toward peace. Add to this pot the economic interests of the offshore natural-gas supplies in the Gaza Marine gas field, an area roughly 20 miles off the Gaza coast, and one can alas make a fairly accurate guesstimate of the dice being rolled out on this Monopoly game board. The distressing reality though is that neither Israelis nor Palestinians will disappear from existence, no matter the provocations and hardships, nor will one people accept to be governed by the other. So the Israeli-Palestinian confrontation becomes more entrenched, feeding the political frenzy of the ever-expanding radical wings, and in the process rendering a two-state solution, or any sustainable solution for that matter, increasingly tenuous.

Today, we are faced with an unsettling Tantalus - as the Israeli Jewish peace activist Uri Avnery wrote - who is hungry and thirsty but can neither bend down for water nor reach out to the fruit basket on his head for food. The international community is unwilling to persuade Israel to give up its colonisation of Palestinian land and roll back its occupation, and so we are now drifting into uncharted waters that might become much choppier in the months ahead.

Is a two-state solution still feasible, as Hillary Clinton and Tony Blair claimed this week? Or have we truly crossed the political Rubicon and are heading toward a perilous period of political entropy? My sense is that the two-state solution is almost lifeless unless - yes, unless - the world community stops looking at the conflict through a one-dimensional lens and agrees to apply an impartial, honest and robust brokerage between Israelis and Palestinians. This deal would revolve around well-anchored UN Resolutions and established parameters, but can only succeed if it involves all parties - inclusive of Hamas. The Western fixation on demonising this faction and pretending it does not exist will simply checkmate any real hope for peace. This is clear to any level-headed politician anywhere, yet they wrap up the Gaza war with more good money thrown in after bad in the hope that it would somehow solve issues and salve consciences!

Simply put, will we allow the negatives to overwhelm the positives, and then wring our hands with rueful helplessness as the conflict slides into further chaos and draws all our lives into lethal global disarray? I dread the answer …

© Dr Harry Hagopian   |   2009   |   3 March


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