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Muddling Signs across Israel-Palestine?
Developments in the Middle East in general are usually so swift, and yet also so subtle at times, that it is quite easy to miss out on some of their finer nuances...

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

... There is always the easy temptation to continue adhering to age-old classical and frankly sclerotic interpretations that are duly regurgitated by some politicians or pundits who think they know better anyway. No wonder then that we are often swept away with ideas that aggravate - rather than improve - the overall political, socio-economic and inter-religious realities of this troubled region.

So let me focus today on some developments that are presently taking place within the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In Israel itself, the world will soon become re-acquainted with a prime minister who wears an old face but a new suit. Indeed, it is almost certain that this “new” prime minister will be Benyamin Netanyahu. And although the world community half expected his government to reflect the right-wing extremism of some of the factions that have already thrown their lot with him, it seems that the two-week extension that President Shimon Peres granted Netanyahu might have helped him broaden the base of such a government with the likes of Labour leader Ehud Barak. So there is animation in some international and Arab circles that a level of ‘moderation’ might well seep into the future policies of such a coalition. However, this is where I believe most of the analyses go off the rail! True, with Avigdor Lieberman as Foreign Minister - he who once reportedly suggested that Israel should destroy the Aswan dam in Egypt in order to flood Cairo - and with his movement Yisrael Beiteinu also possibly controlling other sensitive portfolios, one can almost feel the revanchist pangs of a further defeat of peace and a growing realisation that Israel will not concede an independent Palestinian state, whether it is led by the Gaza-based Hamas and therefore ideologically unrelenting or by the more pragmatic and therefore pliable Ramallah-based Fateh. But I would invite the reader to think soberly and objectively whether a broader government with other coalition partners - such as Shas (with the key ministries of Interior and Housing) and Labour (with its putative portfolios) - would necessarily deliver peace? What about the lessons or precedents of history let alone the stance of those very same politicians in past years? The conflict is about concrete issues, not cosmetic personalities - otherwise, we will have already sorted out this conflict and would now be living in a peaceful Arab-Israeli-Palestinian Elysium!

Indeed, Netanyahu’s oft-stated focus for ameliorating the economic viability of Palestinians rather than enabling the creation of their state is a sop that cannot wash with most Palestinians any longer. Over the past two decades, it has become clear that the Israeli political elite - from the higher echelons to the lower mandarins, and whether on the left or right of the mercurial political spectrum - do not by and large wish to conclude any peace agreement with Palestinians that would involve painful concessions and unavoidable territorial withdrawals. There are certainly some notable exceptions, but most would prefer to continue colonising a whole Palestinian people so long as they lay their hands on the geography and resources of this land and try to keep Palestinians quiescent by offering them a few political crumbs.

Meanwhile, the facts that Israel creates on the ground are fearsome. Let me refer to a 20-page report of 15 December 2008 initiated by EU Consuls-General in Jerusalem along with their colleagues in Ramallah published in Le Nouvel Observateur on 18th March. It rings chilling alarm bells about the future of Jerusalem, and constitutes an indictment of Israeli use of settlement expansion, the separation wall, by-pass roads, resident permits for Palestinians, displacements or deportations and the E-1 Plan connecting Ma’ale Adumim with Jerusalem “to pursue actively its illegal annexation of East Jerusalem.”

This ‘confidential’ report, that was destined for Javier Solana, EU foreign and security policy chief, remained shelved for three months. Yet, it highlights some sobering facts: out of the 470,000 settlers presently in the OPT, 190,000 (or roughly 40%) are in Jerusalem and another 96,000 around Jerusalem - with the majority in settlement blocs such as Givat Ze’ev, Etzion and Ma’ale Adumim. The report further adds that 86% of the trajectory of the separation wall, including in Jerusalem, lies inside the 1949 armistice line and that 385,000 settlers are living on the Israeli side of the wall. Conversely, 285,000 Palestinians live between the wall and the Green Line in a no man’s land that also cuts them off from the West Bank. In a nutshell, this report argues that the successive faits accomplis Israel has been creating on the ground drain the credibility of the Palestinian Authority as the Israeli supposed partner and as such weaken any residual popular support for peace negotiations between the parties. Interestingly enough, this report is not unlike a similar one from 2005 that was also shelved then, so I am afraid I can show scant anticipation about its impact either.

In fact, I would suggest that the days when Israel would have accepted peace followed the creation of its state, namely in 1948, 1956 and 1967. I am just old enough to remember the veteran politician Abba Eban whose one eloquent declaration in London in 1970 stated that “history teaches us that men and nations behave wisely once they have exhausted all other alternatives.” So had all the alternatives been exhausted after the 1973 war, and have conditions changed since then so that both parties learn not to miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity? I think not, since Israeli overconfidence by then had already exceeded the bounds of what is manageable and a different power play started establishing itself within the Israeli psyche. The report of the EU Consuls-General clarifies in my opinion that Israel is in no haste to make peace with the Palestinians, and that the much-vaunted two-state solution that is still being marketed in some political corridors has become largely moribund despite illusory or romantic assertions to the contrary.

Therefore, I would argue that the intelligent strategy now would examine what needs to be done absent any real hope for the re-launch of a viable peace initiative in the foreseeable future. The international community - including the otiose Quartet and its peripatetic envoy - still perpetuate the unreality of a possible peaceful resolution that would lead to an independent and sovereign Palestinian state side-by-side with Israel. But would a bit of honesty not reveal that the searing consequences of the occupation to date render such an outcome almost unachievable and that the legal and political fundaments facilitating it are well nigh inexistent? What is probable is not necessarily possible in peacemaking. In that sense, I find the Likud policies at least less contrived and more open about Israeli intentions toward peace and conflict management. After all, they call a spade a spade rather than pretending it to be anything else.

What about the other side of the coin then - namely the Arab countries as well as Palestinian factions? The Arab countries, riven between the so-called axes of confrontation and moderation, are politically limp and seem to spend much time check-mating each other in the hope that the ‘other’ side will not grow too much stronger. In some sense though, it is Iran, not Israel, which has now become the understated nemesis of some countries. Whilst the majority of inter-Arab conciliatory efforts - and summits - purport to deal with the ravages of an Israeli occupation and its aggression against Palestinians, they target tangentially Iran and strive to circumvent any regional extension of Iranian-style Shi’i influence. Mind you, it is an interesting moot point to explore how the putative presidential election of Mir-Hossein Mousavi as president in the Iranian elections of 12th June - with a possible appointment of Khatami as foreign minister - might affect Arab-Iranian relations let alone impact Israeli tactical policies as much as Western reactions over the nuclear issue. That is why President Obama’s well-calibrated and introductory invitation to the Iranian people and leadership for dialogue is an essential component for the start of a familiar but necessary bargaining process. The litmus test for its success would consist of underlining the global parameters of such a relationship and its attendant measures. As the syndicated journalist Rami Khouri put it in an article this week, the USA should resist lecturing others and tackle its lingering streak of arrogance if it wishes to move forward in its relations with Iran (and also with other regional players).

Moreover, Arab ructions are exacerbated further by deep Palestinian divisions. The ongoing efforts at dialogue between Fateh, Hamas and other Palestinian factions in Cairo will no doubt eventually produce a format for an agreement - due more to exogenous rather than endogenous pressures. However, they would not rapidly heal the prurient wounds gashing the whole Palestinian national body or (more vitally) refine a common vision for the future when the positions of the parties themselves are antithetical. In fact, one rudimental issue is how any agreement inter partes would consider those accords that have already been concluded between the Palestinian Authority and Israel - mainly during and subsequent to the Oslo years? And thereafter, how would the West react to a government of national consensus (wifaq watani) that does not subscribe to those principal pre-conditions for dialogue? After all, it rejected such a government earlier! The negotiators might well band-aid those wounds and gloss over their divergences, but we all know that band-aids peel off. Yet, despite such impediments, Hamas cannot remain a pariah for much longer in the region and will gradually be re-integrated into the political process - initially by the EU with its test balloons, before the Obama Administration in all likelihood joins the marketplace. The visits to Gaza by the UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, by Senator John Kerry and recently by a high-level EU delegation, are ways of gradually bringing Hamas in from the cold and giving substance to the reality that the PLO is weakening its hold on the dynamics of the peace process. That is why it makes sense that Palestinians heal their wounds before they lose the plot - and the land - completely and then usher in the much-anticipated legislative and presidential elections.

What about President Obama’s fresh Administration? It is true that the president is trying to extend an open hand to former foes and underlining the merits of dialogue, engagement and smart diplomacy. However, whether such policies anchor themselves in practical measures, evoke reciprocity or remain piecemeal, I do not believe Obama can put his full weight behind any deal that coerces Israel to respond to the collective peace overtures of the Arab countries - including the much-discussed Arab League initiative adopted unanimously at the Beirut Summit in 2002 and rebooted in Riyadh in 2007. After all, I seriously question whether the American president can afford to confront the Israeli government, Congress / Senate and the US-based lobbies (and particularly AIPAC) without blinking first. Yet, this is exactly what the president should do since the American policy to date that Israel can do no wrong has been calamitous - not least for Israeli long-term security. This is what the well-known Aaron Miller, public policy fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, implied recently when commenting that American policies toward Israel have undermined both Israeli and American interests for the past 16 years. But the Israeli and Jewish lobbies are still far too influential, and I recall Pat Buchanan’s politically-incorrect statement as far back as 1990 that Capitol Hill is an Israeli occupied territory. But just look at what happened to Charles (Chas) Freeman, US former Ambassador to Saudi Arabia, who was being vetted for the post of chairman of the National Intelligence Council (NIC) in the new Obama Administration. He allegedly had to withdraw his name from the process due to Israeli-inspired and Jewish-mounted American pressure upon him and upon the US Administration.

In my opinion, the expectation voiced almost mantra-like by many parties that the USA should become “an honest broker” and stop supporting Israel unequivocally is a convenient opt-out if not also a redundant or even false premise. Rather, the question should be whether there is a way to impress upon the US Administration and its American constituencies that their collective interests dictate more even-handedness and honesty when dealing with the Israeli-Palestinian let alone Arab-Israeli conflicts. I would argue that the president understands this distinction, but I am not confident he would be able to shift policies and positions - more than minimally - to accommodate such an outcome.

But something has to give for the sake of peace - and truly for the sake of Palestinians as well as Israelis - in terms of the mindsets and actions of those involved in the process. Imagine that the USA and its allies have mislaid so much of their political rectitude in the past decade that they now refer to ‘disputed Palestinian lands’, not occupied ones, and view the settlement of Palestinian land as well as the evacuation of its people as ‘unhelpful’ rather than illegal. They act with diffidence when it comes to Israeli transgressions against International law as evidenced during the Gaza war last year. In fact, it is this skewered attitude toward International law and politics that led to a global call for an investigation into the Gaza conflict by a 16-strong group including Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu, former Irish president and UN human rights commissioner Mary Robinson and Justice Richard Goldstone. The world's veteran investigators and judges addressed this letter to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon as well as to all members of the UN Security Council wherein they demanded a full international investigation into alleged abuses of international law during the bombardment and occupation of the Gaza Strip. The signatories - who have led investigations of crimes committed in the former Yugoslavia, Kosovo, Darfur, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, South Africa, East Timor, Lebanon and Peru - argued that the UN investigation ‘should not be limited only to attacks on UN facilities.’ Only yesterday, Richard Falk, a UN human rights investigator and international lawyer from Princeton University also questioned in a new report to the UN Human Rights Council the legality and one-sided nature of the Israeli incursion in Gaza.

Let me conclude with a thought that crystallises the formidable task ahead for multi-track negotiators, given the incongruous remoteness of a two-state solution today. As some readers are aware already, the Arab League nominated Jerusalem as The Capital of Arab Culture 2009. Yet, the Israeli authorities used their customary “presence” (in other words intimidating force) to forestall any Palestinian celebrations not only in Jerusalem but also in Nazareth. Consequently, the bulk of the event took place by proxy in Bethlehem. For one, this shows Israeli obsessive and suppressive concern for any Palestinian activities that would imply attachment, involvement and by implication sovereignty to the city of Jerusalem or to any sense of Palestinian national identity in the occupied territories and even in Israel itself. But it also betrays both a heavy-handed reaction to any Palestinian civic manifestation and a fear almost that the genie should not be let out in case it cannot be forced back into the bottle again! The clashes that took place at Umm el-Fahm today, when Baruch Marzel and some of his fellow Jewish extremists from Kach marched into this town, were a brazen show of provocation. So does it truly surprise anyone that the Israeli-Palestinian file is decidedly unpromising and sadly iffy, and that a fresh irenic track has to be found to rejuvenate it?

I often struggle to remain an optimist, not to become a pessimist. But optimism that strays violently outside the prism of realism becomes questionable. So I have adopted a quaint word from the writings of the late Nazarene novelist Emile Habibi to describe myself as a pessoptimist, hopeful of promise but careful enough to recognise the hurdles ahead. In that sense, I would rally with Habibi’s frank - and at times suitably honest and controversial - statements by suggesting that an Israeli-Palestinian file that is facing a serious impasse could well witness the unravelling of a national - and legitimate - dream unless there is a concerted movement to remedy what is clearly a dereliction of duty by the world comity.

I pray that the ongoing political shenanigans in Israel-Palestine do not lead to more deaths and violence or induce the bloody settling of scores on all sides that emulate a lex talionis for direct retribution - as expressed in the Book of Exodus in the Hebrew Scriptures. No more “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, an arm for an arm and a life for a life”. But more than mere prayers, I also use the words of the Irish novelist James Joyce to express the hope that the current muddling signs across this volatile land would be managed with more wisdom and caution … and so lead us all ‘toward less muddle’.

© Dr Harry Hagopian   |   2009   |   24 March


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