image of jerusalem 2013

Last Will & Testament! The Israeli-Palestinian conflict
I Abraham, son of Terach, in front of the judges have attested thus. The land where I took my son, there to make a sacrifice of him to the Mighty Name, the Mountain of Moriah, this land has become a source of dissension between my two sons....

25 September   |   2007   |   Subject  Middle East & North Africa (MENA)

... Let their names here be recorded as Isaac and Ishmael. So have I thus declared in front of the judges that the Mount shall be bequeathed as follows - That it shall be shared between my two sons and their descendants in a manner of their choosing. But that they be clear that it belongs to neither one of them, but to both, now and forever. That they be entrusted as its guardians and custodians, to protect it on behalf of the Mighty name, the one Lord who is sovereign over everything and all of us.

Sworn with the seal of Abraham, son of Terach, witnessed by his sons in Hebron, this day.

Have I perchance come across the last will and testament of Patriarch Abraham, the ‘common forefather’ of Jews, Christians and Muslims, shortly before his death and burial in Hebron? Have I managed to translate its cuneiform script, from the old Babylonian language, into legal English, in order to articulate his last inclusive wish?

Alas, the answer is disappointingly less ambitious! The truth is that I read earlier this month Sam Bourne’s The Last Testament and enjoyed the way this journalist, bestselling author of The Righteous Men, has written his latest novel so that it blends together the realities of peace negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians over past decades with his fictional story about a last will from Abraham to his sons. The will settles once and for all the disputes over the Temple Mount / Haram Al-Sharif that have bedevilled negotiations and marred agreements between Israeli and Palestinian protagonists.

The story focuses on a clay tablet discovered almost randomly in a souvenir shop in the Arab souk in Jerusalem by an Israeli right-wing Jabotinsky-friendly settler who promoted the concept of Eretz Yisrael, or Greater [Biblical] Israel. The discovery of the clay tablet leads to his death and that of many other Israelis and Palestinians, but it also concludes with a new dawn for Israelis and Palestinians who come to their senses at long last and accept to share the land.

I must admit that the plot is quite plausible in some of its factual regurgitations, based as it is on real-life politicians and events that were clearly also recorded by this author-journalist during the Oslo years. But it is also overrated and maudlin in other ways - particularly the part about the American “negotiator” who survives a tantric multiplicity of odds and helps disclose the truth. Yet, if we were to forget that this is just a story, would it not be compelling if Abraham had indeed left a will to his two sons some 4500 years ago asking that Jerusalem be shared equally and justly between Jews and Palestinians?

Well, if he had done so, he will have probably realised that his sagacity and wisdom are not shared by a large number of modern-day politicians who cling to misconstrued, absolutist and exclusivist [religious] dogmas and who believe that the only solution worth discussing is one that creates a win-lose situation - namely, we win and they lose in the end-negotiations.

But Abraham is not with us today, nor at a stretch (as Bourne’s novel alludes quite translucently) are the assassinated Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin or the gaoled Fatah leader Marwan Barghouti. Instead, the fate of Israelis and Palestinians - two ancient, proud but maligned peoples - is being negotiated by politicians applying mediocre non-solutions and myopic visions to a conflict that has spanned many decades, fomented radicalism let alone extremism and remains to date the epicentre of any Arab-Israeli peace or war - the rash and brash adventures of Iraq notwithstanding.

So where does the reality of this conflict stand today? Have things really altered in the past two decades, or even in the past seven years that I have been posting articles on my epektasis web-site? Not really - sadly! The past two weeks alone have again shown a dearth of good will and an unsettling obnubilation in the process and direction of peace negotiations. Even whilst PM Ehud Olmert and PNA President Mahmoud Abbas were attempting to define the future agenda for the US-sponsored international peace conference slated for autumn, their languages were demonstrably different. Abbas was talking about the need for tackling the major issues separating the two parties as much as for setting deadlines toward performance and implementation. Olmert, on the other hand, was cautioning against any rash expectations from the conference. The negotiations should proceed “smoothly and cautiously” we were told, as if the past forty odd years have not been slothful enough in resolving a conflict whose broad parameters have remained largely the same!

Over the past year, I am conscious that I have annoyed a number of Palestinians by publishing few articles that took Palestinian leaders - both Hamas and Fateh - to task for their internecine enmities, homicidal fights, political cleavages and nepotistic proclivities. But no matter how weak and discreditable Palestinians might appear today, it remains nonetheless clear in my mind that the real culprit for the conflict has been the huge disparity between the two sides: Palestinians are weak and occupied, whereas Israel is strong and the occupier! I don’t think anyone can negate this reality that is anchored in International law even though some politicians often use euphemisms simply to avoid the use of the term “occupation”.

This occupation has also created much discrimination and equal distrust on the ground in Abraham’s biblical land. Let me give you one fresh example. In his article, A Segregated Road in an Already Divided Land, Steven Erlanger wrote that Israel is constructing a road through the West Bank that will allow both Israelis and Palestinians to travel along it - separately. The Israeli side has various exits; the Palestinian side has few. The point of the road, according to those who planned it under former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, is to permit Israel to build more settlements around East Jerusalem, cutting the city off from the West Bank, although allowing Palestinians to travel unimpeded north and south through Israeli-held land.

To Daniel Seidemann, a lawyer who advises the Israeli NGO advocacy group Ir Amim (‘City of Nations’/‘City of Peoples’) which has lobbied since 2004 for Israeli-Palestinian co-existence, the road suggests an ominous future map. Israel keeps nearly all of East Jerusalem and a ring of Israeli settlements surrounding it, providing a cordon of Israelis between largely Arab East Jerusalem and the rest of the West Bank that will ostensibly become part of a future Palestinian state. It also helps ensure that the large settlement of Ma’ale Adumim - a suburb of 32,000 people east of Jerusalem - will remain under Israeli control, along with the currently empty area of 4.6 square miles known as E1 lying between Ma’ale Adumim and Jerusalem.

Another constant reminder of this unequal political tug-of-war between the two sides is the separation wall (called a barrier by Israel since its entire length is not made of concrete but also of barbed wire) being built by Israel. Last week, the Israeli High Court of Justice requested from Israel to reroute a section of the separation wall that had split a West Bank village from much of its farmland. Earlier, in a landmark judgment in 2004, the High Court had also ordered the state to bring a 25-mile section of the barrier in the West Bank hills northeast of Jerusalem closer to the 1967 boundary, on grounds that the original route caused disproportionate harm to the rights of Palestinian villagers in the area.

However, the Israeli High Court has upheld the principle of building the barrier in the West Bank on the basis of security. It has ruled not on the legality of the wall itself but rather considered each case on its own prima facie merits. A few weeks ago, for instance, it rejected a petition by Palestinian villagers against the barrier route near the Alfei Menashe Jewish settlement / enclave (near Qalqilya) whereby Palestinians had wanted the wall moved closer to the 1967 green line boundary and away from their homes. But by the same token, the court also rejected a petition by Alfei Menashe residents who had asked for the barrier to be moved farther from their settlement into the West Bank. However, in adopting this case-by-case approach, Israel has in effect ignored the Advisory Opinion of the Hague-based International Court of Justice in 2004 that deemed the construction of the wall across the 1967 boundary as a violation of International law.

The topography of the occupied territories has been so severely modified over the past two decades that I question whether it is still possible to reach an agreement that allows the creation of an independent, sovereign, contiguous and viable Palestinian state. Given the global power-plays, the pseudo-redundancy of the Quartet as much as by what is truly left to negotiate over in view of Israeli land expropriations, illegal settlements and by-roads that criss-cross the West Bank, is this not a recipe for a Palestinian puppet state that is no better than a sprawling Texan ranch? In planning for the upcoming autumnal conference in Washington DC, and assuming it is not merely another effort to highlight al-shakliat (form) over al-madmoun (content), might it not be advisable to heed to Amr Moussa, Secretary-General of the Arab League, when he admonishes that this meeting should only occur once its parameters and goals have clearly been laid out - and in the presence of all Middle Eastern players - so that political pundits do not consider it merely a distraction away from Iraq? 

Last week, I heard Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert addressing in Hebrew the Kadima political party faithful. He asserted that “the reigning opinion in some [Israeli] circles is that we need to wait - that we mustn’t rush or nurture an atmosphere that will lead to serious negotiations. Those who think in that way always find excuses … to avoid seizing opportunities and not look for real chances to break the ice between us and the Palestinians. I do not share this view.”

Has PM Olmert been converted into supporting Abraham’s fictional last will and testament? Is it possible that something will give on the ground at long last? The pess-optimist in me who has previously negotiated over Jerusalem hopes that such an outcome would be practicable. But the same pess-optimist in me - perhaps also the cynic who remembers past highs and lows in negotiations - believes that all this could be part of a disempowering design rather than any irenic endeavour.

Would there ever be a real will for peace in Abraham’s land? Alas, therein lies the inveterate despair of two peoples!

© Dr Harry Hagopian   |   2007   |   25 September


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