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Donors’ Conference: Any High Hopes?
The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

28 December   |   2007   |   Subject  Middle East & North Africa (MENA)

First, there was Annapolis! And then there was Paris! But will there be ever be a Palestine?

Following my previous article Annapolis Conference: Hope or Scepticism? last month, a colleague from Bethlehem who is closely associated with the Fateh movement of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, assured me that there is no alternative to Annapolis, no alternative to peaceful negotiations with Israel and no alternative to the renunciation of violence à la previous two Intifadas. I agreed readily with his second and third statements, but disagreed somewhat with his first one about Annapolis. Is it simply a case that I, unlike my colleague, evinced more scepticism than hope?

Let me overstep the classic modules of conflict resolution that I was taught at law school. Although they are quite functional on paper or in the reports of large organisations when analysing the peaks and troughs of regional conflicts, they are not always dead right when it comes to their practical management. Instead, let me share with you today a less studied statement that the grassroots in both societies understand quite well: peace can occur between Israelis and Palestinians so long as both parties are willing to negotiate in good faith or are constrained to do so because the perpetuation of the conflict is more onerous than its resolution. Those two pre-requisites can be found in Abu Mazen’s Palestinian negotiating team. Unfortunately, whether due to fear, diffidence or sheer territorialism, Israel is still giving those same pre-requisites a wide berth. Between land and peace, peace is losing out yet again and Israel, despite its own internal weaknesses, seems to believe that it could still dictate to the Palestinian side the terms and conditions of any resolution of this forty-year old conflict.

Am I turning Israel and its current Prime Minister into convenient scapegoats for the impasse? I truly doubt it, although some of my Israeli and European friends might hurriedly indict me of doing so! When working in Jerusalem as Secretary of the Jerusalem Inter-Church Committee, I came to know PM Ehud Olmert a bit and appreciated his nous as mayor of Jerusalem. I was impressed by his sharp legal mind and his appreciation of the variables for peace in the region - although I was less impressed by some of his positions. Yet, today, he is weak and his weakness is exacerbated by the ambitious intransigence of his fellow cabinet ministers. The more hawkish he appears, the less challenged he is at this stage of his premiership. But such weaknesses that inevitably lead to inertia on the Israeli side are also to be found on the Palestinian side where the steadiness of President Mahmoud Abbas’s government vis à vis Hamas in Gaza (and some parts of the West Bank) is as solid as that of PM Fouad Siniora’s government vis à vis Hizbullah in southern Lebanon.

Again, and unlike my colleague from Bethlehem, am I being overwhelmingly sceptical? Two cases in point come to mind.

The first case in point relates to the much-vaunted 87-country Paris donors’ conference earlier this month that pledged to inject $7.4 billion into the Palestinian economy and its administrative structures in order to buttress up the political track of Annapolis. The donors praised the Palestinian Reform and Development Plan (PRDP) 2008-2010 as an indication of potential political sustainability. Though encouraging, there are serious drawbacks that could easily thwart this latest effort.

The British-based agency Oxfam International brought a degree of reality to this aid package when it stated that “the donors who met in Paris effectively agreed to pour money into a leaking bucket, instead of fixing it”. Oxfam pointed out that the political resolution of the issues of access and movement for Palestinians is fundamental for the success of any economic initiative - let alone its takeoff. It makes little sense to commit monies to growing an economy when the constraints are not about the ability of Palestinians to be productive but rather about their ability to turn their productivity into economic growth. Yet, with more than 600 Israeli checkpoints and barriers cleaving the Palestinian territories themselves let alone barricading them from Israel, such access and movement are almost impossible at this stage as are the tools for economic growth. When coupled with what Barry Rubin from the Global Research in International Affairs Center in Herzliya termed the “corruption, incompetence, unwillingness and inability to restore order on the Palestinian side”, the future looks dim.

Moreover, in an unusual statement for a distinctly apolitical organisation, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) also called for immediate political action to contain the ‘deep crisis’ in the West Bank and Gaza. It charged that Israeli policies in the occupied territories have denied the Palestinians the right to live a normal and dignified life.

The Red Cross also issued a report, Dignity Denied, which depicts the harrowing everyday conditions for Palestinians who find it increasingly difficult to access jobs, medical care and even secure food. It said that only “prompt, innovative and courageous political action can change the harsh reality of this long-standing occupation, restore normal social and economic life to the Palestinian people, and allow them to live their lives in dignity”.
Moreover, the World Bank also confirmed that increased foreign aid and Palestinian plans to rein in government spending will not be enough to revive their economy if Israeli-imposed trade and travel limits stay in place. In a report presented at the donors’ conference in Paris, the international lending agency indicated that the lifting of movement restrictions by Israel was essential toward restoring growth to the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip. Assuming Palestinian budget savings are realised and donors provide full funding but Israel nonetheless refuses to remove trade and travel restrictions, the report added that the Palestinian economy would still continue to contract by about 2% annually. In contrast, if trade flows are restored, the bank said growth rates could accelerate to double-digit levels.

The second case in point is the continuing surge in settlement growth - incidentally, something that goes counter to the roadmap peace plan that is still being used as a benchmark by the parties and which forbids settlement activity including ‘natural growth’. The Israeli government has decided that the settlement of Har Homa on the Palestinian land of Jebel Abu Ghneim (a stone’s throw from Bethlehem), will now have up to 500 new homes for Israeli settlers, whereas Ma’ale Adumim on the way top Jericho will have another 240 homes. Those new homes help complete the near-hermetic encirclement of Jerusalem, its separation from the West Bank and its near-exclusion from the negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians.

So will scepticism or hope win for the sake of Palestinians and Israelis alike? I would still opt for hope if only the USA were to become an impartial arbiter of the negotiations and monitor them without undue bias by leveraging pressure upon both parties. The Palestinian-Israeli joint statement at Annapolis stated that the US “will monitor and judge [through its appointed monitor Robert Serry] the fulfilment of the commitment of both sides of the road map. Unless otherwise agreed by the parties, implementation of the future peace treaty will be subject to the implementation of the road map of April 2003, as judged by the United States.” So will the “monitor” be forthcoming in “monitoring” the process?

Further, the EU - whose Lisbon Agreement earlier this month gives it more foreign policy impetus, and whose envoy Tony Blair is meant to pursue efforts that secure peace on the basis of the roadmap - should learn to exercise its influence and metamorphose its financial and banking efforts into a political impulse that chivvies both parties along the proper irenic trajectory. After all, the EU offered more than $600 million of grant aid for 2008, compared with pledges of $555 million from the USA, $300 million from France over three years, $500 million from Saudi Arabia and $360 million from Spain.

As the syndicated journalist Rami Khouri reminded his readers only recently, Europeans are the single biggest donor to Palestine, but their political role seems to be moving in the other direction. Khouri added that Europe should redress this balance, and play a political-diplomatic role that is commensurate with its economic prowess. Indeed, the EU should explore how to return to their role as the guardians of the rule of law, international legitimacy, political morality and the international peace-making consensus that is enshrined in UN resolutions and global conventions.

I hope that my thoughts are more than daydreams. They should be the focus of the negotiators as they try to chase the elusive end-result of peace that remains disguised as a never-ending process. Peace can be concluded by end-2009 as Annapolis proclaimed a tad too ambitiously if only Israel were to drop its colonial mindset and stop an expansionism that manifests itself in multifarious forms, and so long as Palestinians also sort out their internecine violent and less violent problems - both intra-Fateh and inter-Palestinian. After all, should both parties not draw some lessons from a new public opinion poll by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research suggesting that any financial support to the Abbas-Fateh government is unlikely by itself to pummel Hamas into political submission? The poll disclosed that a total lack of confidence in the Annapolis process is keeping the Hamas and Fateh popularity stakes stable with 31% support for Hamas and 49% for Fateh - almost identical to their respective shares last September. The findings are not a surprise for me in view of the atrocious existential realities festering in Gaza (or the “enemy entity” as Israel labels it). Just ponder on the portentous significance of a recent statement by Ambrogio Manenti, head of the World Health Organisation (WHO) in the West Bank and Gaza, who pointed out that “In Gaza, if you are ill, particularly if you have a heavy illness, more or less, your destiny is written”.

So to my colleague who celebrated Christmas at the Basilica of the Nativity earlier this month with many indigenous Palestinian Christians, to both negotiating parties, as well as to those on both sides who are opposing negotiations without providing viable alternatives that debar violence, I urge them all to think of the long-term penalties on their peoples of their inactions let alone misdeeds. They should be made aware of the responsibilities they shoulder for the future.

But I would also remind Israel of a fact that has not yet markedly impressed much of its political elite: a Jewish Israel needs a wholesome and healed Palestine. Otherwise, conferences will come and go, politicians will rise and fall, and all the high hopes we harbour periodically for peace will be no more than shivering illusions in a cracked political prism.

© Dr Harry Hagopian   |   2007   |   28 December


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