The news from the Middle East is not good. In
Israel, Sharon, despair and extremism. In Palestine, anarchy, despair
The Israeli closure and the helicopter assassinations
rally support for the corrupt leadership of the PNA. Palestinian terror
attacks in Hadera, West Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, and the rain of
machine-gun fire on Jerusalem suburbs, have transformed the settlers
from fanatics with nuisance value into national heroes, and propelled
Ariel Sharon from being yesterday's forgotten bogeyman to center stage
The Intifadeh, which Palestinians and radicals
insisted was so absolutely necessary for the advancement of the cause of
peace and justice, has helped to bring about the election of Ariel
Sharon. The repression of the Intifadeh, which the Israeli government
insisted was absolutely necessary for the advancement of the cause of
peace and justice, has enthroned the radicals in Palestinian politics as
It is generally agreed that the Middle East peace
process, launched with so much hope in 1992, is dead. Maybe it never had
a chance. Aside from an inconsequential group which may include the
majority of ordinary people in Palestine and Israel, peace had no real
supporters in the Israel and Palestine. There are in fact, two power
groups on either side of the divide: those opposed to the peace process
and peace, and those who favor the peace process, but are in fact,
opposed to peace in the ordinary understanding of the word "peace."
Those opposed to the peace process are those groups
that would lose their meaning and rationale if there were peace. These
include the settlers and their right-wing allies on the Israeli side,
and the Islamic fundamentalists and radical groups on the Palestinian
The governments and leaders on either side who
supported the peace process, were seeking a way to continue, and win,
the struggle by other means. In each case, legitimate peace goals were
intertwined with assertions of "fundamental rights" that
consist in fact of the "right" to vanquish the enemy.
A number of criticisms of the Oslo process became SOP
on the left and on the right, and their supporters are singing these
hymns again at the wake. Criticism #1 on the left or Palestinian side
was that the corruption of the Arafat regime was somehow the fault of
At http://www.commondreams.org/views01/0216-04.htm we
find peace advocate Rabbi Michael Lerner writing:" Perhaps the most
terrible thing that Israel ever did was to bring Arafat and his band of
armed thugs back from Tunisia and impose them on the West Bank and Gaza.
Arafat's history of violence against Israelis is matched by violence
against his own people."
Indeed! However, the Palestinians themselves had
insisted on Arafat's return. Hanan Ashrawi and Edward Said are surely
more likely to represent Palestinian views than Rabbi Michael Lerner.
Were we not assured that the PLO is only legitimate representative of
the Palestinian People, and that Yasser Arafat is the only prophet of
the PLO? Israel tried, by every means possible to find alternative
negotiation partners that was the strategy of the Likud governments,
and they failed. Discussions with the PLO were outlawed, and successive
Israeli governments went in search of someone, anyone, on the
Palestinian side who would be willing to talk peace. In vain. Israeli
peace advocates such as Uri Avneri, as well as Palestinians, insisted
that the road to peace must be through the PLO and Yasser Arafat. So
Israel made a great concession to Palestinian demands, and the result
was the Arafat nightmare.
The Israeli mythology of the right insists that
everything was coming along just fine until the Oslo agreements. They do
not explain how they intended to keep all the occupied land under
Israeli authority, or to ignore the existence of several million
Palestinians. Presumably, prayer and good thoughts would somehow make
all the Palestinians just go away, and convince the Arabs to relinquish
all rights in Jerusalem. History is not just the eruption of dramatic
events, but the preparation of conditions that ultimately produce them.
Of course, this has direct implications for the future under Ariel
Sharon as well. Quiet for now is not necessarily the best way guarantee
of quiet in the future, if it is bought at the price of repression.
One Israeli goal is to obtain recognition for Israel
and peaceful relations with its neighbors, a laudable goal. However, a
second Israeli goal is to retain a substantial part of the settlements
in the territories conquered in 1967, not just in West Jerusalem, or
even in the symbolic East Jerusalem, but in Efrat, Maaleh Edumim, and
Ariel. These somehow became part of the "national consensus"
adopted by former PM Ehud Barak as well as Ariel Sharon. The maps
presented at Camp David, and later, in the strange negotiations that
continued, for some reason, during the pre-election period, did not show
a viable Palestinian state, but a collection of enclaves separated by
the infamous checkpoints (for documentation see http://www.mideastweb.org/campdavid2.htm ).
The final settlement that was proposed would be a continuation of the
current nightmare. There was no indication that the proposals took into
account Palestinian needs for economic development and relations with
their Arab neighbors. The maps (see http://www.mideastweb.org/lastmaps.htm)
do not indicate compact borders drawn around tight security lines. They
are rather a complex mess that looks like it was generated by a fractals
program, dodging and weaving between politically important and
strategically worthless Israeli settlements to produce the longest
possible indefensible border line, replete with checkpoints and long
corridors that invite trouble. Moreover much of the territorial
concessions were contingent on Palestinian compliance with other
conditions, such as disarmament, which Israeli negotiators were
confident would never happen.
Palestinians want to obtain an independent state and
an end to the misery of the refugees. Laudable goals as well. But at the
same time as they insisted on full implementation of their version of
the Oslo agreements, which the Palestinians insisted were being violated
by Israeli settlement activities, the Palestinians themselves gathered
arms and trained soldiers in violation of the same agreements, with the
advertised goal of "liberating" Haifa and Jaffa and all the
other parts of Palestine that became part of Israel in 1948. Curiously,
Israel did nothing to stop this activity.
While talking peace, the Israelis continued to build
settlements and confiscate land. While talking peace, the Palestinians
stockpiled weapons illegally, put out a constant barrage of antisemitic
and anti-Israel propaganda, trained a "Palestine Liberation
Army" and sent children to paramilitary camps.
But the main controversy was not over the substantial
points of borders, contiguity, economy and security, because it is hard
to get people excited over maps, trade agreements and the like. The
major rallying points of extremists were the two sacred cows of
Palestinian and Israeli national consciousness: "Jerusalem"
and the "Right of Return." Nobody on either side could take
the "wrong" stand on these issues, and as soon as they became
the focal point of negotiations, the negotiations were doomed.
Jerusalem and the Right of Return are both non-issues
in fact. The Moslem Waqf has enjoyed virtual sovereignty over the Haram
as Sharif (Temple Mount) since 1967. Of the 4.4 million Palestinian
refugees, a large number live in the United States and Jordan and would
not really want to return to their destroyed villages. A good number of
those living in refugee camps in Lebanon and Syria, Gaza and the West
Bank want to return because they have been brought up to believe it is
the only way. But the parents and grandparents of these people fled
Palestine so they would not have to live under Israeli rule. if there is
nothing, in fact, for them to return to, why should settlement in a new
town under Israeli rule be preferable to settlement in a new town under
Palestinian or Syrian rule?
Nonetheless, when a final settlement that might
exclude the destruction of Israel was threatened, Palestinian extremist
groups founded a coalition around the "Right of Return" and
planned rallies abroad that coincided with the possible critical dates
of the final status negotiations. Right of Return is a sacred part of
the Palestinian national mythology, a holy rallying cry of patriotism as
important to them as "United Jerusalem" is for Israelis. Right
of Return is interpreted as the return of every refugee to Palestine. An
article at the Fateh Web site explains frankly that the solution of the
refugee problem is the key to the destruction of Israel. The PNA, which
had formerly acquiesced in livable solutions to the refugee problem,
suddenly became adamant about ROR.
In Israel, rumored concessions over Jerusalem were
magnified by right wing politicians, so that it seemed that Ehud Barak
was giving up the Jewish birth right by allowing the Palestinians
limited autonomy in a few Arab neighborhoods and suburbs. In Palestine
and the Arab world, the Holy War for Quds al-Sharif was declared.
Israel correctly anticipated that the "final
settlement talks" might end in violence. However, it seems they
trained units to deal with the possibility that the Palestinians would
declare a state and try to invade settlements. Soldiers were trained in
marksmanship and fighting in built-up areas. The obvious possibility,
that the PNA would use the same tactics that worked so well in the 80s,
was discounted. There was no preparation for crowd control. The result
is over 300 Palestinian dead - three Deir Yassins (see http://www.ariga.com/peacewatch/dy)
that have left another monument to inhumanity and bitterness on the
What is Happening?
The Intifadeh made Israeli concessions impossible,
wiping out popular support for the Oslo peace process. Israelis fear
that concessions could precipitate not only further Palestinian demands
and violence, but possibly a regional war. The brutal Israeli response
to the Intifadeh has made Palestinian concessions impossible as well.
Arabs see the election of Ariel Sharon as a
symbolizing an Israeli "No" to peace, but that is not
necessarily the case. Sharon was elected Prime Minister despite his
record as a military adventurer. Israelis facing daily machine-gun fire
in Jerusalem and bombs in Hadera felt the situation was getting out of
control. Sharon's proven abilities when the chips are down suggested
that maybe he could succeed where Barak failed. A key factor in Sharon's
election had nothing whatever to do with the peace process. The
ultra-orthodox Shas party wanted to reduce the jail sentence of their
leader, Arieh Deri, serving four years for bribery. Sharon promised, and
delivered, a special law that allowed reducing jail terms to one-half of
time served. In return, Shas promised, and delivered, the votes of their
Despite militaristic rhetoric, both sides realize that
they have no good options for dramatic resolution of the problem. In
Israel, a unity government is being formed because there is no other
choice. Ariel Sharon could not govern with a narrow 63 vote coalition.
The budget must pass by March 31, or else there would have been new
elections. Those elections would have been, by all indications, a
sweeping victory for the Israeli right. Probably, Sharon would have been
replaced by Benjamin Nethanyahu, who is in fact, a more orthodox
right-wing partisan than Sharon. Instead, Sharon has sought a coalition
with Labor that will give him a certain amount of flexibility.
On the Palestinian side, the hardening of positions
has been accompanied by a rapid disintegration of economic and social
life. According to numerous accounts, the Israeli closure and the break
up of government mechanisms, such as they were, are causing a rapid
slide toward a kind of anarchy or feudalism, in which Palestine may come
to be ruled by armed gangs in the service of different clans or
What Will Happen?
The first priority of the new Israeli government must
be to "restore order" and stop the violence. Sharon projected
a tough image, and the Palestinian side, whether at the instigation of
the PNA itself or of dissident groups, has greeted the election of
Sharon with a barrage of violence that is clearly meant as a challenge.
If Sharon fails to quell the violence, his government, unity or
otherwise, must eventually fall. It is not possible to restore order
without some rationalization of the Israeli borders, to exclude the most
indefensible settlements. There will be some Israeli withdrawals, either
as form of concessions to the Palestinians during "interim
settlement" negotiations, or else in order to implement a "separation"
plan. The possibility of evacuating settlements was part of the "concessions"
that the Labor negotiating team "forced" from Sharon's Likud
negotiators, but in reality, Sharon, if not his negotiators, have long
since accepted the need for retrenchment. If the peace process is dead,
so too is the dream of Greater Israel dead for now.
There will likely be a massive IDF build up in the
West Bank and Gaza, of the kind that Sharon used successfully to put
down violence in Gaza in the 70s. Sharon has said that Israel would not
return to Gaza itself, but that remains to be seen. It is very unlikely,
one can hope, that Sharon will be led to the kinds of adventures
suggested by extremists such as Yvette Lieberman, who wanted to bomb the
Aswan high dam. Unlikely, but possible. Israeli bombings of targets
within Palestine and the assassinations policy both produced strong
reactions from abroad, and are not likely to be renewed. The perception
in Israel is that half-measures are only aggravating the situation and
inviting criticism. The longer the Intifadeh continues, the more it
invites the possibility of regional war, and the greater the toll on the
Israeli economy. It has already scared away foreign investment and
produced a sharp economic downturn. Reserve duty days for 2001 have been
doubled, causing a further strain on the economy. Clearly, this is not a
situation that Israel will allow to continue. The principle tactic of
the Israeli side may well be closure, which is the least dramatic
alternative, draws the least attention, and can have the most deadly
long term consequences. It is also the slowest. In the past, faced with
similar attrition tactics, Israel has resorted to more drastic measures.
The Palestinians hoped to bring about international
intervention in their cause. They have been, and will be. disappointed
for the most part. The Arab League boycott may be partially revived. The
petroleum states offered money, but never delivered it, citing
Palestinian government corruption as the reason. Only the radical states
such as Iraq and Syria offered any real hope of support. The Hizbulla
raids along the Lebanese border perhaps were instigated by a Syrian
desire to suck Israel into a larger involvement in Lebanon and a wider
war. Israel keeps a wary eye on Syrian armor concentrations in eastern
Lebanon, which are much larger than could possibly be needed to put down
any local Lebanese resistance. Iraqi troops were reported advancing to
the Jordanian border, and later, to the Syrian border. Iraq also
announced the formation of a volunteer army for a holy war. However, the
renewed U.S. bombings of Iraq signal that with a Bush in the White
House, Saddam Hussein may have worries closer to home than Jerusalem. No
doubt Damascus took note as well.
Lacking any other alternative to advance their cause,
the Palestinians will probably resort to sporadic terror, possibly based
We have returned, essentially, to the Middle East of
ten or fifteen years ago. The "New Middle East" looks for now
exactly like the same old Middle East. The main features of the current
conflict - road ambushes, random terror, mutual radicalization, lip
service and actual indifference of Arab governments, disintegration of
Palestinian society - could all describe the events of 1947. The big
winners are the "activists" on both sides. The big losers are
the Israeli people and the Palestinian people. The slogan, "We are
condemned to live together in this little plot of land" was
repeated by everyone, but internalized by nobody.
It is not accurate to say that another opportunity for
peace was lost. Rather, there was never an opportunity for peace,
because most of the protagonists were never interested in peace.
There will not be an opportunity for peace until peace stops being a
dirty word in the Middle East, and a synonym for destruction of the
Produced by the PEACE Mid-East Dialog Group
Ami Isseroff - Ameen Hannoun