Peace Can’t be Built on These Fictions

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If Yasir Arafat went on Israeli television today and declared that, yes indeed, his intention is to destroy Israel and throw the Jews in the sea, it is possible to speculate that American and Israeli officials would over the next few weeks still find a way to spin this positively and declare that an historic deal between Israelis and Palestinians is ‘within reach.’

The simple reason is that Ehud Barak wants to be reelected and President Clinton wants to leave office, if not with a truimph, at least with a fig leaf which will allow him to say his efforts did not fail completely. The deeper reason may be that Barak and his cohort believe that this is the best opportunity to give international legitimacy to Israel’s gains with the most compliant White House in history ready to act as front man.

At this point, the impression that a deal is possible may be more valuable to Barak than an actual agreement. Opinion polls are showing that a slim majority of Israelis are still opposed to the outlined Clinton plan reported in the New York Times and other media yesterday.

Rather than go to Israeli voters with nothing, or with a controversial and unpopular agreement which would give Sharon a hook to hang his opposition on, it may be preferable for Barak to go to the Israeli public with the following message: ‘There is a deal to be clinched. We did not clinch it yet, but we can get there. Who do you think will do it, me or Sharon? Give me a mandate and I will bring a deal home.” Ironically, the only member of Barak’s “peace cabinet” who reportedly thinks the plan asks too many concessions from Israel is the “doveish” Shimon Peres, indicating that the man’s hope of becoming prime minister still truimphs over bitter experience.

So far Palestinian protests that there are still very wide gaps have been drowned out by assurances from the US and Israel that peace is at hand. Yesterday and today, Haaretz reported statements of rosy optimism from US officials which take absolutely no account of the fact that Palestinian negotiators have cast deep doubt on the prospects for success, have said that the proposals are very close to those rejected at Camp David, and in some cases represent retreats, and the fact that there is deep disquiet among Palestinians all over the world.

Yet the strategy of forging ahead regardless depends on the convincing salesmanship of several fictions in order for the story to unfold as its authors desire.

First of all, we are to believe that Clinton’s plan is really Clinton’s plan. If past experience is a guide–particularly from Camp David–the ideas reportedly put forward by Clinton have been previewed and preapproved by the Israelis and then presented to the Palestinians as if they represent bold new thinking by the Americans. Clinton would not in any circumstances advance ideas which he knew Barak could not accept. Unfortunately the same courtesy is not extended to the Palestinians. Israel’s role is then to pretend that the proposals it has preapproved represent painful concessions and then to say ‘we don’t like it, but if the Palestinians can accept them, then so can we.’ Already, apparently, Israel has overcome its difficulties with the ‘American’ proposals and is enthusiastically selling them around the world. Israel’s foreign minister, Shlomo Ben Ami, for example, told his Japanese counterpart today “The proposal contains difficult provisions for us to accept, but we would like to move forward in achieving a peace deal based upon the idea.” Ben-Ami continued, “We want Japan to tell Palestinian leaders to accept the proposal.”

This strategy puts the Palestinian side in the familiar position of being faced with the choice of appearing to be the unreasonable spoilers, or of accepting proposals which take no account of Palestinian rights, the most central of which is the right of return.

This bring us to the second major fiction on which the storyline depends: that the ‘concessions’ contained in the “Clinton plan” are somehow equivalent and ‘equally painful’ for both sides. For Israel, the big concession is to give up the claim to total sovereignty over occupied east Jerusalem. For the Palestinians it is to give up the right of return for the refugees ethnically cleansed in 1948.

In reality there is not the remotest equivalence. In Jerusalem, Israel is not giving up something real. It is simply admitting that the strategy of attempting forcibly to swallow what does not belong to it has in large part–but not completely–failed. Other means must now be employed. Haaretz put this reality best in its editorial yesterday:

“The proposed solution for Jerusalem is determined by the current reality in the situation on the ground in the city. From this point of view, Jerusalem is no different from all the rest of the territories that Israel brought under its control during the Six-Day War in 1967. The accumulated experience of the last 33 years leads one to an unequivocal conclusion: Aside from the ethical quandary in which Israel found itself as a result of the experience of occupation, it simply failed to turn the conquered territories into Israeli ones. Demographics, diplomatic conditions and psychological reasons resulted in the failure of Israel’s ambition to annex – if not legally, then practically – the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. The occupied territories remained Palestinian for the most part, and this fundamental fact dictates the need for an agreement, and also its nature.” (Haaretz, December 26, 2000)

The ‘American’ ideas for Jerusalem, however unsatisfactory they may be for Israel, do preserve what Israel wants most: access to Jerusalem’s Jewish holy sites, and a recognized presence within the walls of the Old City. The biggest gain is that the vast settlements housing nearly 200,000 Israeli settlers, which Israel illegaly built on confiscated land in and around east Jerusalem since 1967 would remain in place, most likely under full Israeli sovereignty. This is a substantial gain which Haaretz does not fully acknowledge, and represents a major success for Israel’s policy of creating ‘facts on the ground.’ So the pain of Israel’s ‘concessions,’ such as they are is almost purely psychological and political. Practically, Israel will retain most of what it seized in 1967. The genius is to label these conquests as concessions.

But for the Palestinians, giving up the right of return–if it could be done–would be an enormous, real concession with catastrophic implications for millions of people who constitute half the Palestinian nation. I say ‘if it could be done’ because international jurisprudence is very clear that the right of return is an individual human right, just like the right to freedom of religion and the safety and sanctity of the human person. No political authority or government can purport to sign away its subjects’ human rights.

This brings us to the third and final fiction on which the plot depends: that despite the fact that the Palestinians overwhelmingly reject efforts to cancel the right of return, somewhow an agreement can be reached along the lines proposed, that it will be accepted, recognized and enforced. Here, the American and Israeli strategy appears to still depend on putting maximum pressure on Yasir Arafat. His dwindling and discredited rule is the crumbling pedestal on which all their hopes rest. This is what they tried at Camp David, and it backfired with disasterous consequences. Nothing, apparently has been learned. Arafat is if anything in an even weaker position to make the demanded concessions than he was before the Intifada began. Palestinians are less likely to accept a sell out of their rights now that three hundred more martyrs have been added to the rolls of the thousands who have died resisting the occupation.

How will this be handled? Most likely in the same familiar and discredited ways of the past: a summit in Sharm Al-Sheikh is already planned. President Mubarak will be there to put pressure on Arafat to be ‘reasonable.’ The Jordanians may be invited along as stage decoration.

And if the media is a guide, the strategy will continue to be to ignore the Palestinian refugees as an inconvenience, and as spoilers, rather than as human beings against whom an enormous injustice has been committed and whose rights must be restored in order for there to be peace and reconciliation. Take for example this sentence from the Associated Press which typically sums up the attitude: “Now, the nearly 4 million Palestinian refugees — whose families fled or were driven from their homes during Israel’s 1948 war of independence and subsequent fighting — may prove the single biggest obstacle to a U.S.-proposed peace accord being weighed by leaders on both sides.” (December 27)

“Peace” is not to be made FOR these people–the principal victims of the conflict–but DESPITE them and AGAINST them. They are in the end just an “obstacle.”

Or how about The New York Times which says of the refugees: “Mr. Arafat has always promised these people, unrealistically, that they would be able to return to their ancestral homes after a peace agreement. Israeli leaders understandably oppose the demographic shift this would entail, which would threaten Israel’s character as a Jewish state.” (December 27).

Of course it is not Mr. Arafat who has made the “unrealistic promises.” It is international law, the United Nations and decades of declarations by world leaders that have assured the refugees of their right to return not to their ‘ancestral homes’ as the New York Times disingenuously puts it but to their own homes. But these are mere details which must be swept away in the rush to get an agreement. If these views are reflective of official US thinking (usually a safe assumption), then the signs are not good. As long as Israel’s illegal and unreasonable demands are treated as equal to Palestinians’ fundamental rights, the prospects of peace are slim indeed–and receding fast.

But perhaps on second thoughts the Palestinian people are the “obstacle.” Yes, they are an obstacle to peace just like the bride at a forced wedding is an obstacle to the happy marriage that everyone else has decreed for her and are impatiently waiting to celebrate despite her tears and protests.

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