By Hasan Afif El-Hasan
The two day-Arab League summit meeting held in Damascus last March called on Israel to accept the Arab land-for-peace initiative that had been offered by Saudi Arabia in 2002 to solve the Arab-Israeli conflict, and had been rejected by then Israeli PM Ariel Sharon and ignored by the US. The Arab leaders sent a warning, that they would review the six years old peace offer unless Israel changes its behavior, without stating when such a review would take place and what would be the plan of action should Israel continues to ignore their offer. But, most disappointing was the absence of any reference to the present conditions of the 1.5 million Gazans and the rift between Fatah and Hamas.
The statement read by the League chief Amr Mousa did not mention how to deal with the siege of Gaza, the suffering of the Palestinians in the West Bank and the fate of the refugees languishing in the camps across the Middle East. The leaders ignored the disastrous humanitarian situation inflicted on the Palestinian population in Gaza by Israel as a collective punishment in response to the firing of Qassam rockets by militants. While the foreign news media and the Palestinian people treated the summit as a non-event gathering, it was Condoleezza Rice who stole the limelight by securing an Israeli pledge to remove a small number of the more than five-hundred roadblocks in the West Bank, although it is doubtful that Israel will fulfill its pledge. The Israelis rejected the Arab land-for-peace initiative before and they will reject it again because they have unqualified support of the US and many European states.
In a speech delivered to a special session of the Israeli parliament, Germany’s Chancellor Angel Merkel pledged the support of Germany to Israel and promised that her country stands by Israel against any threat. She said “The threat to Israel is threat to Germany”. And she showed no interest to understand the plight of the Palestinians when she visited Ramallah in April 2007. During that visit, Merkel focused in her talks with Abbas on the need to release the kidnapped Israeli soldier but refused to acknowledge that Israel had more than 11,000 Palestinian prisoners including women and underage children. She refused to have a close look at the separation wall that had been built by Israel on Palestinian lands, and see its impact on the daily life of Bethlehem area residents. The French President Nicolas Sarkozy is no less supportive of Israel.
Speaking before 1000 people at an annual event hosted by the Representative Council of Jewish Organizations in France, Sarkozy said: "France will always be at Israel's side," "I would not meet with, I would not shake the hand of people who refuse to recognize Israel".
Not to be out-committed to Israel by other leaders, the presumptuous Republican nominee for president, Senator John McCain, accompanied by Senators Joe Lieberman and Lindsey Graham expressed solidarity with Israel during his visit to Jordan and Israel. He repeated the standard Israeli battle-cry to reporters in Amman-Jordan that Jerusalem should remain the eternal undivided capital of Israel. In his address to the 2007 National Convention of Christians United for Israel, McCain said “To be proudly pro-American and pro-Israeli is not to hold conflicting loyalties. It is about defending the principles that both countries hold dear”.
Barak Obama and Hillary Clinton, the US Democratic Party candidates for president, are among the strongest supporters of Israel. They took the time during their election campaigns to declare their support to Israel’s military attacks against Gaza that killed more than 120 and injured hundreds more including women and children. They referred to the military operation in Gaza as a legitimate and necessary action for Israel’s self-defense and security.
Two days after March 2008 McCain trip to Israel, the US Vice President Dick Cheney paid a three-day visit to Israel and the Palestinian territories hoping to revive the US-brokered peace talks. He delivered speeches affirming America’s “enduring and unshakable” commitment to Israel’s security. He stated what everybody knows that since the US recognized Israel 11 minutes after it declared independence in 1948, the two countries had been more than allies, "special friends" bound together by unique ties of history, culture, religion and memory." As for the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, he declared that "It is not America's role to dictate the outcome, but we [the US] will help in the negotiations, provide all the support and encouragement we can. We want a resolution to the conflict, an end to the terrorism that has caused so much grief to Israelis”. No mention of the grieving Palestinians under occupation. No recognition that for every Israeli casualty, the Palestinians suffered more than one hundred at the hands of their occupiers. Cheney offered Abbas and Fayyad “America’s good will in this [negotiations] process”. But the US good will does not include approval of peace and reconciliation between Palestinian factions. He adopted the same Israeli position, disapproving of Palestinian unity and accusing Hamas of hindering the peace process and impeding the "realization of Palestinian statehood". Israel has warned Abbas that reconciliation with the Islamic movement would mean an end to the peace talks that have so far failed to yield any genuine results.
While pushing for peace talks, Condoleezza Rice vowed to defend Israel. She said “All Israelis should be confident that America is fully behind you, that we are fully committed to your security”. Security of Israel is defined by Israeli policy makers as colonizing what is left of Palestinian land, constructing Jewish only roads, building separation wall in Palestinian lands, maintaining hundreds of roadblocks and checkpoints, keeping more than 11,000 Palestinians behind bars, assassination of Palestinian nationalists who resist occupation, denying the right of return to the refugees and starving whole population for not recognizing their oppressors.
Germany, France, the US and many other European countries are committed to the security of Israel because of many stated reasons including ties of history, culture, religion and the memory of anti-Semitism. Nations have the right to choose their friends and allies and defend them, but who is committed to the security of the Palestinians? No regime is seriously committed to their defense, not because of lack of history ties, culture or religion to other nations. Some of the nations that share with the Palestinians everything except the flag are across the borders, and others control oil, world’s most needed commodity. But the Palestinians have the misfortune of having their strongest ties with ken that have no real power or unwilling to use their power to influence the policies of Israel and its supporters. Arab regimes of consequence are either committed to treaties that insure the security of Israel or they are too dependent on the US for protection and survival.
Egypt and Jordan had signed separate peace agreements with Israel and the PLO leaders signed the Oslo agreement and its subsequent phases that left Israel in control of the occupied lands. With no one to defend them, the Palestinian people, under occupation, besieged, impoverished and suffering from widespread physical and food insecurity are left to fend for themselves. The Palestinians aspire in the short run for physical security and normal life with no harassment, humiliation and travel restrictions by the occupation military. And in the political endgame, they yearn for an end to the Israeli occupation nightmare.
Many commentators and governing elites in Egypt, the country that administered Gaza from 1948 until its surrender to Israel in 1967 and has the strongest ties to its besieged population referred to the Palestinians as invaders and worse when they had to cross the border into Egypt to buy food for their starved families. Here we should differentiate between the Egyptian people who support the Palestinians whole heartedly and the government that has traded its role as a defender of the Palestinians to a defender of the status quo and sometimes ineffective mediator. The Egyptian foreign minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit threatened to break the legs of the Gazans if they cross the borders illegally again, even if there is no legal way for them to cross the borders.
Immediately after Hamas seized control of Gaza strip, Egypt called for a four-way Middle East summit to arrange for "peace talks!” to be held in the Red Sea resort of Sharm El Sheikh on June 25, 2007. The meeting was attended by Mahmoud Abbas, King Abdullah II of Jordan, Ehud Olmert of Israel and Husni Mubarak of Egypt. Strangely enough, the announced purpose of the summit was to reactivate the peace process. But holding the conference with the participation of Israel only one week after the fall of Gaza into Hamas hands would focus on how to contain Hamas and strengthen Abbas personally. The summit did not strengthen Abbas as a national leader in his talk with Olmert because it was convened at the time when he was most vulnerable. It was mainly to review how Israel would reward Abbas for overthrowing Hamas democratically elected government rather than to discuss resumption of peace talk.
Olmert was not expected to stop building the separation wall or the expansion of settlements. He did not agree to start political negotiations on the final settlement of the conflict. But he agreed to transfer millions of dollars to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas' new government. The money, part of the Palestinian tax revenues is intended to bolster Abbas standing among the Palestinians. Olmert referred to the Palestinians as either terrorists or moderates. He told a joint news conference with the three Arab leaders that he would work with "moderates" like Abbas against terrorists [read Hamas] to secure peace in the Middle East. Instead of trying to mediate between Fatah and Hamas, the three Arab leaders, in effect, asked Israel to take the advantage of the Palestinians’ weakness and fill the vacuum created by the rift between the Palestinian factions.
The present conditions of the Palestinians are rooted in the post-Oslo agreements that left Israel in control of their lives. The agreements have already prejudiced the likely outcome because they did not treat Israel as an occupier and left the core of the issues to be considered at the final stage. Three reasons weaken the Palestinians as negotiators to day. Arab nations are too weak or unwilling to extract concessions from Israel. The Palestinians enter the final negotiations as two tribes at odds with each other rather than one people, and the negotiating tribe is beholden to Israel. And the third reason is the negotiators are the same people who proved their incompetence when they negotiated the Oslo agreements.
A new strategy is necessary to improve the chances of any semblance of success. The Palestinians have to reconcile their differences and act as one people, and Arab nations must stop the rhetoric and get serious about their support to the Palestinians. And a new negotiating team stocked with experts and facts should be assembled to deal with the complexities of negotiating with the Israelis who have been preparing to absorb most of the occupied land into Israel since 1967 and may be before. .
The Palestinians and the Arabs may think about the realist theorist Kenneth Waltz statement that “those who do not help themselves, or who do so less effectively than others, will fail to prosper, will lay themselves open to dangers, will suffer”.
-Born in Nablus, Palestine, Hasan Afif El-Hasan, Ph.D, is a political analyst. He contributed this article to PalestineChronicle.com.