By Ben White
They are a rare breed, but you can still find them, in positions of political power and newspaper opinion pages. Their motives are mixed, but they have one thing in common; they are optimistic about the Israeli-Palestinian Annapolis peace process. For some, their job requires them to paint a rosy picture about the international community’s ‘peace process’. For others, there is a blind naivety that perhaps this time, the speeches and announcements might actually amount to a positive change. Some of these optimists, desperate to protect Israel from critique and sanction, are compelled to suggest the ‘two sides’ are on the verge of a ‘breakthrough compromise’.
Last week, there was an instructive lesson about the role of the international community (i.e. the US and the Quartet) in the peace process, as Israel celebrated 60 years of statehood and the Palestinians marked the Nakba. President Bush and Quartet Envoy Tony Blair both spoke publicly in Israel, the former in the Knesset, and the latter in less-trumpeted remarks to the media. By holding up the two together, a way of understanding the current peace process emerges.
Bush’s speech to the Knesset was noted for its controversial one-sidedness, though it was not condemned, despite the fact that it amounted to a denial of the Palestinian people’s existence. The address was like a 101 in Zionist propaganda (and this is not a comprehensive list):
• The Jewish people’s ‘return’ to the Promised Land – “[Israel’s independence] was the redemption of an ancient promise given to Abraham and Moses and David – a homeland for the chosen people Eretz Yisrael”
• Israel has “worked tirelessly for peace.”
• Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East – “You have welcomed immigrants from the four corners of the Earth*. You have forged a free and modern society based on the love of liberty, a passion for justice, and a respect for human dignity.”
*Though ironically, not if they are Arab and actually from Palestine.
• Israel made the desert bloom and has constantly had to fight for its life against a hoard of horrible Arabs (two myths in one here) – “And when waves of refugees arrived here in the desert with nothing, surrounded by hostile armies, it was almost unimaginable that Israel would grow into one of the freest and most successful nations on the earth.
For good measure, Bush also repeated the Israeli nationalist mantra that “Masada shall never fall again”, and praised Ariel Sharon as “one of Israel’s greatest leaders”, “a warrior for the ages, a man of peace” and “a friend”. Here then was the heart of a president some have felt able to trust the peace process with, the ‘honest broker’ who is able to gently chide the Israelis into making painful compromises.
A Ha’aretz report on the speech noted that “after the speech made by German Chancellor Angela Merkel to the Knesset in March, it was hard to expect a more pro-Zionist speech.” Yet former Knesset speaker MK Reuven Rivlin was quoted as saying “I wish our leaders would make speeches like this”, National Union MK Zvi Hendel called on Olmert “to learn from the president of the United States what Zionism is”, while MK Aryeh Eldad apparently “proposed that Bush should replace Olmert”.
What made this speech particularly disturbing was that it was delivered on Nakba Day, the day when Palestinians remember the ethnic cleansing and dispossession that began in 1948 and has continued ever since. Pointedly, while the international media did a surprisingly good job in many cases of discussing the Nakba, the UN Secretary General was jumped on when his spokesperson used the term in a briefing, since it is “unacceptable to Israel” and “part of the Palestinian propaganda.”
The term Nakba also seemingly proved unacceptable to the US and UK leaders, calling to mind Ali Abunimah’s point that “if one is not prepared to openly justify ethnic cleansing”, then one of your options is “to deny history and take comfort in an airbrushed story that paints Israelis as brave, divinely inspired pioneers in a desert devoid of indigenous people and beset by external enemies.”
Much less remarked upon than Bush’s address, though actually almost as bad, was UK PM Gordon Brown’s address a week before at a London synagogue. Brown described Israel as “one of the greatest achievements of the 20th Century”, its founding ““the realisation of a dream that was first hoped for and prayed for thousands of years ago” and “built in sacrifice and suffering and struggle”.
Brown urged his hearers to celebrate a country “that even people, thousands of miles away in the remotest corners of the world, think of as home”. Again, like Bush’s unintentional irony, the Palestinian refugees are excluded from this vision of exilic longing. The speech was interesting for how Brown shared the Christian Zionist roots of his support for Israel. Talking of his ordained father, Brown described how:
“his interest in Israel meant that much of my early life revolved around the history of this ancient and modern land and its people…And even today I can remember his exact words and sometimes look at a map to test myself on the geography of Israel that he so vividly described to me as I was growing up.”
But Brown also went on to endorse the Annapolis “political process” which he claimed “now presents us with a real opportunity to move forward”. Acknowledging this would not be easy, Brown said the British government’s main support for the political roadmap will be through financing “an economic roadmap that will reduce unemployment, build new industries, guarantee a viable economic future for the Palestinian people”.
Enter Envoy Blair. On Nakba Day, Blair spoke to The Jerusalem Post, outlining his latest plans for the West Bank. One of its primary components is the deployment of newly trained Palestinian police in the Jenin governorate, the goal of which is “to create a situation in the Jenin area…where Israel could come to rely on the Palestinian Authority’s security capacity”.
This is a development worth focussing on, since it is a model Blair explicitly hopes will be emulated across the West Bank. Earlier that week, Ha’aretz had explained more:
“The plan calls for full Palestinian control from 6 A.M. to midnight and joint control with the Israelis during the night. Israel will still be able to enter Jenin and its environs to act against ‘ticking bombs,’ that is, someone who has knowledge of a terror attack to be carried out. In other cases, Israel will transfer the names of wanted men to the PA security forces, and if the PA forces do not arrest those wanted, the IDF will be able to do so.”
In other words, while hopefully providing a genuinely welcome improvement in law and order, a primary role of this new PA force is as security contractor for the Israelis. Should the Palestinian police fail to obey their orders, the Israeli army will retain the right to invade Palestinian areas as and when it deems it necessary based on criteria it alone defines.
Other Blair-inspired plans include the creation of new ‘industrial zones’, part of the same emphasis on the Palestinian economy that led to the Palestine Investment Conference held this week in Bethlehem. The Quartet’s Envoy has at least done his own part in stimulating the local economy, indefinitely booking over an entire floor of Jerusalem’s American Colony Hotel at an annual cost of $1.34million.
Hanan Ashrawi deservedly described Blair as living “in a fantasy world”, perhaps in part for considering phrases like “credibility threshold” to be appropriate for a colonial occupation. But studying his statements, as well as those made by the likes of Rice, Israeli ministers, and other Quartet figures, a vision of the ‘two state solution’ has emerged.
The ‘two state solution’ sees Israel annex a good chunk of the West Bank, including around Jerusalem, the major colonies, and a ‘security buffer zone’ in the Jordan Valley. ‘Palestine’ is at least three though probably more, territorially fragmented cantons (including the Gaza Strip), with no meaningful sovereignty in Jerusalem. Inside ‘Palestine’, the Israeli army acts at will, when their partners in the PA are not sufficiently co-operative in snuffing out any resistance.
Behind the Wall, Palestinians are expected to be good little natives, too worried about keeping that job in the industrial zone, or holding on to a travel permit, to think about challenging their lot. There is nothing here to disturb Bush’s vision of a Jewish Promised Land, or Blair’s passion for vacuous ‘confidence building’. The Nakba fades into history, the ‘extremists’ sidelined.
Perhaps the most ‘fantastical’ aspect of this picture is to think that the Palestinians would accept it. As I write this, there is a report that Mahmoud Abbas himself, a man who has staked his political power and reputation on getting something for his people from the negotiations (the most generous interpretation), is ready to declare the current round of ‘negotiations’ a failure.
Optimism about the ‘peace process’ has always required a combination of wilful ignorance about the reality in the Occupied Territories and stated Israeli intentions, and a refusal to recognise the extent to which the international community is acting in bad faith. Perhaps last week will make it that bit harder to proclaim faith in the Annapolis charade.
-Ben White is a freelance journalist specializing in Palestine/Israel. His website is at www.benwhite.org.uk. He contributed this article to PalestineChronicle.com.