Sonja Karkar: The Deadly Dance for Peace

By Sonja Karkar
Special to PalestineChronicle.com

With the beating of war drums sounding louder by the day, the US is nevertheless engaging its Middle East protagonists in an elaborate dance for peace that it hopes will resolve the Israel/Palestine conflict after a November summit. But, in all the flurry of preliminary talks intended to establish a joint statement of principles, Israel is showing no signs of good faith. This leaves the Palestinian negotiators as unequal as ever in their desire to be partners for peace.

History should give everyone pause to reflect. Past peace talks have never amounted to anything and there is nothing to suggest that this summit will achieve anything either. One has only to recall the failures of Oslo, Camp David, Taba, the Saudi Peace Plan, the Road Map and the Geneva Accord. Yet, the Palestinians are again allowing themselves to be swept up in the diplomatic contredanse, with America confidently waving on the show.

Although a seasoned performer, the efforts of the US as interlocutor have never been balanced, and without an unbiased third party mediator, these talks have no chance of success. In fact, everything has been so stage-managed that by the time the summit comes around, we will probably already know what we know now – that peace without justice can never work.

To complicate matters further, a majority of Israelis believe the US has no right to determine the concessions that either side may have to make in reaching an agreement.[1] The bone of contention for Israelis is the fate of Jerusalem which they believe belongs to them, despite its international status and despite the overwhelming number of Palestinian neighbourhoods in East Jerusalem that Israel illegally annexed after the 1967 War.

If the peace conference fails, the festering frustrations built up in the fourteen years of zero-advances since Oslo, may well spill over inciting a third intifada, which in turn could blow out Middle East tensions already at boiling point. Some would regard this as part of the “constructive chaos” based on Sunni-Shia divisions planned for by US neo-cons – otherwise known as the “discord” model long used by Israel to divide and rule [2] – and used by the US to devastating effect in Iraq.

Certainly, a US war on Iran requires Arab “Sunni” support to counterbalance what the US posits as the Iranian “Shia” threat. But, the US knows that as long as the Palestine question remains unresolved, it would be almost impossible to get the populace of any of the Arab countries to provide that support. Hence, the talk about mass aid and “institution-building” in Palestine that might pacify the people enough to allow Arab states to normalise their relations with Israel and then make them more amenable to an eventual strike on Iran. This though is no solution to the dangerous issues of our time and of no honourable benefit to the Palestinians.

All in all, the current moves towards peace are looking very much like the empty promises US President George W Bush made about a Palestinian state in 2001 in the hope that those promises would draw Arab public opinion into his anti-terrorism coalition. If that were indeed the case, a third intifada would be more than likely. No doubt Israel would again announce that it has no partner for peace and with US backing would move very quickly to try and quell such an uprising. However, it would not win the hearts and minds of the Arab populations. While it might put paid to US plans for an Arab-Iranian conflict, who knows what other conflagration not imagined in the neo-con “constructive chaos” scenario, might be ignited if Israel’s deputy prime minister Avigdor Liebermann has his way and packs Palestinians onto buses for collective transfer out of East Jerusalem. [3] Such incendiary ideas should spur on the parties to negotiate a fair settlement of all the issues before any racist “solutions” take hold.

But so far, there has been very little movement in the preliminary talks: Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas says “our demand is an independent, viable, Palestinian state in all of the occupied territories since 1967”[4] and Israel’s Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni says that she does not want expectations to leap ahead of developments on the ground because without “realistic” goals anything more ambitious is doomed to fail.[5]

The developments of which Livni speaks should in fact stop the preliminary peace dalliances in their tracks: no checkpoints have been dismantled as promised, and instead, dozens more have been erected [6]; no illegal settlement outposts have been evacuated as promised, but more are being built and others expanded. As for Jerusalem, nothing has been promised, but Israel is doing everything to take it all from the Palestinians and turn it into a Jewish-only city. This will also make impossible the refugees’ right of return to their former homes.

It is quite clear that Israeli Prime Minister Olmert is provocatively creating obstructive moves that require Abbas to side-step as he tries to keep this dance for peace moving forward with US help. Past experience ought to put the Palestinians on high alert: the issues are not new, they are not complicated and it is high time that they are re-visited before the summit begins.

On Israel’s Settlement Enterprise

There is no doubt that Israel has been intent on appropriating as much land as possible before it is forced to compromise on a peace deal that might define its final borders. In effect, the peace process will give legitimacy to the 9.5 per cent of West Bank land that Israel has stolen from the Palestinians. What is not much talked about is some 30 per cent of prime agricultural land in the Jordan Valley which Israel has annexed for a border with Jordan.

These illegal expropriations have changed the contours of the 1949 armistice line that define the Palestinian territories occupied since 1967. None of these land grabs have received condemnation from the US. Instead, in a letter to the then Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon, President Bush said that “it is unrealistic to expect that the outcome of final status negotiations will be a full and complete return to the armistice lines of 1949 . . .” [7] In other words, Israel’s expropriations should be considered a fait accompli and leave the Palestinians with only 55 per cent of the West Bank. Once the Wall is completed, and taking into account the military buffer zones around the Israeli settlements, the restricted reservation areas, the security checkpoints, and all the Israeli-only roads, the land left to the Palestinians (including Gaza) will be much less than 12 per cent of their original homeland, Palestine.

This much we know from former Israeli Foreign Minister Shlomo Ben-Ami: in 1998, he said that “the Oslo agreements were founded on a neo-colonialist basis, on a life of dependence of one on the other forever”. [8] As clearly emerged after Camp David in 2000, that dependence has been steadily advancing towards an apartheid situation with illegal settlement building separating one Palestinian enclave or bantustan from another. And, no one seems to think it odd that Israel continues building those illegal settlements while the world still dances to the tune of a two state solution on land that has almost all been appropriated by Israel and is politically, economically and socially unworkable.

When Olmert began his prime ministerial term, he made a half-hearted attempt to dismantle a few illegal settlements in the West Bank and destroyed nine houses in the Amona outpost. But, this led to such a violent backlash that he quickly backed down. [9] Then he began tinkering at the edges in September by reconvening the ministerial committee set up a year ago to finally look at Israeli attorney Talia Sasson’s report written two years earlier.[10] Her report exposed Israel’s approval of new settlements on privately-owned Palestinian land in violation of its own decisions and regulations, and Sasson had specifically concluded, that no new law was needed to evacuate these outposts. Yet rather than acting on the report, the current committee has charged various professionals to come up with new planning and building laws in the settlements and to find explanations for why there are discrepancies in the number of outposts. [11] In the interim, Olmert has made no move to stop settlement building.

Olmert says an agreement of principles must first be reached before the outposts are dismantled, but on his record, ordinary Palestinians would have a hard time believing that he ever intends to evacuate the settlements built in their midst. In fact, the road map peace plan which Olmert invokes to justify a gradual withdrawal, actually obligates Israel to evacuate more than 100 outposts in the first stages of the plan and not later. [12]  To date only 4 of these outposts have been removed in 4 years, while 44 new ones have gone up.

Such machinations to ensure that Israel’s colonial enterprise proceeds are not unusual. When Sharon promised the US administration that he would evacuate every outpost in Gaza and the West Bank, no one noticed that while he was disengaging from Gaza, he was in fact continuing with settlement expansion in the West Bank at a very rapid pace. Now this month, Defence Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer has said that he will close down outposts built without permission, but while he claims to have had about 11 dismantled, [13] settlement building is still going on.

This is why the manoeuvres we are seeing now en route to November’s peace summit are so ludicrous: there can be no Israeli-Palestinian agreement on peace as long as Israel’s settlement enterprise continues and Israel is showing quite blatantly that it has no intention of ending it, especially with the Jerusalem project now in its sights.

On Israel’s Greater Jerusalem Project

Well may Abbas say “we want peace, but not for any price”. [14] Yet, even as he vowed “that there will be no Palestinian state, regardless of its size, without Jerusalem as its capital”, Israel’s army was already seizing some 113 hectares of land from four outer suburbs of occupied East Jerusalem to construct a new Jerusalem-Jericho road for Palestinians, that according to the army will “improve the quality of [their] life”. [15] However, the Palestinians know full well that this is an Israeli subterfuge for edging them out and pushing the boundaries to create a Greater Jerusalem that does not include them.

Israel has been quite open about its intention to take all of Jerusalem and its environs. When Israel unilaterally gave itself sovereignty over the whole of Jerusalem in 1967, it defied international law which regards Jerusalem as occupied. Then Israel set about physically changing the city. In 1994, its push for a Greater Jerusalem began when former Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin ordered the annexation of the controversial E-1 area between Jerusalem and the illegal Israeli settlement Ma’ale Adumim in the Palestinian West Bank which “is almost the last reservoir of land for the Arabs of East Jerusalem” [16] and covers an area of some 53 square kilometers (an 85 per cent increase to the current built-up area of Ma’ale Adumim). [17] Objections came not only from the Palestinians, but also from the international community, particularly the US, but those objections have not stopped Israel from inching towards the E-1 plan ever since.

Israel’s moves on Jerusalem are nakedly confrontational in the current climate of peacemaking. While the new road will give the appearance of connecting the two Palestinian population centres, in reality, Palestinians will find access into and out of Jerusalem city more and more restricted as Israel proceeds with the E-1 plan. The most the Palestinians will get is contiguity through a by-pass road yet to be built: Israel, on the other hand, will gain territorial contiguity between the Israeli settlement Ma’ale Adumim and Jerusalem, rendering any hope of a Palestinian capital in that part of the city – home to the sacred Dome of the Rock –and any hope of the Palestinian refugees returning to the homes they fled temporarily during the outrages of the 1948 war, impossible.

On Palestinian Refugees

If Jerusalem poses a serious stumbling block in the peace negotiations, an even greater one is the refugees’ right of return. President Bush has made it clear that if the refugees are allowed to return it will be to whatever land remains for a future Palestinian state. [18] With a prison-like Bantustan system already in place, the best the Palestinians can hope for is an apartheid situation as Israel locks them in on all sides.

Dr Salman Abu Sitta, the general-coordinator of the Right of Return conference has already warned Abbas of the pitfalls in this latest push for peace, not least Israel’s desire for Palestinians to recognise and accept that it is a “national state for the world’s Jews”, thereby forever precluding the Palestinian refugees’ right to return to their homes. [19]

Dr Sitta’s meticulous and extensive research into the history and location of more than 600 Palestinian villages has convincingly validated the claims of the Palestinian refugees who were mercilessly stripped of their homes and land by Jewish militant gangs in the lead up to, and after the establishment of the state of Israel. After 60 years of eking out a miserable existence in camps with no recognition of their dispossession and their right to return home under international law, these Palestinians continue to sit on the sidelines while others dance around them. They need to be properly heard before any decisions are made that could wipe their existence from the pages of history. It is their legal and inalienable right and is the most vexing of all the problems.

However, irrespective of the difficulties, many Palestinians would be wondering just how Palestinian academic Sari Nusseibeh arrived at the conclusion that they would be prepared to forgo that inalienable right in return for a full Israeli withdrawal to the pre-1967 borders, including east Jerusalem and the Old City. [20] That concession might benefit some Palestinians – and even that is questionable – but it would certainly be at the irreversible expense of the 4 million Palestinians struggling to make sense of their stateless existence in refugee camps. Only with their consent could such a bargain be struck, yet despite all the years of misery and suffering – and then Western cajoling – they steadfastly refuse to accommodate Israel by forfeiting their rights.

International law has long ruled on the matter: Israel’s mass dispossession of some 750,000 Palestinians in 1948 was ethnic cleansing and a war crime. Furthermore, Israel reneged on the conditions for its admission to the UN as a member state: it has not complied with UN resolution 181 accepting the Partition of Palestine or resolution 194 which would allow the Palestinians to return to “their homes”. Instead, Israel has done everything to undermine international law and UN resolutions which have consistently supported the legitimacy of the Palestinians’ right to return to their original homes.

On a Unified Palestinian Voice

While the refugees are largely at one in their determination to uphold their rights, the rest of the Palestinians are in disarray. They have been deliberately and systematically pushed into separate camps. That in itself augurs badly for the peace talks and they will most certainly founder if a deal is brokered with one side and not another.

The rejection of the Palestinians in Gaza – actually the Hamas Government – by their own president has been probably the most shocking development in the whole peace process. Although Abbas seemed to be having second thoughts when he recently admitted on his Asian tour that Hamas is part of the Palestinian people and is needed to secure a future Palestinian statehood. [21] Clearly, uniting the Palestinians has to be a priority if any sense is to emerge from these peace talks and there are signs that others agree.

A bipartisan group of eight former top US policy-makers is urging President Bush to reverse his isolation policy and begin “genuine dialogue” with Hamas. [22] Similarly, the European Union has said that it would lend its support to Abbas “if he reconciled with Hamas”. [23] Only Israel is intent on relentlessly punishing the people in Gaza, or more likely goading the people into firing more rockets into Israel so that it can mount a full-scale invasion. The consequences of that are too horrific to contemplate, and yet, all the signs are there as Israel continues to cut off power and fuel supplies to the already impoverished people.

Equally, it would be iniquitous for Abbas to ignore the precarious existence of Palestinians living in Israel. They should not be left to struggle against Israel’s determination to make all of Israel an exclusively Jewish state. They should not be left to become a sub-class in a racist society nor victims of transfer and ethnic cleansing. They need to be included in an equitable arrangement that will not see them diminished as a people.

Before any decisions are made, the Palestinian Authority (PA) should charge their diplomatic representatives abroad to canvas the opinions of Palestinians living in the Diaspora. They have every right to be involved in the process, particularly in light of the momentous decisions being considered. After all, the rights for which thousands of Palestinians have struggled and lost their lives cannot be relinquished or compromised unless it is with the consensus of all Palestinians. By compartmentalising them into occupied Palestinians, Israeli Palestinians, refugee Palestinians, Diaspora Palestinians and Palestinians in Gaza as if they are somehow each masters of their own destiny, dilutes their historical struggle for justice as one people.

Conclusion

The realities on the ground cannot be avoided. Expending efforts on institutional state-building and economic revival are hardly likely to give people peace when they are having to deal with Israel’s violent intrusions on their lives. Moreover, expectations are higher than any reform initiatives can bring about. If Abbas really wants to deliver on Palestinian hopes for a better future, he must show that he has a commitment to seeing justice done not just paying lip-service to it. Any more concessions from the Palestinian negotiators before final status issues are agreed upon, will end up redefining the conflict, a situation that would be untenable to the Palestinian people.

It is enough that Israel has led the Palestinians in a never-ending tortuous dance of false expectations since Oslo. The only way forward is to ensure, as former UN special coordinator for the Middle East peace process, Alvaro de Soto said, “unity and integrity of third party mediation efforts, and clarity of strategy.”[24]  Unfortunately, there is nothing to suggest that the US will conduct these peace talks seriously and fairly, or that it would allow an independent party to mediate in its place.

And so the peace dance goes on – one shuffle forward and two quick steps back with a lot of swaying from side to side in between. The deadliness of this show is never revealed behind the smiles, the performers hoping the spectacle will be enough to lull everyone into believing that this peace is worth having. It may have worked with Oslo, but onlookers are a lot wiser now. We have yet to see if the participants are too – Palestine’s future depends on it.

Notes

[1] Peace Index Project by the Tami Steinmetz Center for Peace Research and the Evens Program in Mediation and Conflict Resoltion of Tel Aviv University, Angus Reid Global Monitor: Polls & Research, 21 October 2007
[2] “. . . decades of controlling and oppressing Palestinian society allowed Israel to develop a different approach to divide and rule: what might be termed organised chaos, or the "discord" model, one that came to dominate first its thinking and later that of the neocons.” – Jonathan Cook, “End of the Strongmen”, Counterpunch, 19 December 2006
[3] Johann Hari, “Ethnic cleansing returns to Israel’s agenda” The Independent, 13 November 2006
[4] Abbas: “We want peace, but not for any price”, IMEMC, 6 October 2007
[5] “Livni warns Rice: Summit could fail due to unreasonable goals” Haaretz, 2 September 2007, www.haaretz.com/hasen/spages/899709.html
[6] “UN: Israel has added dozens of new roadblocks in West Bank”, Haaretz, 21
[7] President Bush’s letter to former Israeli Prime Minister Sharon of 14 April 2004 was ratified in both Houses of the US Congress.
[8] Shlomo Ben-Ami, “From Oslo to a Lasting Peace,” The Independent (UK), December 7, 1994
[9] Uri Avnery, “A Trap for Fools”, Counterpunch, 23 July 2007
[10] Summary of the Talia Sasson report concerning unauthorised outposts
[11] “Government to decide which outposts illegal”, Ynetnews, 2 September 2007
[12] Testimony by “Peace Now” Director of the Settlements Watch Project before the Near Eastern and South Asian Affairs Subcommittee of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, 15 October 2003
[13] “Israel Begins to Dismantle Unofficial Settler Outposts”, The New York Times, 10 November
[14] “Abbas: We want peace, but not for any price”, IMEMC, 6 October 2007
[15] “Israelis grab more land near East Jerusalem”, Agence France Presse (AFP) 10 October 2007
[16] Akiva Eldar, “Rabin supported it, too”, Haaretz, 9 October 2007
[17] EU Report on East Jerusalem, 28 November 2005
[18] President Bush’s letter to former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon of 14 April 2004.
[19] “Abu Sitta warns of Israeli trap”, The Star, 11-14 October 2007
[20] Khaled Abu Toameh “Nusseibeh: Right of return for withdrawal to ’67 borders” The Jerusalem Post, 29 October 2007
[21] “Abbas confident solution will be found by 2009”, The Jerusalem Post, 22 October 2007
[22] Jim Lobe, “MIDEAST: November talks must be inclusive, urge US greybeards”, IPS, 10 October 2007
[23] Tovah Lazaroff “EU: ‘We’ll back Abbas if Hamas included’”, The Jerusalem Post, 13 October 2007
[24] Rami G Khouri “Critical Clarity from Humanitarians”, Agence Global, 24 October 2007

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