The Palestinian Gentlemen: Peace Process in Style

By Seraj Assi

This is the tenth anniversary of the Second Intifada, which broke out in Palestinian cities and villages in late September 2000 unmasking the myth of the peace process in the region. So it is perhaps an opportune time to reflect on the gentlemanly approach implemented by PA “peacemakers” for nearly two decades, while they celebrate the renewal of “direct talks” in Washington now.

A quick look at the map of the region today shows expanding Israeli settlement infrastructures, institutions, universities and museums. One finds the apartheid wall, bypass roads, and fixed and flying checkpoints that continue to cut off Palestinian cities and villages from each other and render the lives of the Palestinian people unbearable. These realities not only reveals the absurdity of Israel’s claim of peace, but clearly illustrate how the so-called “peace process” has accelerated the dispossession of the Palestinian people and institutionalized Israel’s control over the lives of millions of Palestinians.

Perhaps this explains how “peacemaking” has become a euphemism to “occupation” in today’s Palestine. Indeed, it was during the decade of negotiations between Palestinian and Israeli “peacemakers,” from 1991 to 2001, that the number of Israeli settlers in the occupied Palestinian territories doubled. And it is during the current negotiations that the Jewish settler population in the occupied territories continues to multiply at a rate three times greater than that of Israel’s population. It was within the absurdity of the negotiation process that Palestinians were restrained from negotiation for an end to the Israeli occupation while Israel was reinforcing it. In the end, the “peace process” has reinforced the Israeli occupation in new forms and made the idea of a sovereign Palestinian state impossible.

The PA’s gentlemanly approach has reduced the Palestinian struggle for statehood to the realm of negotiations. It is due to this approach that all forms of resistance were allowed to atrophy into feel-good political theatre and photo opportunities for the media. Meanwhile, Palestinian “gentlemen” continue to negotiate as if they were representatives of the Palestinian people, as if Gaza were not part of Palestine, as if the West Bank were all of Palestine, and as if West Bankers were all of the Palestinians.

It is no secret that the practical purpose for these negotiations is to lighten the moral and political burden of the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories. The Palestinian Authority itself was created to this end. Clearly its initial mission, as it was chiefly designed by Oslo architectures, was to administer the occupation of the West Bank on behalf of Israel. Instead of embarking upon new campaigns, strategies and forms of resistance to achieve what they consider to be their natural entitlements, PA “gentlemen” continue to assure their official Israeli interlocutors that they are working to calm their fellow people.

It is not surprising then that PA leadership has entirely embraced the Israeli formula of peace and its founding narratives (though they were never accepted by Israel). Nor it is surprising to hear the Chief Palestinian Negotiator Saeb Erekat telling the Jerusalem Post that the aim of the peace process is “to end the Israeli occupation that began in 1967." The implication of the 1967 formula undermines any chance of a genuine solution for the Palestinian question. For when it systematically excludes the context and dislocations of 1948, the starting point of the refugee question, the elimination of the right of return will naturally follow.

Here lies the bitter irony of the Palestinian situation. For after having already achieved their exclusive right of return, thanks to the Oslo accords, PA leaders have reduced the “right of return” of millions of Palestinians to what they came to call “a just solution for the refugee problem.” Of course, any “just solution” that does not fit into the Israeli formula of “justice” will be excluded.

The inherent fallacy in the idea of “peace process” is that it forces us to think of the relations between the occupier and the occupied in symmetrical terms. No wonder Western mainstream media reports on Middle East peace are taken with this “conflict terminology”. Yet it is commonplace that an occupying power, by its very nature, rejects any genuine reconciliation. To be sure, “peacemaking” is nothing but a practical formula by which an occupying state can sustain a sense of legitimacy, while reinforcing its oppressive structures and practices. It is then a mistake to think that the failure to achieve a genuine peace between Israel and the Palestinians supports the Israeli project. It is the Israeli project.

Yet PA leaders continue to play the role of the gentlemanly negotiators and the caricaturist role of “statesmen” without a state. Here precisely lies the absurdity of the Palestinian situation. For any withdrawal from the negotiation process with Israel would simply mean that PA “gentlemen” might lose their status as a privileged minority among their impoverished society and be forced to return their VIP cards, which were shrewdly granted by Israel to insulate them from the lot of the common people. This absurd situation on the part of the Palestinian leadership is perhaps the most crippling burden of Oslo’s baleful legacy.

In today’s Palestine, when “state” and “sovereignty” have become empty phrases, it is becoming more and more obvious that without justice there will be no peace. Indeed, those who still think that all that Palestinians need today is a state are greatly misled. What Palestinians simply need today are basic human rights. These include the right to end the occupation, the right of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes from which they were expelled, and the rights of free movement, access to education, water and natural resources.

Perhaps this explains why “peace” has become an empty phrase for many Palestinians. It also sheds light on the growing disenchantment with the two-state solution among many in the region; indeed, the one-state formula has become a reality on the ground and not an alternative option. One does not have to dig very deeply in order to realize that the fight for a two-state solution became obsolete and irreversible long ago. It is no secret then that Israel’s deepening obsession with “tailoring” a quick “peace agreement” with the Palestinians is grounded in the realization that the one-state reality is underway and that the demographic balance in historical Palestine is tilting against it—in other words, Israel realizes that the Zionist dream is at stake.

The Palestinian disenchantment with the “peace process” not only reveals the futility of the approach employed by the PA “gentlemen” to achieve an independent state, but the bankruptcy of the Palestinian leadership and its inability to agree on appropriate strategies, to mobilize and organize the people effectively and to break decisively with the structures of the Israeli occupation.

The scene of the current “direct talks” between Israelis and Palestinians gathering in Washington is like a staged reality show: everyone knows it is not real, yet everyone acts as if it were real. One just needs to listen to Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s speech at the U.N. on September 28 in order to realize what peace has come to mean to Israel and what the Israeli vision of a future Palestinian state is.

Palestinian “gentlemen” need to go home and redefine the meaning of politics, the meaning of leadership and the meaning of peace itself. They need to urgently discuss strategies of resistance to the brutal occupation, the increasing expansion of Jewish settlements in Palestinian lands, and Israel’s total control over the lives of the Palestinian people. We are running out of time. Even as we speak, the circle of the apartheid regime in Palestine is closing in and the ghosts of transfer are lingering on.

Palestinians must break sharply with the catastrophic Oslo agreements and admit that the gentlemanly tradition has run its course. Palestinians must start over.

(Note: The absurdity of the “peace process” is best discussed in Rashid Khalidi’s The Iron Cage, as well as Saree Makdisi’s Palestine Inside Out.)

– Seraj Assi is a PhD candidate in Arabic and Islamic Studies at Georgetown University, Washington, DC. He contributed this article to PalestineChronicle.com.

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