Ali Jarbawi: Losing our Compass

By Ali Jarbawi

Not much substance is left in the term "Middle East peace process" even as the mantra of the urgent need to revive it is heard again and again. The mantra is futile; it collides with the realities among the players involved. Any "revival" of the peace process at this stage will remain at a purely superficial level. Nevertheless, the process must be revived, not in order to reach a conclusion but purely as a means to administer this difficult crisis for the time being.

No observer of the internal Palestinian situation expects the Palestinian side to come up with any initiative in the foreseeable future that can test the seriousness of Israel and the United States in terms of a substantial political settlement. For the time being, Palestinians are drowning in a bitter internal struggle between Fateh and Hamas. This struggle has reached a point where there is fighting in the streets. If these parties do not reach an understanding quickly, it can spiral into a fierce civil war. In such a situation, any talk of a political settlement will be nothing more than words.

One of the most significant reasons for this internal Palestinian crisis is in fact the failure of the political process, which dragged on for 15 years with no result. The failure of negotiations is also one of the main reasons why Hamas won the Legislative Council elections. It’s not that Palestinians don’t want a settlement. On the contrary, they wagered everything on a negotiated solution with Israel for an end to occupation, their own state and a resolution to the refugee issue. Their situation only worsened as it became clear neither Israel nor the US was offering this.

Right now, the Palestinian political arena has lost its compass. Those who support a negotiated settlement are incapable of achieving it and those opposing a political process are incapable of waging a resistance that can bring about an end to the occupation. The result is that an internal struggle has erupted between Fateh and Hamas. With no political horizon for either party promising an end to occupation, the struggle has become one over an authority created in the shadow of occupation.

This struggle can be expected to continue, sometimes intensifying. At other times waning. Instead of presenting a unified front to confront Israel and the international community–a front that clearly states that Palestinians want a negotiated settlement, but only one that ensures their rights and falls within a certain time limit and without which there can be no process–Palestinians have chosen internal strife. As such, the Palestinian side has squandered any remaining possibility of affecting the course of diplomacy, and like a feather in the wind is being buffered first this way then that by the whims of Israel, the regional powers and the international community. The most that can be hoped from the Palestinian side is that the clashing parties agree to keep their warring to a minimum.

At the same time, the political situation in Israel is not much different, at least in terms of losing its compass regarding the Palestinian situation. The Olmert government has been left hamstrung after its failure in the war on Lebanon and with soldiers in captivity in both Gaza and Lebanon. Tensions within the coalition parties are increasing as are tensions between ministries. In addition, government rocked by various internal scandals and charges of corruption lost its main political platform when it abandoned thoughts of a unilateral withdrawal from parts of the West

Hence, Ehud Olmert’s primary concern now is simply to preserve his government, while continuing the large-scale military operation in the Gaza Strip. There is no clear vision to push forward a political process, assuming, of course, that Israel is interested in such a process. Considering the continued expansion of settlements and construction of the separation wall in the West Bank, that is far from clear.

If the two parties themselves are incapable of reviving a political process and giving it the substance and momentum it needs, then effective and urgent external intervention is necessary. But for all the current international attention, tours of the region and statements reaffirming the need to find a solution to the conflict, the international will to reactivate the political process is still clearly absent. The United States, which owns the issue internationally, is dealing with it as it has always done, purely from an Israeli perspective. In this Washington is being followed by a long train of compliant countries.

In short, there is no prospect for a revival of any political process at the moment.

-Ali Jarbawi is a professor of political science at Birzeit University.

© BitterLemons, October 16, 2006

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