Tuesday, January 25, 2011
Embarrassed by their impotence
“THE principal question for Israelis,” Hussein Agha and Robert Malley write in the latest edition of The New York Review of Books, “is no longer how to resolve the conflict with the Palestinians. It is why and at what cost.”
Their article coincides with revelations, through leaks of secret documents obtained by news network Al Jazeera and shared with The Guardian, that representatives of the Palestinian Authority have in the past decade offered unprecedented concessions to the Israeli side — including the annexation of all but one Jewish settlement in occupied East Jerusalem — that have been spurned by their so-called negotiating partners.
“For 17 years, the peace process has been fuelled by illusions,” Agha and Malley write. “Bilateral negotiations have cultivated the pretence that Israelis and Palestinians are equal parties when they are not. US involvement has fed Palestinian delusions and shielded Israel. The international community’s treatment of the PA as a quasi state has not brought Palestinians closer to statehood. It has deceived Palestinians about what to expect from the world and corrupted their politics.
“Throwing money at the Palestinians has not ended their occupation but made it more palatable: it has reduced Israeli costs and created a Palestinian culture of dependency, diverting Palestinian energy from addressing their predicament to financing it. The illusions helped perpetuate the status quo.”
The status quo has, of course, never been static. With dogged consistency, Israel has over the years been creating ‘facts on the ground’ by establishing and expanding settlements on occupied territory. Such activity is clearly illegal under international law, but that has rarely deterred the policy-makers of what is often described as the only democracy in the Middle East.
But as Avraham Burg, a former speaker of the Israeli parliament, put it earlier this month in the context of a mass protest in Tel Aviv against threatened curbs on civil and human-rights organisations, “Israel is not a democracy any more. Technically it is, but the foundations of democracy — liberty, equality — are under threat. The rabbinical fatwas and political harassment are red lights. If we don’t stand up now, tomorrow it will be too late.” Burg has been described as the leading light behind the Democratic Camp, a network of Jewish and Arab human rights and left-wing groups that organised the protest. Israeli and Palestinian flags were waved in tandem and slogans on placards included the declaration that “Jews and Arabs will not be enemies.”
The rally was addressed by, among others, Meir Sheetrit, a representative of the Kadima party founded by Ariel Sharon. He declared that the proposed legislation to investigate rights groups would be tantamount to “taking a brick out of the wall of democracy”. And party leader and former foreign minister Tzipi Lvini — who figures prominently in the leaked documents as an ostensibly implacable negotiator — has been quoted as saying that an evil wind is blowing across Israel.
That wind has, in fact, been blowing for a long time. And Lvini has been a part of it. She is now the leader of an opposition that has lately been marginally bolstered by Ehud Barak’s decision to quit the Labour Party, taking four MPs with him into a new entity while the remainder are no longer part of Binyamin Netanyahu’s coalition. Lvini is also the successor to former Kadima chief Ehud Olmert, who, once he relinquished his role as prime minister and was sidelined on account of corruption charges, publicly declared that he supported a two-state solution on the grounds that the only alternative was a single apartheid state.
The Al Jazeera leaks have been dismissed as fabrications and half-truths by the likes of leading Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat, which is hardly surprising given that the documents reveal the extent to which he has been willing to kowtow to the Israelis alongside former PA prime minister Ahmed Qurei. Their desperation was clearly evident in concessions that could not publicised because the vast majority of Palestinians would consider them unacceptable — and for good reason.
The embarrassment should be considerably greater for the Israeli government, which has argued throughout the past decade that any sort of peace agreement was untenable because it did not have a viable negotiating partner. In fact, it’s the other way around: it is the Palestinians who lack meaningful interlocutors.
The alternatives have partially been explored. Formal recognition of a Palestinian state has been gaining ground among well-disposed Latin American nations such as Brazil and Bolivia, and the European Union has shown interest in the PA’s ‘institution-building’. But none of that can change the so-called facts on the ground.
The Obama administration’s appeals for a freeze on new Jewish settlements have fallen on deaf ears because the Israelis are aware that American pressure can’t go beyond a certain point. The billions of dollars and the arms shipments will keep flowing. After all, it was Harry Truman who, when asked why he couldn’t be unbiased in the immediate aftermath of the confessional state’s creation, rhetorically wondered aloud how many Palestinian voters there were in the United States. The option of being an honest broker has never been taken seriously by the US, and interventions by Condoleezza Rice and Hillary Clinton cited in the leaked documents clearly bear this out.
There is some evidence that a growing number of Jews in the US take a less imbalanced view of affairs relating to Israel. And there is a substantial minority in Israel that sees the occupation as an anathema. But without these forces somehow achieving critical mass, it is hard to see how the Palestinian problem can become any less intractable in the foreseeable future.