August 30, 2010
In News The Israel-Palestine Conflict
“Peace process? What peace process? That’s so nineties. After 18 years, don’t they feel silly…
There are only two scenarios. The optimistic one is more of the same. The pessimistic one is it’s going to get worse.” – Ahmad Aweidah, head of the Palestinian Stock Exchange
Ah, the ‘peace process’. Like Shimon Peres, Big Brother and Ernie the Giant Chicken, it just won’t fucking die already. What was particularly striking about the announcement of its latest iteration, due to kick-off next week, was how little anyone cared. In the stream of public and media consciousness, even in Israel, it barely caused a ripple. Apart from the real die-hards, no one can even muster the energy to pretend anymore. Whereas three years ago Bush officials were having to actively downplay hopes about the “Annapolis summit” – which was not a “peace conference”, you’ll recall, and which would not produce a “declaration of principles” but rather a “declaration of interests” – now US officials are having to make absurd promises, like claiming that a peace agreement will be reached within a year, just to get people to pay attention. Palestinians and Israelis are united in dismissing the talks as an irrelevency.If the ‘peace process’ is indeed redolent of a “soap opera”, it most resembles the relaunch of Crossroads, greeted with a collective shrug and an uneasy feeling that, looking back, the original wasn’t much cop either.
It’s not surprising that the Obama administration is attempting to play up the talks, given how much effort it expended in realising them. Not, as you might expect, because the Israeli government was unwilling to play ball. On the contrary: Netanyahu has been pushing for these talks for months. Rather, the weight of US power was brought to bear on the Palestinian Authority, as usual. Abbas, clinging to what scraps of nationalist dignity he had left, had insisted that no talks would take place without an agreement from Israel to extend its (non-existent) freeze on settlement construction. He also called for a predetermined schedule for negotiations, and for any future peace talks to be based on the principle of an Israeli withdrawal to its legal borders – that is, on the international political and legal consensus. As the Israeli Institute for National Security Studies reports, “renewal of the talks was made possible following heavy pressure leveled by the United States on Abbas to concede” all of these demands. Abbas has been duly attacked by Palestinians for this “surrender”, from within his own party as well as Hamas, but ultimately, the survival of the PA rests not on internal support but on international backing. Its capitulation was thus inevitable:
“In spite of opposition at home, Abbas knows that the bottom line is he could survive different opinions but not an end to economic aid.”
Ha’aretz is correct, then, to report the announcement of the talks as a victory for Netanyahu. But why was the Israeli Prime Minister so keen on them in the first place?
Negotiations about what?
We can discount his own explanation – that the Israeli government seeks a genuine, stable peace settlement – immediately. Netanyahu’s position hasn’t changed from the one elaborated by his communications director back in 1996: Israel will retain control over the West Bank, and
Palestinians can call whatever fragments of Palestine are left to them “a state” if they like—or they can call them “fried chicken”.
What this “fried chicken” will consist of is clear from Netanyahu’s pronouncements – he rejects the ‘67 borders as a basis for negotiations, insists on retaining control over the Jordan Valley, promises that a “united Jerusalem” will remain Israel’s eternal capital and has indicated that all the major ‘settlement blocs’ will remain annexed to Israel. (Netanyahu’s rejectionism is mild compared to that of some of his colleagues: the ‘spiritual leader’ of Shas, a member of Israel’s governing coalition, yesterday called for genocide against “these evil people”, the Palestinians.) More importantly, however, it is clear from Israel’s actions on the ground. July and August saw a “new peak” in the destruction of Palestinian homes – in July alone, 550 Palestinians lost their homes or livelihoods. In just one incident, the Israeli military destroyed “almost the entire Palestinian village of Al Farisiye in the Jordan Valley”, consistent with long-term Israeli objectives for the area, described above. The ‘Civil Administration’ has confirmed that it “received instructions from the Ministry of Defense to step up demolitions of Palestinian structures throughout Area C in the near future”. The Israeli government is refusing to freeze settlement expansion for the duration of the talks, and construction continues on the annexation wall, which functions as a “political fence” (Shimon Peres) with “implications” for Israel’s “future border” (Tzipi Livni).
In other words, a ‘peace settlement’ for the Israeli government would represent an acceptance by Palestinians of the plan Israel has been pushing since the occupation began, a formalisation of what it has already implemented on the ground, by force. In short,
“The gap between the positions held by most coalition members, including Netanyahu’s inner cabinet of seven, and those held by the Palestinians is evident – and nothing has happened to indicate it has narrowed”.
The Israeli government continues to reject the international consensus two-state settlement, which is the minimum any Palestinian leader – even Mahmoud Abbas – can accept. In these circumstances, one can only ask, along with (fucked clock) George Will, “negotiations about what?”
“Aha!”, supporters of the ‘peace process’ might say at this point. “You’re forgetting about the Obama factor!” Or trying to, at any rate. The ‘Obama factor’, always a somewhat mystical affair, is even less grounded in evidence here than usual. His administration’s record in Palestine differs from his predecessors in precisely two ways. First, US military aid to Israel has significantly increased and military ties have deepened. As recently as April the Pentagon agreed to sell Israel three Hercules aircraft in an arms deal worth nearly a quarter of a billion dollars. Second, it has ruled out imposing significant material pressure on Israel to reverse, or even moderate, its rejectionism. As the Washington Post reports,
“The diplomatic crisis between the U.S. and Israel has sent a tremor through their alliance, but one key part of the bond seems virtually untouchable: the roughly $3 billion a year in U.S. military aid”
—which ought to raise questions about the sincerity of said “diplomatic crisis”. “There has been no serious talk of using aid as a club”, the Post continued. This is critical, because while the US backs the occupation, Israel has no incentive to end it. As Alon Liel, director general of Israel’s Foreign Ministry while Barak was PM, explains,
“it’s not possible for the strongest kid and the weakest kid in the neighborhood to conduct talks on reconciliation and friendship when the talks are based on arm wrestling. It’s absolutely clear who will win.”
Particularly when the “strongest kid” is backed by the global military superpower.
It is true that there have been mumblings of discontent within the US establishment recently – witness, for instance, Gen. Petraeus’s averral that perceptions of US “favouritism for Israel” damage “our interests” – but this is nothing new, and they show little sign of becoming dominant.
Talks as formaldehyde
Why, then, have the US and Israel insisted on the resumption of talks, given the opposition of both to a two-state settlement? For Obama, as one Arab diplomat has noted, the announcement of talks allows him “to claim some kind of success, especially ahead of the upcoming elections and at a time when his popularity in the polls does not seem to be all that good”. One of Obama’s principle virtues for US power – what made him distinct from McCain and Bush – is his ability to put a human face on American hegemony, to consolidate the US position and try to repair some of the damage caused by Bush-era adventurism. In the Middle East that meant being seen to empathise with regional concerns, and appearing to do something to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. To that end he engaged in a highly visible campaign to pressure ‘both parties’ (in fact, the Palestinians) to resume talks – without, as discussed above, acting to ensure that there was anything substantive to talk about.
For Israel, meanwhile, the talks represent the latest manifestation of “the most spectacular deception in modern diplomatic history”, a “fiction that has served primarily to provide cover for its systematic confiscation of Palestinian land”. As the Financial Times chief international affairs correspondent writes,
“the Middle East peace process long ago turned into a tortured charade of pure process while events on the ground – in particular the relentless and strategic Israeli colonisation of occupied Palestinian land – pull in the opposite direction to peace. “We have all been colluding in a gigantic confidence trick,” is how one Arab minister puts it, “and here we go again”.
As with the “road map”, an agreement signed with much fanfare in 2003 and then obliterated a day later, when the Israeli government entered 14 “reservations” that rendered the entire process meaningless, and as with the more recent ‘Annapolis process’, which proceeded in tandem with a 60% increase in settlement construction, the point is simply to ensure that “we are forever engaged in some negotiations”. This strategy is nothing new. As Yossi Sarid recalls, “they used to say about Yitzhak Shamir that he conducted peace negotiations with our neighbors as long as they never ended”. “There are no sacred dates”, insisted Rabin. As veteran diplomatic correspondent Aluf Benn wrote of the ‘Annapolis process’,
“Conducting high-level talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority; Israel’s willingness to discuss the principles for ending the conflict; and gestures such as the release of prisoners are in themselves sufficient to remove international pressure on Israel to withdraw from the territories and to end the occupation.
At the same time, as long as it’s all talk and there are no agreements or decisions that involve the evacuation of territories and the settlements, there is no internal pressure on the government either”.
Israel’s typical strategy, once a new round of fraudulent negotiations commences, is to declare that “security” and “institutional” issues must be agreed upon (and even implemented) before any ‘final status’ issues – borders, Jerusalem, the refugees – are discussed, and to focus on red herring issues like demanding recognition of Israel as a “Jewish state”. This explains the convoluted structure of Oslo and the Road Map, for instance. The effect of this is to bog the whole process down in minutiae and defer discussion of Palestinian political claims to an unspecified point in the distant future. And sure enough, right on cue:
“Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Sunday that Palestinian recognition of Israel as the Jewish homeland is chief among essential components for a peace deal, days ahead of renewed negotiations.”
“Netanyahu says he plans to focus on security arrangements before addressing final borders … Netanyahu said during his meetings he wants to discuss security issues with the Palestinians first; only then would the two sides focus on borders of a future Palestinian state.”
This strategy of endlessly drawn-out negotiations recalls Dov Weisglass’s account of the objectives behind the Gaza “disengagement”, which was designed, he explained, to put the ‘peace process’ in “formaldehyde”. This formulation isn’t quite accurate, since the ‘peace process’ is itself a form of formaldehyde, intended to maintain the diplomatic status quo while enabling continued entrenchment of the occupation on the ground.
Netanyahu’s desire to launch a new round of ‘peace talks’, then, is explicable as a continuation of a long-running Israeli strategy to reduce the diplomatic costs of continued occupation, and as a response to the unusual level of international criticism directed at Israel following the Gaza massacre and the attack on the Gaza Freedom flotilla. “So what is Israel actually trying to achieve?”, asks Avi Issacharoff.
“Basically, nothing. There is a superficial peace process which is going nowhere but eases international pressure on Israel to reach a deal with the Palestinians”.
Better than nothing?
Despite widespread cynicism about this latest round of talks, there is an attitude, particularly prevalent among liberal Obama supporters, that despite their low probability of success they are nonetheless worth supporting on the basis that they are, after all, ‘better than nothing’. As an Economist article puts it,
“Whether Mr Obama is trying to solve the conflict or simply to manage it is hard to say, since the secret of “managing” is to maintain the pretence that the peace process will indeed one day produce. Either way, it cannot be a bad thing to get old enemies to talk”.
This approach is misguided, for reasons that should already be clear. The ‘peace process’ should be understood as an attempt to consolidate and facilitate, rather than end, Israeli occupation. It “allows Israel to pose as a willing peacemaker while carrying on with business as usual”. Participating in the charade does indeed improve the chances that the ‘peace talks’ will “succeed”, but “success” in this context represents a setback for anyone seeking a genuine negotiated settlement to the conflict.
Furthermore, as Gideon Levy points out, there is always the risk (a small one, in my view, but certainly not one worth being complacent about) that a collapse in negotiations will herald another round of bloodshed. Moreover, launching another diplomatic process from which Hamas is pointedly excluded “spells the demise of any serious dialogue between Fatah and Hamas”. Reuters reports that
“Western diplomats believe efforts to reconcile Hamas and Fatah will be off the agenda entirely for the 12-month duration of negotiations.”
Indeed, the Obama admin apparently views the talks as a method of weakening and isolating Hamas, a continuation of a Bush administration approach that produced (deliberately) internal Palestinian conflict, the administrative separation of Gaza and the West Bank and a divided, weakened Palestinian polity. All serious observers of the conflict recognise that a minimum level of cooperation between Hamas and Fatah is a prerequisite to any serious attempt at peace. The fact that the Obama admin continues to oppose this is telling.
Some people will inevitably continue to believe that Obama, despite all the evidence and historical precedents to the contrary, genuinely intends to force Israel to end its rejectionism. Fine. I won’t attempt to fight the persuasive power of that smile. Instead of disputing whether Obama – or European governments – will act on their words, what we should be doing is organising to ensure that they do. As Stephen Walt puts it, “if you think I’m being too gloomy, then do the world a favor and prove me wrong”. ‘Better than nothing’ assumes that ‘nothing’ is the only alternative. On the eve of the ‘Oslo process’ Haider Abdel-Shafi, head of the Palestinian delegation to the 1991 Madrid Conference, dismissed official “negotiations” as “not worth fighting about”. “The critical issue”, he continued,
“is transforming our own society… We must decide amongst ourselves to use all our strength and resources to develop our collective leadership and the democratic institutions which will achieve our goals and guide us in the future.” (cit. Chomsky, Fateful Triangle, pp. 539-40
Words worth paying attention to, and not only by Palestinians.