Al-Ahram Weekly On-line
28 Dec. 2000 - 3 Jan. 2001
Issue No.514
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Current issue | Previous issue | Site map

Barak unmasked

By Ibrahim Nafie

Ibrahim Nafie That the Palestinian leadership agreed to a new round of peace negotiations in Washington has baffled and alarmed many in the Arab world, Israel and the international community. Palestinian and Arab observers are fearful that the only purpose of the latest US-sponsored move is to put an end to the Intifada and reach some ambiguous understandings that might enhance Barak's chances in the forthcoming Israeli elections, apprehensions that are certainly justifiable in view of the quantities of Palestinian blood that have been shed in the cause of a just settlement. In Israel suspicions have been raised that the American move is motivated by Clinton's desire to conclude his presidency with a historic peace settlement, towards which end the White House will pressure Barak into offering too many concessions to the Palestinians. This view, naturally, emanates from the Israeli ultra-right, which suspects that Barak tendered his resignation expressly for the purpose of ensuring he will be able to manoeuvre towards an agreement with the Palestinians in order to secure his reelection. Ironically, since coming to power in July last year Barak has catered almost exclusively to this segment of Israeli opinion whose belligerent intransigence jeopardises the stability of the entire region. Finally, observers elsewhere around the world are concerned that Clinton will be unable to push the Palestinians and Israelis into signing an agreement in the short time he has left and are understandably alarmed at the prospects of another failure, however much they hope for a rapid end to the tragedy of the Palestinian people.

Perhaps the prime reason that many of these observers and analysts have been perplexed is that they have failed to see any new development that might justify renewed negotiating efforts, especially so close on the heels of the dismal failure of Camp David II. In that round of negotiations, the US administration brought the Palestinian and Israeli leaderships face to face and, from 11 to 26 July, sought to cajole them into reaching a settlement. The talks collapsed because President Arafat refused to put his signature to a document that was prejudicial to Palestinian rights, earning for himself the censure of the Israeli Prime Minister and the US President who, in the press conference that followed the breakdown of Camp David II, praised Barak's peace efforts, implicitly attributing the failure of the summit to Arafat's "inflexibility." Faced with Arafat's refusal to succumb to the American arm-twisting and Israeli threats that were brought to bear on him in Camp David, Barak began to contemplate another scenario for conducting negotiations with the PA, a scheme that was put into effect on 28 September with Ariel Sharon's visit to the Haram Al-Sharif, triggering the eruption of the Al-Aqsa Intifada.

I believe that the apprehension and confusion many observers have expressed over the new round of Palestinian-Israeli negotiations emanate from an imprecise reading of the ramifications of the Palestinian Intifada, the multifold impact of which has indisputably generated a different climate for the recent negotiations in Washington. Although I am as yet unable to predict whether or not the new process will succeed I have no doubt that the Intifada has contributed to creating a new set of realities on all levels. These, in turn, prompted the concerned parties to respond to the US president's proposal for a new round of negotiations, and, indeed, inspired Clinton to issue the invitation in the first place.

An accurate reading of the current negotiating climate, therefore, must examine the ways in which the Intifada has redirected the course of the regional and international interplay surrounding the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, for this popular uprising has incontestably enhanced the Palestinian cause. Foremost among these is that it has revealed the true nature of Israeli repression. The determination of the Palestinian people, their steadfast persistence, their acts of national resistance spearheaded by an army of youths armed only with stones, and the magnitude of the Israeli response -- live ammunition fired directly into the crowds and the use of anti-tank aircraft and military naval craft to assault PA government buildings and police stations -- have exposed the brutality of the Israeli occupation to the world. For the first time the international community has been directly confronted with the horrors the Israeli occupation has inflicted on the Palestinian people, stirring outrage among broad sectors of opinion throughout the world, even in Israel's traditional strongholds of international support in Western Europe and the US. In numerous international public forums Israel was condemned for the use of excessive force, a phenomenon virtually unheard before the Intifada. The globally televised pictures of children shot dead, the numbers of victims that received bullets directly into the chest or head, have radically altered Israel's image as international public opinion moves closer to what is actually taking place on the ground in the occupied territories. Indeed, many Israeli commentators have lamented this fact, remarking on the success the Intifada has had in "shattering Israel's image". It is now abundantly clear that Israel has violated every international human rights convention and every principle of the UN Charter and humanitarian laws.

The image of a people struggling to liberate its occupied territory, a resistance sanctioned by international law, contending with the brutality of the full onslaught of Israeli military might, has compelled many international organisations and not a small number of heads of state to denounce Israel's suppression of Palestinian aspirations and, in several instances, to voice their sympathy for Palestinian demands. This reaction has thrown a number of political forces in Israel into a panic and driven Israeli officials into a frenzy of vehement attacks against various heads of state in Europe. Perhaps Israel's most notable recent critic on the international scene has been UN Human Rights Commissioner Mary Robinson who, following an inspection tour of Palestinian territory, reported that Israel has perpetrated gross infringements against the Palestinian people.

The wave of international concern and outrage has lent impetus to a notion Israel rejects out of hand -- the broadening of the scope of sponsorship of the negotiations so as to permit various international parties and organisations a more effective say in the peace efforts. An example of this process occurred in the Sharm Al-Sheikh summit attended by UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan and EU representatives. In addition, a number of international parties have begun to assert themselves as potential sponsors and mediators, which Israel fears absolutely. That would threaten to "internationalise" the issue, as official Israeli jargon has it, and diminish the influence of its staunchest supporter, the US.

The shift in the international mood was succinctly reflected not only in the new role the UN has assumed but also in the deliberations in its assemblies. The most important event pertaining to the Palestinian cause that took place in the UN was the vote, on 7 October, over Security Council Resolution 1322 condemning Israel for recourse to excessive force. It is significant that the US abstained rather than use its right of veto to obstruct the passage of the resolution. That Washington, in effect, allowed this forcefully worded resolution to pass with the unanimous approval of the other Security Council members marks a precedent that has had Israeli officials scurrying to defend themselves, for this is the first time that Israel has been blatantly condemned for its brutality.

If the repercussions of the Intifada have wreaked havoc in Israeli official circles, it has had the opposite effect inside Palestine where it has unified ranks like never before. In the West Bank and Gaza the revived spirit of unity led to the creation of the Joint High Committee for National and Islamic Forces in the West Bank and Gaza while in Israel proper Palestinians holding Israeli nationality participated in protest demonstrations, leading to yet more casualties. This development, too, served as a forceful reminder to Israel of the dangers of perpetuating its occupation of the West Bank and Gaza.

The Intifada has also succeeded in reanimating Arab public opinion. The protest demonstrations that swept Arab capitals have had a profound impact on the actions of Arab governments, which has manifested itself in the flow of Arab aid to Palestine, in a new thrust of joint Arab efforts to support the Palestinians and in the emergency summit that was held in Cairo. In addition, many Arab governments responded individually, suspending their participation in multilateral regional negotiations and freezing the normalisation process by closing Israel's representational offices, as occurred in Jordan, Tunisia, Morocco and Qatar. President Mubarak's decision to recall the Egyptian ambassador to Tel Aviv and Jordan's refusal to send its new ambassador to the Israeli capital have also sent a powerful message.

Another achievement of the Intifada was to expose the true face of Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, who had previously cast himself in the image of the peacemaker, the man who had dedicated himself ardently and selflessly to the success of Camp David II only to be confronted by Arafat's obduracy, the leader who had the courage to make "painful concessions" only to be met by Arafat's refusal to sign an agreement that would bring an end to years of conflict. The Intifada succeeded in shattering this image.

The unmasking of Barak has profoundly affected the attitudes of many European heads of state and the repercussions have extended into Israel, unleashing a spate of commentators who have accused Barak of ruining Israel's image abroad by pursuing arrogant shows of might against an occupied people in a manner ultimately detrimental to Israeli interests. Epitomising these sentiments was an article in Ha'aretz of 24 November: "Israel only has a minister of defence, when what we need is a prime minister. We are shooting in all directions because ministers of defence prefer to do the only thing they're good at, which is shooting," the article said. Barak came under attack elsewhere in the Hebrew press, which appeared unanimous in the conviction that Arafat and the Intifada had won all the needless and ill-timed battles Barak waged against them. The reactions inside Israel, as we know, brought about the collapse of Barak's ruling coalition and the dead end that led to him tendering his resignation, plunging Israel into yet another political crisis.

Finally, the Palestinian Intifada put paid to the type of settlement formula posited in Camp David II. No longer is it possible for Israel to play the winner-take-all game that prevailed in that summit, or for the US to entrench itself so unwaveringly behind every Israeli position. The Intifada has made it clear that the relevant parties have only two options. The first is to enter into negotiations in an entirely different spirit, founded upon the need to recognise the legitimate rights of the Palestinian people, especially with regards to Jerusalem, the return of occupied territories, the dismantling of Jewish settlements, and the establishment of a sovereign Palestinian state. The second option is confrontation and the consequent prospect of ending all chances of reviving the peace process and plunging the region into a spiral of tension and conflict.

Related stories:
The American bridge
Killing Christmas

An opportunity to end all war
Israel must concede more
Palestinian red lines 21 - 27 December 2000
Mission impossible? 21 - 27 December 2000
See Intifada in focus

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