|Al-Ahram Weekly On-line
11 - 17 January 2001
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875||Current issue | Previous issue | Site map|
Redrawing the norm
Israel has existed for 52 years. It would surely by now be as secure and established a nation-state as any other but for the way it came into existence. As a recipe for European anti-Semitism, Zionism may have been a very special, high-minded kind of European colonialism but, in its consequences for an indigenous people, it was as bad as any other. The settler-state to which it gave birth has also been very special, indeed unique, in that it continues to exist at all. All other such polities have disappeared in the process of European de-colonisation. Those who peopled them have either, like the million French colonials in Algeria, been driven out in a bloody liberation war or, like South Africa's whites, yielded their political supremacy to majority rule.
The supreme measure of this success has been the official acceptance of its right to exist which the Zionist-colonialist enterprise eventually won from its indigenous victims. The achievement is all the more remarkable in that, in this case, these are not just those, the Palestinians, who were directly dispossessed in the ethnic cleansing that accompanied Israel's violent birth, but a much larger, less directly affected community, the Arabs, who, impelled by ties of common nationhood, identified with them in their anti-colonial struggle. There were always rejectionists throughout the region, now most potently typified by Islamists -- Hamas for the Palestinians, or Hizbullah for the Lebanese. But the dominant players are acceptors. Their acceptance is an accomplished fact in the case of those, Egypt and Jordan, which have made formal peace with Israel; it remains an intent with those, Palestine, Syria, Lebanon, which have yet to do so. But all subscribe to a broad consensus as to what constitutes a "just, lasting and comprehensive" settlement.
Clearly, however, the success cannot be permanently assured until those, especially the Palestinians, for whom acceptance is still an intent convert it into an accomplished fact. Short of that, the danger is not merely that the Zionist-colonial enterprise will remain incomplete; it is that, sooner or later, the success it has already achieved will be challenged and undermined; and, in the end, instead of its triumphant consolidation as the great exception in the annals of European colonialism, it will suffer the same fate as all the rest.
Well into its fourth month, and showing little sign of relenting, the Al-Aqsa Intifada has the makings of that challenge. It is no accident that it erupted just when, on the face of it, Zionism's ultimate triumph had come within grasp. Prime Minister Ehud Barak had laid his historic, take-it-or-leave-it compromise before Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat at the Camp David conference in July. In return for Israel's "generous concessions," the Palestinians were to have renounced all further claims on it. It would have marked "the end of the [100-year] conflict," and the priceless, existential gain of Israel's full and formal integration into the region. He failed, because the concessions fell so far short of the Arab-Palestinian acceptors' consensus.
The heart of the consensus is a Palestinian state, with Jerusalem as its capital, in the West Bank and Gaza. Arafat first proclaimed it in 1988, and then, in the 1993 Oslo agreement, he agreed to work towards it, by diplomatic means, through a series of "interim" arrangements paving the way for "final status."
By any historical reckoning this was a magnanimous offer. He had begun his career at the head of a "popular liberation struggle" whose objective -- the norm in such anti-colonial movements -- had been full recovery of the usurped homeland, return of refugees and dismantling of the settler-state. Here he was offering to yield up a full 78 per cent of original Palestine.
But throughout the "interim" stages Israel incrementally spurned the offer. In the Camp David "final-status" negotiations Barak may have ceded more than ever before, but he was still demanding much more than that 78 per cent, plus a whole array of other Zionist-colonial gains, ideological or security-related, making the historic compromise even more imbalanced than the one in which the Arab-Palestinian consensus had already acquiesced.
From this Israeli rejection grew the Intifada. To what extent Barak, by putting 3,000 soldiers at General Sharon's disposal for his Al-Aqsa provocation, actually triggered it for his own ends, or Arafat instigated and manipulated it for his, is detail. For the Palestinians, its purpose, uncertain at first, has now become clear.
This is their war of independence. Liberal Israelis liken it to their own of 52 years ago. "The Tanzim," forecast one, "will no more demobilise before Israel recognises the borders of the Palestine State than the pre-1948 Jewish underground would have done before Israel was established." The Palestinians have therefore regressed, in some degree, to the methods with which Arafat began his career.
But they have not regressed in their aims: those are still Oslo by other means. Hamas, believers in "complete liberation," have ceded the main role to Arafat's Fatah. And the Fatah leaders, even those often at odds with Arafat, proclaim no ambitions beyond that 22 per cent. They want their state to co-exist with Israel, not destroy it.
But can this restraint withstand the increasing violence, passions and chaos that a continuing Intifada threatens to unleash on the region?
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