15 - 21 August 2002
Issue No. 599
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875||Recommend this page|
The way we live nowIf present trends continue, writes Abdel-Moneim Said, the future for the Middle East Peace Process will be bleak indeed. But it is not too late to change it
There are two ways to evaluate today's situation in the Middle East, firstly by looking at the immediate present and secondly by estimating long-term prospects should the present situation continue.
The immediate present can be described as a conflict in which the parties involved have failed to come to grips with the realities of history and with their respective capabilities. A state-of-nature style conflict has been allowed to take its course, with both Palestinians and Israelis deciding to rely on force in achieving their national objectives. The Israeli side has decided that the use of massive military force will allow it to continue its occupation of Palestinian territories, while the Palestinian side has opted for the use of suicide bombing, seeing this as the means of ending the Israeli occupation.
Both smell victory, thinking that if they just use a bit more violence final victory will come. For the Palestinians, the attitude is that a few more suicide bombings will finally force Israeli withdrawal; for the Israelis, the belief is that sweeping the Palestinian territories again will end Palestinian violence and force them to relinquish their demands.
None of this, of course, could possibly be realised, both parties needing to know that a further suicide bombing or sweeping operation will not achieve their goals. As a result, the Israelis have started to talk about the transfer of the Palestinians, with 46 per cent of Israelis agreeing with such a policy. Some of them, indeed, would like to transfer not only the Palestinians on the West Bank but also those inside Israel. A transfer of sorts is already taking place, with an estimated 150,000 Palestinians having left since the present Intifada began.
On the Palestinian side, another dream of transfer has emerged, this time about transferring the Israelis to the US or the West more generally. Thus, Hamas spokesmen have referred to the fact that one million Israelis have left Israel because of the Palestinian resistance and suicide bombings, though 15 per cent of the Israeli population is always outside Israel.
In characterising the present situation, then, a state of nature has prevailed over reason. Suicide bombings delayed the long-awaited American initiative until 24 June, and it took the Arab side a year and a half to come up with an initiative, whose credibility was immediately threatened by a suicide bombing in Natania and the Israeli sweeping operation on 29 March.
Violence has taken over from negotiation, and the definition of victory has been reduced from achieving national goals -- a secure and safe homeland for the Jews and an independent state for the Palestinians -- to how much pain can be inflicted on the other side. The more the statistics show the human and physical losses of the other side, the more a kind of national vendetta emerges.
Thus, the costs of the present situation for both Israelis and Palestinians are very high. But the situation needs to be put in perspective, and here the lessons of history can help.
In the context of the last century's decolonisation struggles, something similar to which is currently being played out in Palestine, British failure to grant independence to the Wafd Party in Egypt, as well as its refusal to withdraw its occupying forces, produced Nasser and the 1952 Revolution, together with the radicalisation of country and region over the next three decades. However, the British decision to do the opposite in India, handing the country to the Congress Party, gave the world a democratic and secular India.
In today's politics the failure of the Palestinians to negotiate with former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, and the failure of the Israelis and the US to deal with Arafat, has meant that Sharon has emerged as the leader of mainstream Israeli opinion, and who knows who will be the successor of Arafat in Palestine. Both sides, in fact, have attacked the forces of moderation on the other: suicide bombing have been directed towards civilians, who are the bread-and-butter of peace; Sharon has attacked not the infrastructure of Hamas and Islamic Jihad, which remains intact, but the Palestinian Authority.
Such policies have led both Palestinians and Israelis back to the politics of the state of nature, which will have a wide and long-term impact in the region. Only four years passed between Arab defeat in Palestine in 1948 and Nasser's revolution in 1952, and today's eradication of confidence in moderation will similarly lead to the radicalisation of the region for decades to come.
The pre-revolutionary regime in Iran before 1979 was accused of corruption and of ignoring democracy. As a result, the regime was discredited and collapsed under assault, leading to three decades of revolutionary upheavals, a long war in the Gulf, the destabilisation of the Middle East, and the possibility of producing weapons of mass destruction.
There are three ways to look at the present situation in relations between the Palestinians and the Israelis.
First, the current state of nature in Israeli-Palestinian relations is itself part of the general political condition of the Middle East, which has eight per cent of the world's population but has known 25 per cent of world conflicts since the end of World War II. The region has not followed global developments in globalisation, democracy or progress, and in some ways it is living in a state of nature in which power is the defining factor in politics.
The history of the region attests to this. In no other region of the world could a peace process like the one that has been underway in the Middle East, attracting the investment of global and regional powers, be allowed to fade away with losses to all concerned parties. Only the Middle East, with its lack of progress, could be allowed to remain in such a state of prolonged conflict.
Second, the present crisis in the Middle East is a byproduct of developments following the Camp David II Summit in July 2000, as well as of major deficiencies in the Oslo Peace Process. While any resolution of the crisis will have to address both, the deficiencies of Oslo are many and should be enumerated.
For a start, the philosophy behind the process was one based on gradualism and the mutually honest intention of the Israeli and Palestinian peoples to coexist with each other in peace. While this philosophy has merits, it also gave those who oppose the process on religious or historical grounds the opportunity to sabotage it through continuing settlement construction or violence.
In addition, the frame of reference for the entire process -- UN Resolution 242 and land for peace -- was often ignored in the negotiations. There was also a structural imbalance in the negotiations. Israel has secured for itself a position of superiority in both conventional and non-conventional weapons, leading to the negotiations being conducted under the threat of massive Israeli military power. Under such conditions, any Israeli concession is considered very generous, even if it is far less than what the Palestinian side can accept.
Furthermore, the region's elites are currently obsessed by geo-politics at the expense of geo-economics. For them, history is defined in terms of the past and not in terms of the future, with there being no parallel in the Middle East of the founding fathers of the European Union.
The Peace Process has also long been a matter for governments, with popular participation having been largely absent. Even when normalisation between the parties was being envisioned, it was done in terms of the economic gains that could lead both Arabs and Israelis to mutual acceptance. However, both peoples are not merely economic animals looking for gain in the open market of global capitalism. Nor are they so concerned by the pursuit of economic happiness as to overlook the historical and cultural complexes that control their lives.
Lastly, the US has been the major, if not the only, player to mediate the peace process. Yet, the US, because of domestic American politics, could never be the fair broker that a true mediator should be. The US presidential elections also added a complicating factor to the sustainability of American efforts, as have the events of 11 September 2001, which have further complicated the US's role in the Middle East. If the Cold War was the prism through which the US looked at the Middle East conflict in the past, now the War on Terrorism is having a similar negative impact.
Such deficiencies have prolonged the peace process, creating diplomatic fatigue for all the parties. Meanwhile, the conditions under which the Palestinian people have to live have become intolerable, with no light at the end of the tunnel, particularly after the Camp David II Summit ended without agreement. The US Administration's blaming the Palestinian leadership for this lack of success has made Palestinians feel that they face the hard choice of either continuing to live in isolation or of accepting what they cannot accept, both regarding their basic values, on the status of Jerusalem for example, and on the issue of the Palestinian refugees.
US blame of the Palestinians for the failure of the peace process has also made the Israelis feel that their "generosity" in the negotiations has not been reciprocated. Thus, while Sharon's visit to the Islamic holy sites in Jerusalem sparked the current crisis that led to the Palestinian uprising and the corresponding protest in the Arab World, the Israelis elected Sharon as head of a centre to far-right government in February 2001.
The third way of looking at today's Middle East is to see it not as a region still living in a political state of nature, or as region living with the failure of the Peace Process, but instead as one living in conditions in which the parties are bargaining not only at the negotiating table but also on the battlefield to improve their positions.
Yet, in spite of the present crisis in the Middle East and the general deterioration of the Peace Process over the last few years, as well as the freeze on the multilateral negotiations that came out of the Madrid Conference, the Middle East conflict has nevertheless seen noticeable progress.
For one thing, the conflict has been transformed from an existential conflict to one about the practical conditions under which Arabs and Israelis can live together. Even the thorny Palestinian track has achieved progress on many of the issues raised at the Camp David II Summit and at the negotiations held in Taba, Egypt, in January 2001. Both parties have recognised that in recent years they have been closer to agreement than they ever have been before, and the current crisis could be perceived as an attempt by both parties to improve their bargaining position in the final mile of the negotiations.
That said, allowing the crisis to continue and to turn the clock back in the Middle East would be a historical mistake that all the parties to the conflict, both inside and outside the region, would pay a heavy price for.
For good or bad, President Bush's speech of 24 June has become the framework for politics and diplomacy in the Middle East. The acceptance by Israel and the Arab States of the American initiative has put it on the bargaining table, and may mean that its main provisions will be implemented. However, from an Arab perspective the speech has major conceptual problems.
First, the speech envisages the main problem of the Peace Process to be the corruption and inefficiency of the Palestinian Authority and not the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories. Hence, reform of the Palestinian Authority is seen as the key to ending the current stalemate in the Middle East.
Second, the Israeli population is seen as the victim of the current situation, whereas Palestinian suffering is viewed as a result of the Palestinian leadership's inability to achieve democracy.
Third, while resolving the conflict in the Middle East entails establishing a Palestinian state, this is made dependent on the capacity of the Palestinian people to choose a leadership "not compromised by terror".
Fourth, settlement is envisaged as being the result of a gradual process over three years, during which the Palestinians are to be constantly monitored. If violence stops throughout that period, then the Palestinians get a "temporary" state, and if the ceasefire persists, they could get a "permanent" state. Such requirements will make the Peace Process hostage to every fanatic in the region.
Lastly, ignoring the historical background and development of the conflict in the Middle East, and dealing with it simply in terms of the current US War on Terrorism, means that no matter how just the Palestinian cause might be, promoting it through violent means, or indeed resistance in any form, is unacceptable.
All these five concepts could be criticised on the grounds of justice, history, and fact, as well as in terms of developments in the conflict since the beginning of the second Intifada. They could be criticised on practical grounds as well, since, for example, resolving the Palestinian cause in a manner that puts only one side -- the Palestinian -- under scrutiny is highly impractical. Who can guarantee that the Palestinian radical movements will be tolerant of a long and gradual process in the face of Israeli provocation and with very little incremental progress?
This would put radical elements on both sides in the driving seat, allowing them to decide the future of the Process and probably leading to its collapse in the same way as it led to the collapse of the Oslo Agreements.
However, aside from these conceptual considerations, the operational proposals contained in the speech are no less problematic. It maintains the two-state solution, and asserts that negotiations to complete the Oslo Process, leading to Final-Status agreement, should take three years. It keeps the idea of Israeli withdrawal from "the occupied Palestinian territories" in exchange for peace, and it envisions specific roles for members of the international community, for example of moderate Arab states, such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan. The road map and timetable have been left to diplomatic and political efforts to formulate.
Yet, in reality the American desire to remove Arafat overshadows the rest of the initiative, and this could cause the initiative to disintegrate and cause its collapse. Israel has not wasted any time in re-occupying the Palestinian territories, dismantling the infrastructure of both political and economic moderation as it does so.
For the Palestinians, on the other hand, Bush's speech has become not part of the solution to the Palestinian problem, but rather part of a "cover-up", taking it back to where it stood in 1993, which was exactly when the political state of nature between Israel and Palestinians most prevailed.
As far as the future of Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations are concerned, we know where we will go if the political state of nature continues to have the upper hand over reason. The result can only be the continuation of deadly violence, having far-reaching consequences and radicalising the region at the expense of reform.
However, we could envisage a different future given proper leadership. Imagine, for example, what would have happened if the US had not pursued a policy of containment of Communism during the Cold War, or had not worked for the recovery of Europe in the post- World War II period. Imagine how different the Middle East would have been if Egypt under President Sadat had not launched the Peace Process. Things would have been immeasurably worse, proving the importance of political leadership in shaping our futures.
Since this is the case, all the parties should work to restore calm and bring the Israelis and Palestinians back from the brink of war. The continuation of the current state of nature is not inevitable. Political and human choice is still possible. What is needed is the building of a coalition of moderation to substitute for the current violence. Bush's speech referred to the composition of this coalition, and it has many valuable assets.
The first of these is that the Egyptian and Jordanian peace processes have given living proof of the rewards of peace, such as the return of Egyptian territories occupied by Israel and the commitment to a peaceful resolution of the conflict. Instigations to a more confrontational stance have not succeeded in making either Egypt or Jordan announce a diplomatic boycott of Israel or in making them open their borders to the suicide bombers. Moreover, both Sharon and Hizbullah have failed to open a new front in Syria, and the general ceasefire has persisted since US Secretary of State Colin Powell's visit to Israel, Lebanon and Syria last April. The lesson of this is that there are limitations on the expansion of the current political state of nature in the region, at least in the near future.
The second asset for the coalition of moderates is that both the Palestinians and the Israelis want to live in peace. Despite the bloodshed, since September 2000 public opinion polls in Palestine and Israel have all indicated that the majority of the population on both sides still favours the Peace Process. Polls in Israel have shown increasing acknowledgment of the impossibility of imposing resolution of the conflict by military means; on the Palestinian side there has been an acknowledgment of the futility of suicide bombing Israeli civilian targets as a means of advancing the national interest.
The third asset is an emerging consensus over a historical compromise that would respond to the minimum requirements of both parties. This would include Israel withdrawing from territories occupied in 1967, equal exchange of three per cent of the land, and establishing a Palestinian state with East Jerusalem, minus the Jewish quarter and the Wailing Wall as its capital. West Jerusalem plus the Jewish quarter and the Wailing Wall would become the capital of Israel, and a just settlement of the Palestinian refugee problem that does not deny the right of return, while preserving the Israeli demographic balance, would be found.
The fourth asset for such a coalition of moderates is international support for a peaceful resolution of the Middle East conflict, which has become institutionalised through the quartet of the US, the EU, Russia and the UN. A fifth asset is the Arab initiative supported by Egypt and Saudi Arabia, which are the backbone of the Arab World. Saudi Arabia has informed the US that it would be willing to normalise relations with Israel upon the signature of a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians. Israel could have normal relations with the majority of Arab states upon accepting withdrawal from the Arab territories occupied in 1967.
Lastly, the sixth asset is the threat of a nightmare scenario if current developments persist into the future. In this scenario, radical Israelis could adopt transfer policies towards the Palestinians, in the worst case considering the use of tactical nuclear weapons, while internal developments in the Arab countries could not be controlled, giving rise to radical movements.
For the moderate coalition, these assets are valuable in attempts at changing current events. What is needed is will and courage and a better utilisation of time. The anti-peace forces are determined, well organised, and so far they have emotions, history, and religious interpretations on their side. However, this can be changed with action from the US and moderate partners.
The international community should make an international initiative, led by a concert of powers ready to give rewards as well as punishments. The long- awaited international conference on the situation in the Middle East is now due, and this should chart the road to peace and create mechanisms for monitoring the process. This Conference should also resume where the 1996 Sharm El-Sheikh conference left off, becoming one of the tools for fighting terror through international and regional cooperation.
Moderate partners should also be found among the Palestinians and the Israelis, and moderation will not be the result of removing Arafat. Instead, extremism would most likely prevail, Arafat's nationalist credentials being very important for the completion of any future peace treaty. Change is possible in the ruling team in the Palestinian territories and in the constitutional reforms that will give Arafat less sweeping powers, but of no less importance is change in Israel. Sharon will not make peace, and a change in the Israeli government is necessary. The key to this is international insistence on an immediate halt to Israeli settlement building and the start of negotiations.
A more detailed Arab plan is also needed, and this should be defended in the Arab media. Suicide bombing should be de-legitimised, the issue here being not condemning the suicide operations, which has already taken place, but de-legitimating them and showing them to be against the Palestinian cause.
Finally, some moments in history are of great importance, usually coming after periods of radical change. Such a period occurred after World War II, at the end of the Cold War, and now after 11 September 2001. Now is the time to act to change the course of history in the Middle East, and the world; failure to do so would be to submit to the political state of nature, and when nature takes its course all parties lose.
Indeed, the results of such losses are there for all to see. Palestinians are being deprived not only of their national goals, but also of the basic needs of life. For many of them, in fact, life has become not much more rewarding than death. But the situation for the Israelis is little better. Walls now surround the national dream of a safe and accepted homeland, with Israel becoming the largest Jewish ghetto in history. Other regional powers are also entangled in a conflict that has so far resisted any solution, their national agendas having been delayed with extremism waiting in the wings.
This is a very dim future indeed. Now is the time to change it through long-term vision, not the short-term management of events. Now is the time for strategy, not tactics. It is time to deal with history in terms of the future not of the past.
The writer is the director of the Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies.
Letter from the Editor
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