Al-Ahram Weekly Online   23 - 29 October 2003
Issue No. 661
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A glimmer of nothing

The Geneva Declaration, borne of petty struggles internal to Israeli politics, lowers Palestinian expectations without offering much in return, writes Azmi Bishara

Azmi Bishara As far as Israel is concerned, the Geneva Declaration is little more than a message sent to the Israeli public. The Israelis who stand behind the Declaration are the same ones who favoured the continuation of the Taba talks after the collapse of the Camp David negotiations, despite the misgivings Barak voiced at the time. Faced with the approaching elections in 2001, Barak allowed the talks to continue in Taba, but only as a non-binding intellectual dialogue. It comes as no surprise that those who helped draft this declaration were the same people who took part in the Taba talks in the hope of finding a formula to present to the Israeli public ahead of the elections. The declaration is not an agreement binding on the Israelis, but a message the pro-settlement forces in Israel have sent to discredit Barak, even more so than Sharon.

At the time, Barak told everyone that there is no Palestinian partner willing to sign an agreement acceptable to Israel. This, he said, is due to the Palestinian insistence on the right of return. His claims were accepted both in Israel and abroad, particularly by President Clinton, who -- disappointed to see his hopes of a Nobel Peace Prize evaporate -- directed all his anger against Yasser Arafat. Clinton lied then, as he did on earlier occasions: he blamed the Palestinians for failing to move fast enough to strike the deal that would secure him a Nobel before his term ended. Barak, meanwhile, gave the Palestinians a take-it-or-leave-it ultimatum. Turning his back on the obligations of the transitional phases of Oslo and Wye River, he put together a package re-stating Israeli conditions, and threatened the Palestinians that should they reject it they would be forever banished from the ranks of the peace-loving and branded with the stamp of terror.

Barak's declaration, made immediately after the Palestinians refused his dictates, that there is no Palestinian partner was a stab in the back of the Israeli pro-settlement forces that brought him to power, and at the same time a boost to the Likud. Since then, the latter has been bent on twisting the Palestinians' arm until such time that they recognise their own weakness, admit their defeat, and come up with a Palestinian "partner". From that moment on, the pro-settlement forces in Israel have been trying to find a partner willing to debunk Barak's claim that the Palestinians are adamant about the right of return and the removal of all settlements. These attempts took place under European sponsorship. Guilty over their powerlessness towards Sharon, irked by Washington's utter monopoly of regional politics, and mindful of their public's support for the just Palestinian cause, the Europeans took consolation in arranging sessions of dialogue, allowing resorts and hotels across Germany, Italy, Switzerland, Belgium and Britain to turn into breeding grounds for hypothetical agreements refuting Barak's claims.

Had Barak signed an agreement similar to the Geneva Declaration he would have been able to gain the approval of the Israeli public. This is a fact. Immediately after some of its points were published in the press, the text of the Geneva Declaration won the support of nearly 40 per cent of Israeli society, despite the opposition of the central leadership of the Labour Party, and the leaders of Shinui and other parties. This is why the declaration is so important for pro-settlement forces in Israel. They have found a Palestinian partner, one apparently approved by the Palestinian Authority, blessed by neighbouring Arab countries, and ready not only to cede the right of return, but scrap the historic resolutions passed by the United Nations in this regard -- regardless that such concessions blow a gaping hole in Palestinian conscience and rights. For icing on the cake, this new-found Palestinian partner is ready to accept the continued existence of settlements in so-called "Greater Jerusalem" and Gosh Etzion. This is how ground-breaking this declaration is.

Barak fired the first shot at the declaration, followed by the entire Likud, the Shinui leaders, and the enfeebled hawks of the Labour Party. Barak's attacks on the declaration highlight his own pack of lies, and those of former President Clinton. He is attacking a hypothetical agreement that does not include the right of return. This means that even had the Palestinians in Camp David agreed to give up the right of return, Barak would not have been satisfied, for he wanted further concessions on land and settlements. Insofar as this is true, the Palestinians can use the declaration to debunk both Barak and Sharon.

Illustration by Gamil Shafiq

Still, and apart from the name-calling and accusations of treason, the Palestinians have every right to wonder: Why is it okay to criticise the perpetrators of martyrdom operations on the ground -- that they are acting outside the scope of a unified and coordinated Palestinian position -- but not fine to criticise the signatories of this declaration for giving up the right of return without a mandate from any institution, let alone from the displaced refugees? A pertinent question, indeed.

Some would say that there is a difference between expressing a political opinion without consulting Palestinian institutions and carrying out operations targeting civilians and affecting the entire life of the Palestinian people. True, but expressing a political opinion usually involves writing an article, marching in a demonstration, submitting a petition, and things of that sort. Anyone with an opinion is entitled to express it, even if that opinion involves a renunciation of the right of return. His or hers would be an individual opinion, and the majority of Palestinians would be entitled to reject it. But signing an agreement carrying the semi-official stamp of various countries is more than a mere expression of opinion. Such an action confronts the Palestinian people with a new ceiling for negotiations or, to be exact, a new starting point for all future talks. Once the concession of leaving settlements in place is made, and once the right of return is renounced in any agreement, however non-binding, signed with Israeli opposition forces, it becomes harder for the Palestinians to start negotiations in the future without taking this into account.

To make matters worse, the Israeli government has attacked the declaration while the Palestinian Authority considered it positive.

Let's be charitable. Any Palestinian would be within his rights to publish such a declaration with a caveat stating that in his or her opinion it was a good basis for an agreement between the PLO and Israel. It would be a legitimate gesture open for discussion. But the significance of the declaration goes beyond being an opinion or an idea some people favour. The declaration was presented as an agreement. It was the subject of nominal negotiations, as if it were an agreement negotiated among states. Countries hosted it officially. It will be signed in a ceremony. There is no room for doubting that this is more than just an expression of opinion. It is an attempt to impose new realities.

The declaration is likely to steer the dialogue among the Palestinians into a discussion of the pros and cons of the declaration -- as if it were the only show in town, and the only possible settlement. And this is exactly what the signatories of the declaration have in mind; that this is the only possible settlement, and that anything aside from it is against peace. The declaration, therefore, is more than just an opinion -- it turns everything else into mere opinion. In the absence of a Palestinian political system, it is hardly surprising that Palestinians would negotiate with Israeli members of the opposition, in a semi-official manner, not about a programme of struggle and solidarity, but about a hypothetical peace agreement with no legal status. This is the same Palestinian political system in which security officials act as spokesmen, talking constantly to the media -- despite the fact that even under dictatorships security services are expected to remain silent, or stay out of politics, take orders from politicians, and refrain from talking to the media. This is the same Palestinian political system in which officials discuss the fate of their president with leaders of other countries, sometimes in tones of mockery.

It is hardly surprising that some Palestinians reject the rules of the game that the sponsors of the Geneva-Dead Sea Declaration try to impose, attempting in their own way to enforce the rules of other games. At a time when we are advocating a domestic Palestinian dialogue on shared interim objectives and a common strategy for struggle, the last thing that we need is for every person with a political opinion to introduce his own rules of the game.

The Zionist Israeli left has not earned the status the declaration imparts upon it. It has been given the chance to pose as a pro-peace partner without having taken any credible stand against the Sharon government. What have the Israeli partners in this declaration done, aside from meeting the Palestinians in Europe? What has the Zionist left done about the undeniable crimes of Sharon's government? The Zionist left for the past few years supported the building of the separation wall. It has not shown any solidarity worthy of mention with the Palestinian people and their struggle. Those Israelis who act from a position of solidarity with the Palestinians have opposed the wall, and were mocked by the Zionist left.

All in all, the declaration has lowered the ceiling of the Arab Peace Initiative, to which it makes only a passing reference. It also makes a mention of the roadmap, which it also undermines. In general, it offers Arab countries wishing to lower the bar of the Arab Peace Initiative the perfect alibi. Meanwhile, the declaration has not resulted in a peace agreement, and seems unlikely to, even if it initially won the support of nearly 40 per cent of Israelis, according to polls taken immediately after its publication. Once the official campaign started against it, Israeli public support dropped to 27 per cent. Hence, no real breakthrough has taken place, and no such turn-around is likely to materialise until Israeli leaders begin supporting it.

So, what are we left with? We are left with a Palestinian political force willing to give up the right of return, accept that Israel is the state of the Jewish people, endorse the continued existence of Israeli settlements -- but no peace agreement. This is untenable for a nation under occupation. In the future, if one were to speak against settlement activities and call for removing the settlements, including Gosh Etzion, some Palestinians would counter that Gosh Etzion should remain intact, for any Palestinian who signed the declaration and is committed to its main points would be likely to defend it. Yet, the abdication of the right of return and the endorsement of the continued existence of Israeli settlements is untenable for the Palestinian people. This is the dilemma that has now surfaced onto the Palestinian scene, even without a peace agreement having being reached.

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