Palestinian identity versus Israeli security
Can the two notions be reconciled, asks Mohamed Sid-Ahmed
Many of the arguments Israel has been using to justify suspension of peace negotiations with the Palestinians are collapsing one after the other. The main such argument, which is that Arafat stood as a major obstacle to peace, was demolished with the Palestinian leader's death last month. In the aftermath of his passing, several contenders are poised to step into his shoes, notably Abu Mazen and Ahmed Ourei. Then there is the hugely popular Marwan Barghouti, who announced his candidacy from the Israeli jail where he is serving five life sentences on terrorist changes. He had previously announced that he would not be running for the presidency but abruptly changed his mind a few days later. It is not clear how the situation will evolve. Sharon has so far dismissed the possibility of a pardon, but he could reconsider this decision if he believes Barghouti's release would increase inter-Palestinian strife.
Now that the resumption of peace talks is once again on the cards, each party must take the demands of the other under serious consideration. The protagonists can no longer limit their official statements to demands they know in advance to be unacceptable to the other side. On the face of it, the respective terms of reference of the two parties appear to be irreconcilable. For the Israelis, the overriding issue is the question of security, while for the Palestinians it is the question of identity. Sharon proceeds from the premise that no compromises can be made on Israeli's security requirements, while the Palestinians insist that Israel must recognise nothing less than a Palestinian state, with full sovereign prerogatives.
Israel's security, in the eyes of Sharon, entails a complete physical separation between his people and the Palestinians. Hence the security fence he is constructing in defiance of international law and international public opinion. It also entails appropriating significant chunks of the West Bank, thus depriving Palestinians of much of their occupied territory. This security requirement is also being met by the security fence, which is being routed through Palestinian land, beyond the Green Line. It should also be noted that describing Sharon's proposal concerning a pullout -- large or small -- from Gaza as an "evacuation" is misleading, because Sharon conceived his plan with a strategy in mind that is the complete opposite of what the Palestinians are calling for. By pulling out of Gaza, Sharon is liberating Israeli financial and military resources from the onerous task of maintaining order in a troublesome hot spot and re-channelling them to the pursuit of territorial expansion in the West Bank. In fact, he has said the Gaza disengagement would be the last Israeli pullout from Palestinian territory. In the best of cases, if any other pullouts are considered further down the road, they will certainly be made contingent on yet more Palestinian concessions.
Although Sharon has admitted that the Palestinians are living "under occupation", he does not recognise their right to resist that occupation by all available means, even though it is a right enshrined in the UN Charter. As far as he is concerned, ensuring Israel's security requires that the Palestinians renounce the use of violence altogether, not only against civilians but even against military targets belonging to the occupation forces. When all forms of violence are condemned, when no distinction is made between legitimate and illegitimate violence, all forms of resistance can be branded as terrorism. This is in direct contradiction with the slogan raised by Nasser in the wake of the 1967 War, which is that "what is taken by force can only be recovered by force."
We are thus dealing with two circles that do not intersect-- one representing Israeli security concerns and the other representing Palestinian identity concerns. How to bring about a settlement that satisfies these two mutually exclusive concerns.
The main difficulty lies in transforming the Gaza disengagement plan proposed by Sharon from a plan designed to consolidate Israeli occupation into one that does just the opposite, and that is implemented in cooperation with the Palestinian side, not independently from it and not, a fortiori, against it. An all-important question here is whether ending the occupation would not better serve Israeli's security requirements than maintaining it in place. This requires not only the denunciation of violence by both sides, but also a systematic process of confidence- building measures to overcome the mutual hatred and suspicion of the last years.
Meanwhile, Sharon should not be allowed to get away with misleading international public opinion by describing his unilateral disengagement plan as a "withdrawal". This is a man who has been vehemently opposed to withdrawing from any occupied Arab territory throughout his political career; a man who believes in the divine right of Jews to settle in any part of Judea and Samaria. The Arabs must come forward with concrete evidence that the so-called withdrawal is a big lie, a smokescreen behind which Sharon is pursuing his expansionist policy in the West Bank even more energetically.
It is our right, as negotiations resume, to ask Sharon to explain why the disengagement plan is limited to Gaza only and why it does not extend to the West Bank, most of which remains under Israeli occupation. In the absence of an acceptable answer, the Arab side should come forward with a counter- proposal that reflect the Palestinian position and, at the same time, satisfies genuine Israeli security requirements. At this crucial stage, a mutually acceptable formula for the security of both sides can and should be developed.
Moreover, it is not true that the conflict is limited to the Palestinian issue only. Since the war on Iraq, and perhaps also after the U-turn in Libyan diplomacy, many Arab leaders, and perhaps even segments of Arab public opinion, have begun to see the wisdom of adopting a pragmatic line and of seizing any opportunity that presents itself to gain an advantage, however small.
Arafat's disappearance from the scene is said to have improved the chances for peace. Both Sharon and the Bush administration accused the late Palestinian leader of masterminding terrorist attacks against Israelis, but I believe they knew very well that Arafat was helpless to stop the more radical elements in the Palestinian movement from resorting to extreme measures. The sharp distinction made between Arafat and his closest associates was an artificial one designed to lay the full blame on Arafat's shoulders and exonerate the rest of the Palestinian Authority. In the final analysis, this distinction aimed at deepening inter-Palestinian strife and serve to undermine Palestinian attempts at reconciliation and reform.
According to news agency reports on talks between the PLO and other Palestinian organisations, such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad all factions are manifesting an appreciable degree of restraint. Most generally, inter-Arab tensions seem to be easing up, with a growing rapprochement between Syria and the PLO. This is a welcome development that should be encouraged and expanded to include all parties in the region. For it is unacceptable to talk about possible dealings with Israel at a time inter-Arab conflict is at its most acute. But overcoming regional tensions will not be easy and many obstacles stand in the way. For example, Egypt's relations with Iran are threatened by the alleged infiltration of an Iranian spy who has been charged with plotting to carry out assassinations in Egypt. According to a report published last week in the US daily The Boston Herald, Iran recently handed over an Egyptian wanted for terrorism to the Egyptian authorities, an act that is hard to reconcile with Iran's involvement in bizarre plot on Egyptian soil. We should not exclude the possibility that this is a provocation, the first of many we are likely to see over the coming delicate period as hostile forces work to sabotage peace efforts in the region.
We should also not exclude the possibility that the coming period will witness big changes in Israel, notably the formation of a national unity government between Sharon and Peres to overcome resistance by Likud hard-liners to the Gaza disengagement plan. According to The Jerusalem Post, Sharon intends to ask Peres "to run the country with him in a new 'super deputy premiership' that would grant Peres vast powers beyond those enjoyed by any number two". This move would help Sharon regain majority control of the Knesset, which has narrowed considerably following the pullout of the secular right-wing Shinui Party from the present Likud coalition. It is still possible, however, that Netanyahu will try to iron out his differences with Sharon and attempt to bring about some form of reconciliation within the Likud to thwart the prime minister's plan to take Peres on board.