With the roadmap dead in the water, Israel faces its most critical moment of decision ever: opt for lasting peace, or embark on perpetual war, writes Azmi Bishara
Israel's invasion of Lebanon ushered in a new regional situation that has made the choice between war and peace extremely clear. This clarity is troublesome for Israel, which is unwilling to pay the price of either choice. As a result, the US, Israel and a number of Arab governments are feverishly trying to cloud that clarity and their instrument for doing so, at least at the PR level, is the Palestinian settlement industry: that inexhaustible source of quasi-initiatives, pseudo- dialogues, confidence-building "processes" and efforts to find a way back to the roadmap. Meanwhile Palestinians wake up every morning to find that they need a new map just to get to work, so frequently does the terrain change with all the additions to the separation wall and the barricades and checkpoints that appear and prevent from one day to the next.
It was no coincidence that Olmert shelved his agenda for unilateral disengagement from the West Bank as soon as the war in Lebanon ended. I say "agenda" because this scheme for dictating a permanent border intended to annex the whole of Jerusalem and large chunks of the West Bank to Israel hardly merits being ranked as a political platform, there being no others in sight as far as the Palestinians are concerned. Why was it no coincidence? Because to the Israeli mind, the withdrawal from Lebanon in 2000 was a unilateral action: it was then that it first occurred to the Israelis that unilateralism was a feasible alternative to diplomatic settlements. Coming in the wake of the collapse of negotiations with Syria, the withdrawal is -- rightfully -- regarded by Arabs as a retreat forced upon Israel by the liberation struggle. The Israelis, however, look back on it as a voluntary action undertaken independently of any settlement or peace agreement, even though they could have just as well withdrawn from Lebanon within the framework of a settlement with Syria that resolved the question of the Golan Heights. In this sense, Barak rather than Sharon was the father of unilateral withdrawal.
The unilateral disengagement from Gaza was Israel's response to the collapse of Camp David II, which took place under Barak, and the subsequent desire, under Sharon, to block off all avenues to any new initiatives, such as the Arab peace initiative or even the roadmap which Likudist Israel wanted to wriggle out of in spite of how damaging it was for the Arabs.
Israel had staged a complete withdrawal from Sinai as the price it had to pay for eliminating one of the key Arab states from the equation of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Since then, Israel's negotiating behaviour can be summed up as follows: If any of the remaining Arab negotiating parties reject Israel's conditions for a settlement and for the amount of occupied territory to be returned in exchange for peace, Israel declares that there is no "Arab negotiating partner." Then it proceeds to execute plans of its own, withdrawing from those portions of occupied territory that it regards as too much hassle because of resistance operations or too burdensome demographically.
But it's not just the unilateralism that those no longer existent negotiating partners find so irksome. It is the fact that Israel invariably leaves in its wake some nasty and intolerable problems, such as keeping one last piece of territory under occupation or transforming the territory it withdrew from into a huge ghetto-cum-concentration camp, the ports of entry of which it controls entirely and which it raids or invades with routine regularity since, after all, there was no agreement and there is no peace. In other words, Israel does exactly what it wants.
As differently as the Arabs view the situations in Gaza and in Lebanon, to Israel the reasons its unilateral policy backfired can all be reduced to the same source: the growing impetus of the resistance. If this phenomenon manifested itself in Palestine in Hamas's electoral victory, it drove itself more powerfully home through the bravery and efficacy of resistance forces in Lebanon. Add to this the fact that the Olmert government cannot afford another confrontation with the Israeli right over even the smallest withdrawal from the West Bank when the domestic atmosphere is already charged by the heated controversy over the causes of Israeli failure in Lebanon and it becomes obvious why the unilateral withdrawal plan from the West Bank has been called off.
Long before this, in Camp David II, Barak overrode the Oslo Accords concluded with Rabin and the Wye River understanding made with Netanyahu. It took only the unilateral disengagement plan to effectively dismantle all previous agreements. At Camp David, Barak declared that he did not want partial, phased agreements, but a once-and-for-all settlement. Yet when those talks collapsed all previous agreements remained frozen, after which unilateral disengagement came along to effectively bury them. Now, unilateral solutions have fallen by the wayside after having put paid to partial solutions.
But that is not all that is evident in the wake of war against Lebanon. It is also obvious that the politics of brute force has collapsed. One reason that Israel fought an American war in Lebanon was to revive that deterrent power it had long depended upon on as long as the Arabs refused to accept its dictates. Yet Israel emerged from that war with the mystique of its deterrent power more shattered than ever. No one in Israel is disputing that Israel failed in the war on Lebanon. Rather the contention revolves around why it failed and who to hold responsible. The Arabs would do well to bear this in mind, because the very fact that everyone from the far left to the far right in Israel are debating the consequences of failure implies that the war is still ongoing, if by other means. Meanwhile, in the Arab world the question of Israeli failure appears not to have been settled, suggesting a strong reluctance on the part of some to give the Lebanese resistance the credit it so fully merits.
A big question mark now hovers over the efficacy of the air force, which has not only been a major component of the Israeli deterrent principle but also a long-fabled instrument of offensive battle against a resistance that enjoys such a broad base of popular support. Israel's air force may be effective against national armies of unpopular governments, but in this short war against Lebanon (albeit long from the Israeli perspective), Israeli air power, in spite of the enormous destruction it wrought, failed to crush the will of the people.
But there's more. The resistance put paid to that fundamental corollary of the Israeli deterrent policy, which is "to export the war to enemy territory and keep it out of Israeli territory". That Israel's air force could do nothing to halt the increasingly heavier missile bombardment of northern Israeli towns and cities eventually compelled Israel to send in land forces, which only exacerbated Israel's military predicament.
Simultaneously, the war put paid to another corollary of Israeli military philosophy: the blitzkrieg principle. Before Lebanon, Israel had always been able to resort to massive tactical bombardment, the immediate destruction of the enemy's line of command, rapid incursion into enemy territory to occupy a strip of territory and whatever other tactics it took to resolve the battle quickly so as to avoid getting bogged down in an extended war of attrition. The resistance proved true to its definition; by its very nature it is the antibody to blitzkriegs. This should serve as a reminder to those who maintain that the resistance deterrent collapsed upon the Israeli attack of Lebanon.
One after the other, Israel's alternatives collapsed. The politics of force fell to the wayside in Israel's recently botched attempt to resurrect its deterrent strategy and, before this, partial solutions were shunted aside by the unilateral disengagement policy, which, too, now, has been taken off the drawing board. What choices does it have left? Only two: either a just, lasting and comprehensive peace, or political and diplomatic stagnation which can only degenerate into war and, most likely, a protracted one if its adversaries adopt the strategy of resistance. The very clarity of this choice presents Israel with its foremost strategic dilemma.
If the Arabs are to capitalise on this situation they should, at the very least, not budge one inch from their initiative for a just and lasting peace. The ball is now in the Israeli court. Any new initiatives or adjustments will merely offer Israel and others an opening to lead everyone down that garden path of diplomatic manoeuvres, dialogues over nothing, and visits intended to build up hopes, sew new illusions and obfuscate self-evident facts. These are the tactics not of dispelling illusions but of dispelling clarity.
This is not to deny that the Arab initiative was ill timed. Coming, as it did, in the post-11 September furore, it was a sign of weakness. Originating with Saudi Arabia, in deference to a hint from Washington following the wave of anti-Arab and ant-Muslim provocations in the US at the time, it was an image- enhancing initiative, as though it fell upon the Arabs to prove how peace loving they were. It was a caving- in to blackmail. No wonder it offered the opening for extracting new concessions from the Arabs, starting from their first visits to Washington after adopting this initiative, which ultimately was reduced to little more than a footnote in the roadmap.
This said, it is simultaneously important to recall Israel issued no positive response whatsoever to the Arab initiative. But, rather than emphasising this fact, and rather than sticking to the initiative so long as it was out there and, indeed, rather than making Israel's predicament so crystal clear that Israel can't help but to face it, we find Arab governments helping to disseminate new illusions.
Meanwhile, there is another fog machine operating in the region: "the Palestinian cause routine". The most obvious examples are Blair's visits to Palestine after the war against Iraq and, again, after the war against Lebanon. Whenever there is a lull between Western military campaigns in this region you know it's Palestinian cause time again. It is a fleeting season, for after a brief flurry of activity and displays of earnest concern, the cause is again put on hold until the next crisis.
These PR routines serve multiple functions. Above all, they work as a kind of antiseptic that cleanses the image of the aggressor as he rallies support for the next round and they smooth the way for Arab governments, which cannot take part in coalitions or boycotts or sanction campaigns unless some movement is being made on the Palestinian cause. The operative word, here, is movement, as opposed to solution. Movement is better than stagnation. It's all in the "process", they say. Just keep it going, and all will be fine.
According to Haaretz of 19 September, the US advised Israel to stick to goodwill initiatives towards the Palestinian president. Olmert should agree to meet Abu Mazen and, perhaps, release a few Palestinian prisoners, for example. That should be enough right now to enable Arab governments to continue to pitch into the drive to isolate and topple the elected Palestinian government. Instead of making the choices explicit to Israel, Arab governments are helping to make the choices explicit to Palestinian officials who Israel and the US have decided should not have been popularly elected. Those choices are either to recognise Israel and agreements that Israel itself no longer recognises or to remain under economic blockade.
By playing along with the Palestinian cause routine, the Arabs are helping the US and other powers to rescue Israel from the wall it has run up against. This could be a historical watershed, because if Israel were made to choose it would not opt for comprehensive war over comprehensive peace. Major developments in the region have palpably demonstrated that overturning or dismantling an Arab status quo by force produces more dangerous types of enemies for the American and Israeli projects. These types of enemies, moreover, do not offer, nor are they in a position to offer, constructive alternatives for their societies, unlike Hizbullah or Hamas and its allies. These resistance movements are working on the ground in and with their societies and, therefore, are in a position, if they summon the appropriate will and ingenuity, to promote socio-political visions that can take their societies beyond the logic and tactics of resistance to new horizons of peaceful coexistence among diverse political trends committed to national sovereignty and opposed to foreign intervention.
I am unable to recall an occasion in which Israel was so bereft of a political alternative as it is now. This has come at a time when Israel has come face to face with the most crucial decisions ever. Until now, the Israeli leadership has never asked its citizens to choose between a just and lasting peace or lasting warfare. If it were to put the choice before them so succinctly, I have no doubt that the government would be surprised by the numbers of people who voted in favour of peace and would be willing to pay the necessary price. Sadly, there is no leadership in Israel capable of rising to such a historic moment. Sadder yet are the many Arabs who are denying the results of the war against Lebanon, calling for the resurrection of a dead roadmap and doing whatever else they can to extricate Israel from one of the toughest spots it has ever been in.