Chasing the mirage
Peace, in Israel's eyes, means ridding itself of Arab Israelis. Just and lasting are no more than a joke, writes Hassan Nafaa*
Arab regimes may have reconciled themselves to negotiating for negotiation's sake but it is not something with which the Arab public should have to live with s. Negotiations are a means towards an end, not an end in itself: if they fail to achieve their objective within a reasonable period of time they lose all value and become a burden, even more so when the phase in conflict management is twisted into an instrument for imposing new de facto realities that intensify and complicate the conflict rather than containing or alleviating it. When negotiations drag on unjustifiably and appear, as is the case in the Arab- Israeli conflict, like a wheel that is set to perpetually spin in place then what we have is something akin to a mirage, designed to lure the thirsty yet remain irrevocably distant.
The process that ostensibly aimed to resolve the Arab-Zionist conflict began in the immediate wake of the October 1973 War. It will soon be 35 years old. Even supposing that it only began seriously with the 1991 Madrid conference, i.e. when it became a collective process in which all Arab countries took part, it is still more than 15 years old. It is a long time for a negotiating process, though such a span of time could be tolerated should it offer a glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel. Rather than light, though, negotiations have brought only dismay and an intensifying gloom, to the extent that many now believe there will not be a viable peace settlement should negotiations continue for a millennium or more.
Bush's recent visit to the region served only to confirm this dire prognosis, underlining that the US- Israeli negotiating ceiling remains much lower than the Palestinians and Arabs can accept. It leads us to a single conclusion: that the negotiating process, probably from its outset, is fundamentally flawed.
In order to identify the flaws we must distinguish between the two dimensions of any negotiating process, the technical/procedural, or formal dimension, which comprises such processes as the delineation of the negotiating parties and venues, the setting of proposed agendas and timeframes, and the substantive dimension, which entails those matters connected to political and ideological frameworks and principles, and the aims that the participating parties seek to achieve.
The flaws upon which the Arab-Israeli negotiating process has floundered are both formal and substantive. Among the former must be counted Egypt's decision to negotiate directly, and then enter into a separate treaty, with Israel, and to do so under America's sole sponsorship and outside of the UN framework. Egypt's independent action with regards to an inherently collective struggle set into motion a lethal cycle that debilitated the Arab negotiating position and contributed to entrenching an approach and mechanisms that have been detrimental to Egyptian and Arab interests. At the substantive level, the political and ideological framework for the peace process were so deliberately vague that it was almost inevitable the negotiations would plunge into a morass of dead-ends with the result that merely to continue negotiating has jeopardised Arab interests.
It is important to note, here, that Egypt, and subsequently other Arab countries, entered the negotiating process without a strategy. Israel, by contrast, knew exactly what it wanted. True, it engaged in periodic processes of revision whenever regional or international developments compelled it to alter or refine its tactics, but it never swerved from its strategic aims which revolve around two chief goals. The first is to hold on to the largest possible amount of occupied territories in the West Bank particularly, especially those territories that offer strategic advantages and continued control over water resources. The second was to steer the negotiating process in a way that would weaken and fragment the Arab front while securing for itself qualitative superiority over Arab countries as a whole.
Israel began to poise itself to pursue this strategy, the features of which one could discern in every phase of the negotiating process, well before the process was officially inaugurated. Following its victory in the 1967 War it focussed its attention on obtaining American guarantees to enable it to hold on to the territories it had just occupied until a settlement could be reached that was appropriate to its needs. Israel's most significant achievement during this period was UN Security Council Resolution 242, which is open to diverse interpretations and provides for no executive mechanism. Several years later, in coordination with then US Secretary of State Kissinger, it trained its efforts on stripping the Arabs of the assets that had made their victory in the 1973 War possible. Only after undermining and neutralising Arab solidarity, the oil weapon and Soviet backing, would Israel even begin to consider serious negotiations. Anwar El-Sadat's sudden foreign policy reorientation greatly facilitated Israel's realisation of these objectives.
Then Israel began to impose procedural and substantive conditions for entering into negotiations. It insisted that any negotiations had to be bilateral and without an intermediary except during the preparatory phases, when the only intermediary acceptable to Israel was the US. Second, it refused to recognise any international instrument apart from resolution 242 as a basis for negotiations, and, third, would not enter into negotiations with an Arab party unless that party first unconditionally renounced war or violence as a means to settle the conflict.
It was only with great wavering and wringing of hands that Israel took the decision to withdraw from Sinai back to the international border with Egypt. It took Sadat's visit to Jerusalem, his declaration that the October War would be the last war with Israel and his agreement to conclude a separate accord that would take precedence over Egypt's Arab obligations for Tel Aviv to make its decision. Not that Israel showed any willingness on its part to declare October 1973 the last of its wars with the Arabs or to pledge to withdraw to pre-June 1967 boundaries on other fronts if those governments signed a similar agreement. The reason for this is obvious: it wanted to eliminate Egypt from the Arab-Israeli conflict after which it could home in more effectively on the other parties, one at a time, and using military force if need be. Lebanon came in for the latter several times: in 1978, 1982, 1996 and, most recently, in the summer of 2006.
Following the Madrid conference Israel did everything in its power to prevent US-PLO dialogue before ensuring that the PLO bowed to its conditions. Again, in coordination with the US State Department, it pressured Arafat into recognising Security Council Resolution 242 and, in Oslo in 1993, into relinquishing the armed resistance. Again, Israel did not reciprocate in kind. Above all, it refused to halt its settlement construction activities, a refusal it adhered to even through the recent Annapolis conference.
In keeping with its determination to drive wedges between Arab parties, Israel was instrumental in engineering the rift between Fatah and Hamas. It has been indefatigable in its efforts to goad the PA into reasserting control over Gaza and eliminating Hamas and Jihad in the West Bank. As always, it is unprepared to withdraw to the 1967 borders and still insists on expanding its settlements in and around Jerusalem and on annexing outlying settlements in order to cut them off from the rest of the West Bank. And it still clings, of course, to its rejection of the Palestinian right to return.
After ensuring Washington's support for its refusal to return to the 1967 borders, its annexing of major settlements in the West Bank and its rejection of the Palestinian right to return, Israel came up with new demands. The latest -- that the Arabs now recognise the Jewish character of the state of Israel -- is laden with peril for Palestinians inside Israel who will be vulnerable to expulsion the moment Israel feels that regional and international conditions are conducive to ridding itself of the much feared "demographic time bomb".
Tel Aviv has never been serious about reaching a peaceful settlement to the conflict and remains intent upon realising the two goals of holding on to occupied territory and fragmenting the Arabs. Israel, moreover, is acting in a way that betrays its confidence that inter-Arab differences and rivalries are so deep that it will eventually realise its long-range strategic goal, which is to transform the entire Middle East into a collection of disparate ethnic/sectarian entities among which a purely Jewish Israel will finally fit and dominate as the uncontested regional power.
If this strategy is indicative of anything it is that "just" and "lasting" are not high on Israel's priorities for a settlement while dispelling its Palestinian demographic nightmare is. Using the bugbear of higher Arab procreation rates as a justification for population transfer in order to safeguard the Jewishness of the state is, needless to say, racist par excellence. Yet this has been precisely the drive that has picked up momentum since Sharon came to power and set into motion unilateral plans for an apartheid separation between Jews and Arabs. As though this were not pernicious enough, what is rarely stressed enough is that the amount of land that Israel wants to allocate to the Arabs amounts to no more than 10 per cent of historic Palestine and that even this 10 per cent is not geographically contiguous. Furthermore, the resulting entity is to be entirely demilitarised and run by an authority that takes directions from Tel Aviv. In other words, even Bush's so-called vision of a two-state solution is impossible to implement on the ground, which gives the Arab world all the more reason to stop chasing the negotiating mirage and to begin the search for a real solution. I would suggest that the answer is to be found in reviving the notion of a single bi-national democratic state.
* The writer is a professor of political science at Cairo University.