Al-Ahram Weekly Online   3 - 9 April 2008
Issue No. 891
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Azmi Bishara

What we must do

In his third instalment on Israel's historic options, Azmi Bishara argues that Arab democratisation and development are at the heart of resisting Israel's strategic choice of permanent war against the Arab nation

The floundering negotiations between the Palestinian Authority (under the heading of the Palestine Liberation Organisation) and Israel may eventually produce an agreement that leads to the creation of a Palestinian state. Perhaps even now, an intensive secret parallel negotiating process is in progress, unaffected by reactions from the Israeli right or Arab public opinion. Perhaps, too, negotiations are much deeper and further along than the impression given by the media. Whatever the case, US and Israeli decision-makers clearly believe that the production of a Palestinian state will be all it takes to bring peace to the region, regardless of those conditions of theirs that the new state will have to meet, such as not extending up to pre-June 1967 borders, not having East Jerusalem as its capital and relinquishing the right of return for Palestinian refugees. Israel and the Bush administration have worked hard to fit the Palestinian demand for statehood into a package that clips, trims and essentially eliminates all Palestinian national rights.

It is useful, here, to consider why Yasser Arafat turned down such an offer at Camp David. His rejection has less to do with his commitment to "fixed principles" than it does with his grasp of how that solution would play in Palestinian and Arab opinion: it would have no legitimacy. Arafat had linked his personal and political career to negotiations. This was after the war to liberate Kuwait, after the reduction of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) to a bureaucracy in Tunis following the PLO exodus from Beirut, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, and after the Intifada had reached a dead end. Yet Arafat continued to reject the offer after he had become hostage to the Israeli siege on his Ramallah headquarters. He paid the price for his rejection. In the official Arab funeral procession for Arafat, and among a considerable segment of his inner circle, one could sense the sigh of relief. They were now rid of the man who had obstructed the wheels of the very process that he had set into motion and that began to turn again after his death.

Even if the negotiations do not produce a settlement, we should not rule out the possibility of a document of principles on the final settlement, a document similar in spirit to the "offer" Arafat rejected and that Olmert would use as the basis for an electoral campaign and Mahmoud Abbas for a referendum. Simultaneously, if negotiations do not produce a settlement, the effect on the Palestinian and Arab scene seems evident enough. The front that rejects a settlement and opts for sustaining the resistance will gain strength and momentum, even if some leaders persist with the "peace process" for years. On the other hand, if a settlement of the sort described above is reached, that does not mean that the national struggle has attained its end. That settlement is not a formula for a true "two-state solution," which has some legitimacy. Even if what is currently being marketed as a two-state solution satisfies some Arab leaders who are ready to go along with whatever the Palestinian Authority leadership accepts because they are eager to shed the burden of the Palestinian cause, it will not meet with acceptance at the popular level because it falls so far short of fairness and adequate compensation for the injustice done to the Palestinian people.

Some may object that this is all very vague and abstract. The fact is, however, that the proposed formula overlooks some very tangible concerns, such as the cause of the refugees, which is the very root and heart of the problem and thus carries considerable qualitative and moral weight, since it pertains to the actual suffering of millions of people. The proposed settlement offers these people no more than the chance to change their status from "refugee" to foreign subjects or aliens. Nor, after such a settlement is reached, will Israel let Jerusalem rest. On the contrary, it will gnaw at the wound through continuous Judaisation and appropriation of the land and holy places of this city. Israel will also intensify its drive to Judaise the state and become ever more overbearing and arrogant in its relations with its Arab citizens, who will be forced to choose between total allegiance to Israel, inclusive of military service and restrictions on their civil rights, and exile. For those who insist on expressing their national identity inside Israel, Israel will inform them that that identity has found sufficient expression in the Palestinian entity next door.

On top of all this, there will remain the conflict between the need to develop, modernise and build the army of the Palestinian state, and the perpetual fear that plagues Israel as an alien body in its regional environment of the evolution of that state. And, there will also remain the conflict between Israel and democratisation in the Arab world, because it fears the mood and vicissitudes of the majority of Arab public opinion.

If the Palestinian people agreed on a solution, that would be sufficient to settle any questions about its legitimacy at the regional level. The problem with the proposal at hand is that it is being pushed by means of an outside alliance with one Palestinian faction against another Palestinian faction, one of which that swept the last legislative elections. Meanwhile, to Palestinians in the Diaspora, a solution that by definition excludes the refugees is automatically out of the question. The solution, thus, has no basis of legitimacy among the Palestinian people. But to aggravate the problem, it has become a cause of fierce infighting, with the result that part of the solution's ripening process is to bombard and starve a part of the Palestinian people until they buckle before the inevitable. This is not a sign of legitimacy.

Regionally, the settlement is being pushed through against the backdrop of American hegemony and the coalescence of two antagonistic regional alliances, one of which will blazon the injustice of this type of settlement as a banner in its battles. The settlement is being pushed with no regard for the Arab public's revulsion at the current peace process, its conviction that Israel is not interested in a just peace, and its rejection of Israel's international privileges. Whether or not the Arab public's premises are correct, Arab regimes bear a large measure of the responsibility for their current situation in the face of that settlement solution, the US-Israeli alliance and international double standards wherever Israel is concerned. Neither the settlement nor the process that led to it is legitimate in the public eye. Also, the brutality that Israel has unleashed to drive the Palestinian people away from resistance into bowing to Israeli conditions has fed popular rancour and fuelled the tendency to hurl accusations of treachery at Arab parties lending themselves to the settlement process.

True, the Arab people generally have little recourse under their current regimes. But they are repelled by the sight of Arab parties conspiring with Israel against the results of the Palestinian elections and by ongoing negotiations with Israel while Israel lays siege to and bombards civilians in the middle of the Arab world. Nor is Arab public taken in by the objection, "Israeli settlement construction is an obstacle to peace," which people see as no more than an upping of the stakes in order to stay in the negotiating game, in spite of ongoing settlement construction and regardless of the contempt this shows for Arab public opinion on the part of Arab governments that have it in their power to do much more.

Israel has rejected what broad segments of Palestinian and Arab people regard as legitimate solutions. It has, thereby, opted for permanent conflict, regardless of whatever other arrangements it pursues outside the framework of a just and lasting peace. The conflict will continue, even if it scores the type of settlement it has in mind.

The Arab region has encountered a very similar situation in the past. It took the form of the crusader state that, too, lived in permanent conflict with its environment. I will not enumerate the similarities, because that is not the point here. Suffice it to say that, in spite of the obviously different historical contexts, the crusader state contracted numerous pacts and alliances with Arab rulers against other Arab rulers, and it is not difficult to identify contemporary parallels. We can also point to the burning of the Church of the Resurrection as a way to spark fighting in the days of the madness of Al-Hakim Bi Amr Allah, and we can easily come up with equally unbalanced leaders with similar motives today. We could even mention the role the northern princedoms played in facilitating the passage of crusader armies from Antioch to Jerusalem, or how religion was used to drum up and mobilise armies and even to define the identities of those who waged the campaigns and those who resisted them.

Indeed, we could bring up any number of such similarities, but at every turn we'd find someone who would counter -- correctly -- that the current international order is completely different from that which prevailed in the days of the crusader knights and Arab princedoms. To be sure, the permanence and stability of the modern Arab and Jewish state is of a radically different quality; the role of religion is not the same today as it was then, and the relationship between Israel and the West is far deeper and more immediate than that between the crusader state and Europe. The fall of Jerusalem into crusader hands occurred 10 days before the then reigning pope died, but the news did not reach Rome until after his death. The comparison also breaks down in the face of the considerable technological and scientific gap between Israel and the Arabs, a gap that did not exist between the four crusader kingdoms and their Arab, Turkish and Persian Islamic surroundings.

More significantly, we can counter that it is also obvious that the Arabs today are not the Arabs of the past. The Arabs today have a totally different mindset in terms of national and pan-Arab consciousness, common interests and concerns, as well as an understanding of colonialism and the cause of national expression. Therefore, we are not so naïve to draw analogies. But we do have a paradigm: an alien state in the region implanted by colonialist military expeditions, establishing itself in opposition to its environment and dependent for its continuity on its fortifications and knights and on the exploitation of the animosities extant between the political entities around it. (The religious mobilisation on both sides, which some see as the crux of the matter, is from this perspective only evidence of the determination of the implant to remain alien).

By rejecting a legitimate solution, Israel has chosen to remain a heavily fortified citadel, surviving by dint of its power of deterrence and inter-Arab squabbles. These differences have, of course, paved the way for Arab-Israeli accords, but then the path of perpetual conflict chosen by the crusader state was also paved with pacts and treaties. This strategic choice is clearly deeply seated in Israeli public opinion and rests on sources of strength provided by a distorted and unhealthy relationship with the US, which has no precedent in international relations. There is very little hope on the horizon that Israel will come around to either the one-state or the two-state solution, which means that the Palestinians and the Arabs can anticipate a situation that is not conducive to the fulfilment of their rights. But this does not mean that they should renounce their rights. Rather, they should reject all unfair solutions and, at the same time, develop a fixed democratic alternative to present to both Jews and Arabs within a framework of safeguarding for future welfare of the Arab region as a whole.

This is the course of the pursuit of life and development while sustaining the means of subsistence in Palestine and resistance against the de facto realities Israel is creating on the ground. Resistance can accomplish important partial gains while forestalling the normalisation of a colonialist condition. However, the major challenge to Israel is at the regional level and resides in the cumulative progress the Arabs can achieve towards building their capacities to withstand Israel, through the modernisation of their states and societies, through the performance of such essential tasks as building their deterrent powers, economic development and democratisation. The struggle is a long one, but it must be conducted, and at a proper pace. Time is not in favour of Israel; it is in favour of whoever uses it astutely. That is one of the most important lessons of the past 60 years.

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