Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
25 Nov. - 1 Dec. 1999
Issue No. 457
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Issues navigation Current Issue Previous Issue Back Issues

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Self-criticism as a weapon

By Mohamed Sid-Ahmed

Mohamed Sid-Ahmed In my intervention at a recent symposium organised by Spain's Alcala (Arabic for 'the citadel') University on the theme of education for peace, democracy and human rights, I said that any attempt to spread a culture of peace through education alone was unlikely to succeed unless the parties recognised that self-criticism was as important as education in establishing the foundations of a culture of peace. Stressing the importance of introducing the mechanism of self-criticism to the Middle East peace process, I called on the European Union's special representative in the process, Miguel Angel Moratinos, who chaired the symposium's closing session, to organise a seminar on the theme of self-criticism in relation to the Arab-Israeli conflict. I proposed that the seminar be held in Germany, on the grounds that the German state under Hitler was responsible for the most extreme forms of persecution suffered by the Jews, setting in motion the dynamics which led to the creation of Israel, the persecution of the Palestinian people by the Jewish state and the long and bitter Arab-Israeli conflict.

My proposal was based on three fundamental propositions. The first is that in the context of globalisation, the approach to conflict-resolution can no longer be based on the winner-takes-all, loser-takes-nothing scenario, because such an outcome will inevitably cause the conflict to resurface, possibly in a different form, possibly also in a different place. Globalisation is based on the notion of the global village where, thanks to the communication and information revolution, distances have for all intents and purposes disappeared and the frame of reference has become the planet as a whole. The second is that in order to ensure that a conflict which has been resolved will not resurface, any settlement must produce gains for all the parties, that is, there must be no winners or losers. In other words, if it is not a win-win outcome, or, in the jargon of game theory, a non-zero sum game plus, it is bound to be a lose-lose outcome, or a non-zero sum game minus. The third proposition flows from the second: once we assume that unless all the parties to a conflict stand to gain from a settlement of that conflict they will all end up as losers, we must also assume that not all the wrongs which sparked off the conflict in the first place and caused it to attain unmanageable proportions can be attributed to one of the protagonists alone, that they are present in one form or another in all protagonists. Accordingly, the conflict cannot be overcome unless each side is ready to criticise itself and not only the other.

Self-criticism is useful not only because it makes criticism of the other credible and proves that criticising the other, no matter how harshly, is not intended to undermine the peace process, but because it can, if property used, play an important role in overcoming the conflict and facilitating the achievement of a settlement. Engaging in a process of self-criticism encourages the other party to acknowledge defects and mistakes that it would never do in the context of formal negotiations conducted at the official level and/or of boycott at the popular level.

Ideally, the seminar I proposed to Moratinos would be held in one of Germany's big cities and bring together European intellectuals, both German and non-German, as well as a number of Israel's new historians, who have exposed many of the fallacies and myths on which Israel's official historiography is based. The aim of the seminar will be to establish Europe's collective responsibility for the Holocaust, in the sense that the persecution of European Jews over the centuries set the stage for their systematic extermination under the Third Reich. But Europe's self-criticism in regard to the persecution of the Jews would be incomplete and inconsistent if it is not accompanied by European self-criticism to the Palestinians for the persecution they have suffered at the hands of the Israelis as a result -- albeit indirect -- of the persecution suffered by the Jews in Europe. To guarantee that the seminar addresses Palestinian and not only Jewish grievances, it must be attended by Palestinian as well as other Arab intellectuals.

Actually, in given circumstances self-criticism is not only useful but unavoidable. For example, it is significant to note Arafat's recent insistence on the need to comply with Security Council Resolution 242, as though compliance with its provisions is no longer taken for granted. It is patently obvious that Barak wants to free himself from the constraints of the resolution, openly declaring that it is no longer the frame of reference for the peace process, at least as far as the Palestinian problem is concerned. According to official Israeli statements, the proper interpretation of the resolution should go beyond the face of the document, beyond its explicit textual and legal provisions to its political and diplomatic content. What this means in practical terms is to vitiate the resolution of any force and effect.

Barak has made no secret of his disdain for Resolution 242 from the moment he assumed office. In his first statement as prime minister he made his position clear with his famous four no's: no to a return to the June 4, 1967 borders, no to the dismantling of the bulk of the Jewish settlements; no to the division of Jerusalem, which is to remain Israel's eternal capital; no to the deployment of any foreign troops west of the River Jordan. It was initially believed that Barak no's were nothing more than an opening gambit, a preliminary bargaining position that could be revised in the course of negotiations, but events have since proved that they expressed a principled stand, a bottom line Israel will not cross under any circumstances. The four no's are in direct contradiction with the letter and spirit of Resolution 242, which emphasises in its preamble "the inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by war". In other words, seizure of land can only become legitimate if the Palestinian negotiator recognises that the land in question is no longer his.

Because Barak knows that the legitimacy of Israel's seizure of Palestinian land depends on the legitimacy of the Palestinian party which waives its right to that land, he is keen that the final document be signed by a Palestinian entity whose capacity and legitimacy are above reproach under international law. As neither the PLO, in whose name previous interim agreements have been signed, nor the Palestinian Authority (PA), enjoy the legal prerogatives that make their signature on a final agreement valid in terms of international law, his only option was to accept the establishment of a Palestinian state.

It is no accident that the Israeli side has consistently resisted recognising the PA as a Palestinian National Authority, and insists on calling the Palestinian parliament the 'elected body' not the Legislative Council and on designating Arafat the chairman, not the president. This obvious determination to strip all Palestinian institutions of legitimacy does not deter Barak from claiming that Israel's recognition of a Palestinian state represents a concession to the Palestinians, who will be required to offer still more concessions in counterpart.

This is where Palestinian self-criticism is needed. The PA would do well to pay heed to some of the criticisms Palestinian -- and non-Palestinian -- intellectuals and other political figures have expressed with respect to the Oslo accords and many other agreements signed since. This would help dissipate tensions between Syria and the PA, whose rapprochement would make it difficult for Israel to play one Arab party off against the other and, more generally, help break the mould in which the negotiation process has been cast since the Camp David accords of 1978, which established a pattern of bilateral dealings between Israel and each Arab party separately from the others. At this stage of the game, the Arab parties cannot afford to remain divided among themselves. But to pass from discord and dissension to coordination and solidarity requires genuine and sweeping self-criticism by all concerned. The entire future of the Middle East can depend on this key factor.

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