Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
23 - 29 December 1999
Issue No. 461
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Issues navigation Current Issue Previous Issue Back Issues

Front Page

Peace, process or worse

By John Whitbeck *

While the resumption of peace negotiations between Israel and Syria must be welcomed, the core of the Arab-Israeli conflict remains the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. On that front, the situation has been grim for several months and is growing grimmer. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and several of his ministers wasted no time in openly expressing their doubts that it will be possible to reach a framework agreement on all permanent status issues by February or a permanent peace agreement by September, the two deadlines set in the "Wye II" agreement, signed in Sharm Al-Sheikh on 5 September.

Less than a week after the signing ceremony, Israeli Communications Minister Binyamin Ben Eliezer was already telling Israel Public Radio: "It is difficult to believe that we will be able to reach an agreement on such crucial issues inside a year," while Minister for Jerusalem Affairs Haim Ramon was publicly proposing signing a "permanent peace treaty" on most permanent status issues but leaving Jerusalem and the refugee issue for further negotiations over a longer period -- when, presumably, Palestine will no longer have any leverage whatsoever and Israel will be able to stonewall eternally.

Within the same week, Barak told Israel Public Radio: "If we do not manage to reach agreement on the final status, we could consider making another interim accord." He also told the London-based Jewish Chronicle that, if no framework agreement is reached by next February, the two sides would have to settle for "long-term interim accords".

It is difficult to believe that these were random and uncoordinated musings, and the implications of such statements are ominous for all who continue to hope, six years after the Declaration of Principles was so optimistically signed, to see peace actually achieved rather than a "peace process" drag on endlessly. By definition, so long as there is a "peace process", there is no peace.

While substantial majorities of both Israelis and Palestinians publicly support the "peace process", it has been apparent from the start that most Palestinians have been focused on "peace", while most Israelis have been focused on "process".

Palestinians who support the peace process have tended to view it as a road, inevitably with some bumps and turns, leading to a destination -- a just and permanent peace and a far better life for both Palestinians and Israelis. Israelis who support the peace process have tended to view it as a means of coping with current problems -- the Intifada, reducing Palestinian violence, keeping American diplomatic support unconditional and American financial support massive, and discouraging the rest of the world from putting any serious pressure on them. (From this perspective, the peace process has, so far, been a huge success for Israelis). If Israelis have viewed the peace process as a road, it has been a circular one, providing a relatively smooth ride but leading nowhere.

Throughout the peace process, one searches in vain for confident statements by Israeli leaders that there is or must be a common destination at which both Israelis and Palestinians would be satisfied to arrive and to live together in peace. After Yitzhak Rabin's assassination, both his wife and his close collaborator Yossi Beilin told interviewers that not only had the late prime minister never told them what his vision of "permanent status" might actually look like, they had never asked him. Such reticence and lack of curiosity would be inconceivable had they not implicitly accepted that the "road to peace" was a circular one, not one with any destination.

Article 1 of the Declaration of Principles states unambiguously: "It is understood that the interim arrangements are an integral part of the whole peace process and that the negotiations on the permanent status will lead to the implementation of Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338." Of course, had Yitzhak Rabin's government really been prepared in 1993 to implement Resolution 242, a five-year interim period would not have been necessary, and, if Ehud Barak's government were really prepared today to implement Resolution 242, a full year of negotiations would be more than ample to reach a permanent peace agreement.

All of the permanent status issues have been exhaustively analysed, and all ways of dealing with them which could be mutually acceptable are well known to both sides. What has been lacking until now is not time but rather any willingness by any Israeli government to comply with international law and any vision of a peaceful destination which, in Israeli eyes, would be sufficiently more attractive than the current, thoroughly tolerable (for Israelis) status quo to cause Israelis to prefer that destination to continuing on the circular road.

The Palestinian leadership could make an enormous contribution to the actual achievement of peace by publicly offering such a vision. Palestine's fundamental rights under international law are incontestable and cannot be renounced, but simply reaffirming them inflexibly, without seeking to integrate them into a vision of a better future which could appear to Israelis, will not inspire Israelis to turn off the circular road for a destination acceptable to Palestinians.

Taking seriously Israel's commitment in Article 1 of the Declaration of Principles and, frankly, having no better alternative, Palestinians have struggled throughout the peace process to keep alive the belief that peace is not just desirable but also achievable. The Netanyahu government gave the impression of believing that peace was not only not achievable but not even desirable. Now, in its early days, the Barak government is making a conscious effort to advertise the belief that, while peace is desirable, it is not achievable, either now or in the foreseeable future. This is deeply dangerous.

If this belief does not quickly change and if, after all the frustrations of the Netanyahu years, Palestinians conclude that, even with the best available Israeli government, peace is not achievable, the consequences will be explosive. If peace is not achieved within the current deadlines, the alternative is unlikely to be, as the Israeli leadership appears to assume, a comfortable, never-ending "process". It is more likely to be something far worse.

A cold and sterile assertion of incontestable rights under international law by the Palestinian leadership, if continued for too long, risks being as fatal to the actual achievement of peace as the cold and sterile assertion of "red lines" that defy international law by the Israeli leadership. A vision of a warm and open peace which is vastly better than the status quo in Israeli as well as Palestinian eyes, publicly proposed by the Palestinian leadership, is both essential and urgent.

* The writer is an international lawyer.

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