Al-Ahram Weekly On-line   Al-Ahram Weekly On-line
2 - 8 November 2000
Issue No. 506
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Flawed from the start

By Ibrahim Nafie

Ibrahim Nafie The Aqsa Intifada, and Israeli and US reactions to it, have exposed the serious flaws at the heart of the Arab-Israeli peace process. Nine years on from Madrid, seven years since Oslo, and that process is in tatters, beyond palliatives and partial remedies. What is needed now is a pause to reflect on the fundamental defects that beset the peace process from the outset.

When the Arabs went to Madrid in 1991, it was clear to all that they had taken the historic decision to negotiate with Israeli on the basis of Security Council resolutions 242 and 338 and the principle of land for peace. What has happened since then?

The history of the peace process since Madrid has been an endless chain of Israeli ploys and foot-dragging to evade fulfilling its obligations and to buy time in order to secure political and economic advantages. The Israeli approach was expressed succinctly by Rabin: "No deadlines are sacred," he said, a position reaffirmed by Netanyahu and Barak who insisted Israel would alone determine if and when to implement its obligations under the agreements it signed.

The Oslo agreement, signed on the White House lawn on 13 September 1993, provided for three interim phases, the last of which was to have been concluded after five years, in September 1998, with the creation of an independent Palestinian state and a resolution of final status issues. Today, two years beyond that deadline, the Oslo agreement is still in its second phase, while final status issues that will make or break the peace process are still pending.

Following the assassination of Rabin in November 1995 Israeli leaders appeared determined to engender a climate of violence and anger. Under Perez, Prime Minister from November 1995 to May 1996, negotiations froze and Israel perpetrated the massacre at Qana. His successor, Netanyahu, who served from May 1996 to May 1999, gave the go ahead to open the tunnel beneath the Wailing Wall, precipitating a wave of Palestinian and Arab fury which was met with Israeli tanks targeting defenceless civilians.

This period saw the first attempt to salvage the Oslo accords. The Wye River understanding was also a three phase interim agreement. And while the Palestinians fulfilled their part of the agreement, Netanyahu balked at fulfilling his obligations under the first phase and refused to implement subsequent phases. The so-called Israeli left, and the Clinton administration, assured the Arabs that the obstacles came from the Israeli right wing. The downfall of Netanyahu in the Israeli elections and the victory of Labour Party leader Ehud Barak would, they said, get the peace process back on track.

Barak's contributions to the peace process are best summed up by the Israeli press, which dubbed him "Barakyahu", epitomising how little he differed from his predecessor. Haaretz, of 29 October, observed that Barak was so intent on his winner-take-all game that he did everything in his power to weaken Arafat's position and push Palestinian feelings to the bursting point. I will even go so far as to add that the current situation in Palestine is the product of a plan, carefully devised by Barak and executed in coordination with Sharon, a plan that ultimately leaves the Palestinian people with no choice but to return to armed resistance. Nor does Barak want to calm the situation down; he wants to trigger more violence and bloodshed in the belief that recourse to excessive force will enable him to impose Israeli conditions on the Palestinians.

What was it in the Madrid and Oslo formulas that allowed the Israelis to wreak such havoc on the peace process?

Of fundamental importance was that from the outset there were no clear and specific terms of reference for the negotiations. UN Security Council resolution 338, for example, is too loosely worded and open to conflicting interpretations; the principle of land for peace was too vague.

The phased approach, in accordance with which the major negotiating issues were parceled up into dozens of sub-issues, each with its own array of sub-divisions, and each requiring its own phased agreement, was also structurally flawed, allowing for Jewish settlement expansion and Jewish extremism to accumulate.

Related to the parcelled approach was the fact that the crucial issues related to the Palestinian cause were stripped of their Arab and Islamic dimensions and confined to the Palestinian-Israeli track. Israel, as a result, was under the impression that it could dictate its conditions on the weaker negotiating party, whereas, in fact, the PA does not have the remit to negotiate, independently, over the status of Jerusalem, or of refugee Palestinians living outside the West Bank and Gaza. Israel's misassessment of the balance of powers on this track was a major reason why it acted with such belligerence, poisoning the climate of the entire peace process.

Another problem was that every interim agreement created new points of friction between the Palestinians and Israelis. The splitting up of the Palestinian territories into three security zones increased confrontations between Israel's occupation forces and Palestinians, a situation exacerbated by Israel's recourse to collective punishment, economic blockades, waves of detentions and the deliberate destruction of crops. And as the peace process dragged on, Jewish settlements became a persistent locus of provocation and violence. The 400 settlers in Kariat Arba in Hebron, for example, appropriated 20 per cent of the land area of the city, while thousands of trigger happy occupation soldiers are ready to "protect the settlers."

But the most serious problem with the Madrid/Oslo formula was that it lacked international sponsorship. The US, effectively the sole sponsor of the peace process, was so biased in its support of Israel that it lost any credibility.

A fresh approach is clearly needed to resolve the complex and sensitive issues involved in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, one able to overcome the defects inherent in the Madrid/Oslo formula. A new and viable vision will demand the concerted efforts of Egyptian and Arab intellectuals and research centres, and in this regard it may be useful to study conflict resolution experiences in such areas as Bosnia, Kosova and East Timor. Above all, however, any viable formula must have clearly defined starting points and objectives and the international community must be allowed to shoulder responsibilities, whether with regard to peace keeping, the protection of civilians, the prosecution of war criminals or the enforcement of the provisions of a just and comprehensive peace.

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