Al-Ahram Weekly On-line   Al-Ahram Weekly On-line
2 - 8 November 2000
Issue No. 506
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A dangerous vacuum

By Mohamed Sid-Ahmed

Mohamed Sid-Ahmed The Israeli daily Ha'aretz gave prominent coverage to Foreign Minister Amr Moussa's statement that the peace process is finished and that new standards are needed to form a new basis for negotiations. In an interview published in the Lebanese daily Al-Safir following the Cairo summit, Moussa declared that "Nobody among the Arabs, and especially among the Palestinians, will agree to return to the negotiating table on the basis of the old criteria and standards. Right now, the resolute stance taken by the Palestinian people, and its resistance to Israeli occupation, is the top priority. These standards will be determined by the Arabs. Decisions reached at the recent Arab summit are not routine, and Israel isn't pleased with them at all."

Moussa added that all necessary steps will be taken to prevent Israeli infiltration into the Arab world and spoke of Israel's "loathsome violations of human rights." He said the Arabs should assist the Palestinian Intifada in four ways: by taking a firm, pan-Arab position in support of the Palestinian people; by providing material support and delivering money to alleviate economic problems in the occupied territories; by lobbying in the international arena for an end to the siege which Israel is enforcing against the Palestinians; and by refusing to return to the old negotiation framework.

Israel cannot fault Moussa's analysis of the situation. After all, following the failure of the Camp David summit last July, Barak himself admitted that the peace process between Israel and the Palestinians was over and that, accordingly, the possibility of a war erupting on any of the fronts, even by mistake or miscalculation, could not be discounted. It is rumoured that Barak wanted to translate his veiled threat into an actual military confrontation with Syria and Lebanon, but that Clinton managed to dissuade him at the last minute.

Barak claims that the alternative to a resumption of negotiations is to establish a complete separation between Israelis and Palestinians. However, that is easier said than done. Years of intensive negotiations between the parties in the context of globalisation and under American sponsorship have created bonds that are hard to break. One particularly salient expression of these bonds is how the Intifada has echoed inside Israel, arousing the Israeli Arabs, including their representatives in the Knesset, the very heart of Israel's institutional buildup.

The demise of the peace process and the absence of a viable alternative have created a dangerous vacuum that many fear will inevitably lead to military confrontation. There are those who believe this worst-case scenario can be avoided by freezing the situation as it now stands -- that is, by imposing some sort of separation between the two sides which, while not allowing for the achievement of peace, would nevertheless avoid the outbreak of war. According to the proponents of the no-war, no-peace scenario, this requires only that the parties come to some kind of agreement, tacit or otherwise, for the establishment of a mini-Palestinian state that would enjoy the symbolic attributes of statehood without many of the prerogatives of sovereignty. However, this would be a very unstable equilibrium that is more likely to encourage friction and confrontation than the opposite.

To begin with, once the results of the American elections are announced next week, the incumbent president's ability to affect the course of events in the Middle East will be greatly diminished. True, his tenure does not actually end until 20 January, but his influence on the protagonists is determined to a very great extent by his ability to reward them with substantial economic aid. And the protagonists know very well that no such reward is likely to be forthcoming in the few weeks left for him in the White House.

Moreover, it is highly unlikely that the new president will devote as much attention to the Middle East conflict as Clinton did, if only because experience has proved how resistant it remains to a solution despite the time and effort devoted to the search for a settlement. And any attempt by any American president to act as an honest broker between the parties will be severely hampered by the blatant bias of Congress to Israel. This bias was reaffirmed in a resolution passed last week by an overwhelming majority of members of Congress, both Republicans and Democrats, in support of the state and people of Israel, with 365 for, 30 against and 11 abstentions. The resolution strongly criticised Arafat, calling on the Palestinian leadership to stop the violence and abstain from making statements designed to inflame public opinion. It also called on Clinton to use the US's veto prerogatives to prevent the passage of any Security Council resolution condemning Israel for resorting to excessive force against the Palestinians. Members of the House opposed to the resolution warned that it would undermine Washington's role as mediator in the peace process and inflame anti-American feelings throughout the Middle East.

In a way, the resolution implicitly accuses the Palestinian Intifada of being a form of terrorism, and places the resistance of the Palestinian people to foreign occupation on the same footing as the strike directed against the US destroyer Cole in Aden. US intelligence is said to have established that the latter is part of a terrorist plan that extends to a number of Arab Gulf states, including Bahrain and Qatar.

It is hard to see how Clinton can mediate in a new round of negotiations between Arafat and Barak, even if he meets with each separately. Even if we assume that the resolution is not binding on the president, he is bound to take it under very serious consideration. In this connection, one has only to point to Hillary Clinton's complete about-face on the issue of Palestinian rights, retracting her statement on the need to establish a Palestinian state and adopting a stand similar to that of Congress to ensure her election as senator for the state of New York.

It is not surprising in such an atmosphere that all the Palestinian opposition factions, including Hamas and the Democratic and pan-Arab Fronts for the Liberation of Palestine, have urged Arafat not to accept Clinton's invitation to Washington, on the grounds that the only purpose of a meeting at this juncture would be to require Arafat to put an end to the Intifada.

The day before yesterday, the Knesset's summer recess came to an end. Because Barak lacks a majority in parliament, he is now frantically trying to strike a deal with Sharon for the formation of a national coalition government with the Likud to salvage his premiership. Because Barak's terms for peace are categorically rejected by Sharon, the new government cannot pursue the peace process any longer. Sharon is demanding the right to veto any eventual project Barak puts forward for a settlement. He is also demanding equal representation for the Likud in government. An important factor pushing both Barak and Sharon to come to an agreement despite their differences is that Netanyahu has now been acquitted of the charges brought against him and enjoys a higher rating in the polls than any other Israeli politician.

Israel has renounced the peace process as a frame of reference. Clinton is no longer able to impose it. Everyone, not only Amr Moussa, recognises that if the process is to continue it will have to be guided by totally different standards and criteria. In the absence of such new standards, Israel could be tempted to launch a devastating blow against any of the vulnerable points in Arab defences, in the hope of creating a situation in which it can dictate its conditions for a settlement. Barak is already reoccupying parts of Gaza which, under the terms of previous agreements, had been restored to the Palestinian Authority. The Israeli dream of expelling all Palestinians from the land of Palestine should not be dismissed as nothing more than wishful thinking.

The precarity of the situation calls for a concerted Arab effort to close ranks in the face of the huge challenges looming ahead. It is extremely dangerous to become sidetracked into inter-Arab squabbles, especially after the Cairo summit placed Arab regimes before a dual responsibility: on the one hand, to support the Intifada unreservedly and, on the other, to foil any attempt by Israel to divide Arab ranks and reactivate contradictions which adversely affected Arab solidarity throughout the last decade. Friction between Egypt and Qatar over the Al-Jazeera satellite channel or between Egypt and the Palestinians over unfriendly slogans chanted by frustrated Palestinian demonstrators should not divert us from our primary obligation at this critical stage. With the region suspended in the dangerous vacuum created by the collapse of the peace process and the absence of an alternative process capable of defusing tensions and keeping the spiral of violence from spinning out of control, all efforts should now be channelled into nurturing the fragile seeds of Arab solidarity that were sown at the Cairo summit.

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