Bekhiya le-dorot

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Bekhiya le-dorot” – something to lament for generations...

The breakdown of Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations – four scenarios*
Peter Demant

Truman Institute – Hebrew University of Jerusalem

Centro de Estudos Judaicos – Universidade de São Paulo – USP

The Palestinian explosion, long prophesied (with anxiety or glee) by observers and critics, has finally taken place. This initial analysis tries to elucidate both its causes and some possible outcomes. The October 2000 popular revolt against the Israeli occupation of the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem followed the collapse of Israeli-Palestinian talks over the ‘final status’ issue. The question to explain here is not why these talks did not succeed: after all, the sides’ positions appeared from the onset to be too far apart to bridge. The point is rather that peace negotiations went on for such a long period, and that – prodded on by their mediator, US President Clinton – Israelis and Palestinians very nearly reached a comprehensive accord that would have put an end to their prolonged conflict. This pseudo-achievement is all the more remarkable in that a whole series of negative political, military, socioeconomic and ideological factors that had perceptually become associated with the Oslo process, made such a last-minute breakthrough improbable. Room for maneuver was restricted for both leaders, yet the Israeli PM Ehud Barak broke a long-standing Israeli political taboo by offering partition of Jerusalem. It was a calculated bet on the part of the Israeli leader who had staked his political future on a peace accord. Why did Yasser Arafat, who is politically less dependent on a peace agreement than his Israeli counterpart, reject the rather far-reaching Israeli proposal – certainly the best he can ever hope to get through negotiation? It will be argued here that the causes for the Palestinian refusal have to be located in Palestinian political culture: on the one hand, the gap between the goals that Palestinians could realistically expect to obtain through negotiation and those the Arafat leadership itself had convinced the people to insist on as a minimum, forcing Arafat in the end to stick to the latter; on the other hand, the absence of flexible Palestinian counteroffers in spite of extensive pre-negotiation between Palestinians and Israelis, leading to a stalemate. Both factors are ultimately reducible to a lack of in-depth democratization of Palestinian society, for which both sides must share blame.

By ending talks without any perspective, the leaderships effectively condemned their nations to a new round of violence as the only alternative path. Although timing and extent of the October 2000 “Al `Aqsa Intifada” may have surprised the Palestinian leadership, it was quick to exploit the uprising, with its scores of Israeli - caused casualties. Arafat sees it as a propagandistic strategy to bring about increased international pressure on Israel. His aim seems to be to weaken Israel so far that he can coerce it into accepting an agreement on Palestinian terms. Looking into four possible scenarios, we find that this outcome, although preferred by Palestinians, is only one among a range of possibilities that goes from a renewal of talks on the original terms, to a full-scale war. We conclude that a prolonged low-intensity conflict combining Palestinian revolt and Israeli physical self-isolation is the most likely path in the near future. This will bring political gain to neither Palestinians nor Israelis, and only make a negotiated solution of the conflict more difficult.

Weaknesses of the Oslo peace process

The current crisis, which started with the provocative visit of Likud leader Ariel Sharon to Jerusalem’s Temple Mount (Haram al-Sharif) on 28 September 2000 and escalated into a full-fledged popular uprising against Israel, has within a very short period led to a complete breakdown in Israeli-Palestinian communication. This seems all the more surprising as Barak and Arafat were during their negotiation at Camp David in August 2000 tantalizingly near to a comprehensive agreement. Still it did not come completely unexpected to observers who have followed Israeli-Palestinian relations over the past years. Already before the failure of the last summit, ominous signs of radicalization among the Palestinians, as well as a growing impatience on the Israeli side, were spelling trouble. The peace process was supposed to keep the counterforces under control; but deep divisions between Israeli and Palestinian minimum positions meant that the peace process itself has been weakened for a long time now. Among the long-term causes affecting the Palestinians, five factors stand out: (1) the way how the very basis of peacemaking: the Oslo Accords, were seen as flawed; (2) the contrast between the hope for liberty and the reality of occupation; (3) Israel’s settlement policy, viewed as a hypocritical counterpoint to peace talks; (4) the autocratic structures of the Palestinian polity that developed in the aftermath of the Oslo Accords; and (5) gross economic inequalities which were stimulated rather than mended by the peace process and its social ‘fallout’. Besides these influences, one can point at two more factors: (6) the delegitimation of the peace process in the eyes of many Israelis following Palestinian rejectionist violence; and (7) the insufficient anchoring of peace and coexistence values among both peoples.

1) Perceived one-sidedness of the 1993 Declaration of Principles (DOP). This, the “Oslo” framework underlying all peace talks reflected the balance of power in 1991-93 which was tilted in Israel’s favor. E.g. there was no guarantee that the outcome would include an independent Palestinian state; the issue of Jerusalem was for a long time tabooized; etc. As Palestinians became more assertive this imbalance became less and less acceptable.
2) Ongoing Israeli occupation of Palestinian areas: While negotiations dragged on without much perspective, humiliations and human rights violations continued to be perpetrated by Israeli soldiers in the territories. Throughout the duration of the peace process, land expropriations have continued unabated; water allocations discriminate against Palestinians; the struggle against Palestinian violent radicals has on numerous occasions led to (sometimes prolonged) closures of Palestinian territories, at times even isolating one Palestinian town from another, effectively turning the Palestinians into prisoners in their own houses. This has been accompanied by massive arrests, blowing up houses of relatives and supporters of convicted terrorists, etc.
3) Continuing Israeli colonization empties peace negotiations of content.The ne-gotiation process was not only too long but also gradually despoiled of content, partly as a result of Israel’s extreme stinginess – in particular under the Netanyahu government (1996-99). Meanwhile all successive Israeli governments have throughout the ne-gotiations imposed on the Palestinians forceful and ongoing changes of the status quo, e.g. expanding settlements and the judaization of East Jerusalem.
4) The “democratic deficit” of the peace process. This was probably its most important weakness. The Oslo framework had hardly been discussed in public before it was officially accepted by the leadership on either side. Israeli occupation was replaced by the establishment Arafat’s despotic and inefficient regime, only half-democratic and with strong autocratic tendencies (which Israel studiously ignored). Save for the 1996 elections, it was never subjected to any ‘referendum’ on the Palestinian side. This does not mean the Palestinian population rejected the Oslo peace process. As long as ne-gotiations bore concrete fruits, such as limited Israeli withdrawals from Palestinian territories, relaxation of military tension with the Arab world, etc., was accepted by virtue of its results, especially in the 1994-95 period. However, the more it transpired how meager and impermanent these fruits were, the more popular support eroded.
5) Failure of economic progress and Israeli-Palestinian economic interdependence. The peace process has not brought the Palestinians the widely expected ‘peace dividend’. On the contrary, Palestinian society underwent an unfortunate polarization, which was closely bound up with the Oslo process. A new elite stratum of newly rich came into being, whose power depended on intimidation and patronage, and whose limited legitimacy rested upon their ability to obtain for their clientele an ongoing series of advances in the peace process. The Palestinian majority, however, experienced little progress in their miserable socioeconomic situation.. Closures led occasionally to a near-famine situation. But also in more ‘normal’ intervals, the West Bank and Gaza’s economic situation did not improve (save for a few thousand nouveaux riches associated with the Arafat regime). Moreover, the economic infrastructure for peace has remained weak. While the international community has so far come forward with much less aid than promised, the main mistake is Israel’s. There has been little Israeli investment in the Palestinian territories, and few joint ventures. Instead of building a dense network of economic interdependence (e.g. by opening the Israeli market for Palestinian agricultural produce and handicrafts), Israel has opened its internal market only very hesitantly, and from a certain point on even opted for a long-term policy of separation. On the other hand, settler agricultural products are widely and successfully marketed in Israel. Essentially the only profits were reaped by Israeli companies producing cheap “Italian” shoes and textiles through subcontracting inexpensive Palestinian labor in Gaza and Hebron. The resulting labor exploitation, while providing useful incomes to Palestinian families, did little to endear Israel in Arab eyes, and only reinforced fears of Israeli economic imperialism ; in this way, what little investment there was even militated against rapprochement! While one cannot force private investors to put their money in what must appear as an unstable, dangerous and bankrupt Third World fiefdom, the Israeli government could – had it so wished – have created stronger bonds. As a result of its failure to do so, Palestinians have today precious little incentive to shy away from violence lest they destroy their own livelihood: the neoliberal idea of ‘peace through prosperity’ in reverse!
6) On the Israeli side, only the most Left-oriented would accept the Palestinians’ argument that the Oslo Accords were unbalanced. A substantial part of the Jewish population remained opposed for ideological reasons. More insidiously, however, even among the majority who supports it, the process has become delegitimized. This happened as a result of Islamist fundamentalist violence, which was only halfheartedly denounced and repressed by the Palestinian leadership, thus fueling Israeli doubts about the reliability of its partner.
7) Frailty of education for peace. Finally, the peace process has remained an affair between two leaderships rather than growing into a process of rapprochement between two peoples. Attempts to bring about people-to-people reconciliation – in the spheres of education, media, grassroots encounters, etc. – have remained superficial, and restricted themselves largely to the group of the ‘already converted’. Nnot surprisingly, these included more Israelis than Palestinians. On the Palestinian side, participation in “p2p” initiatives was too often coextensive with the same elite group whose careers depended on the peace process.
As a result of all the above factors, a popular revolt against the Oslo peace process was already simmering before Barak and Arafat went to Camp David. Already early 2000 and before, Israeli-Palestinian cooperation had become tenuous, and ‘normalization of relations’ in the economic and cultural realms had come under pressure from the Palestinian side. Pessimism reigned about chances for a breakthrough in the negotiations. The underlying dissatisfaction, particularly among Palestinians, was so strong that the final breakdown of meaningful negotiation – such as occurred in August – nearly fatally led to some return to violent confrontation.
The remaining strength of extremist factions on both sides
To the weaknesses of inherent in the peace process must be added the strength of the oppositions, which show interesting parallels on both sides. In either case, the major opposition is constituted by a substantial minority of the population; is centered in the most conservative and religious elements; is bound together by a coherent fundamentalist ideology that rejects the territorial compromise underlying the Oslo model, and indeed negates any collective rights of the other side. In either case, extremist fringes of the opposition are prepared to use violence, and their numerous more moderate followers do not reject this.
On the Israeli side, the settlers are only the spear-point of the Far Right. Although the ultra-nationalist parties fared badly in the 1999 elections, the two main groupings in Israeli society:Rightist - Oriental - traditionalist/ religious vs. Leftist - Ashkenazi - secular continue to be numerically and politically balanced. Even at their lowest point, the expansionist Zionist Right can presumably still count on some one-third of the Israeli Jewish population. This includes quasi all settlers and part of their relatives living elsewhere in Israel, the overwhelming majority of the religious electorate, and a good part of the secular Right: Likud is in an ideological crisis since it accepted the Oslo framework, but has considerable remaining strength.. More importantly, among the settlers a hard core of fanatics estimated by Israeli intelligence sources at some 5,000, is known to harbor designs to prevent implementation of their evacuation. They are willing to provoke violent incidents against Palestinians, forcing the Israeli army to come to their aid, and even envisage using violence against fellow Jewish soldiers.
The remaining strength of the Israeli Right was also reflected in the outcome of the 1999 elections, which obviated the possibility of a clear-cut Leftist coalition based on a double program of peace externally and secularization/modernization domestically. Instead, Barak was forced to choose between Shas and Likud. He opted for Shas so as to have his hands free in negotiations with the Arab world and the Palestinians, but ultimately it made little difference: the Religious Right scuttled any progress on the secular/religious front, and also obstructed progress on the Arab-peace side, thus essentially fulfilling Likud’s function. The settler lobby remained strong enough to forestall any discontinuation of the colonization of Palestinian territories.
A similar remaining strength of the rejectionist Right can be documented on the Palestinian side. Support for Islamist groups such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad never exceeded some 30 % – and even this figure seems to be based more on their network of social, educational and health institutions, the devotion and uncorruptibility of their cadres, and a general Palestinian concern with the corrosive effects of westernization on traditional mores, than on their anti-Israeli militancy. Yet with its coherent ideology of struggle, sacrifice and eventual redemption, and a sustained record of unflinching rejection of Israel, the peace process, and the Arafat regime, the Islamist opposition has enjoyed a relative success. Its actions have apparently acted as a pole of attraction and influenced the recent extremization of its main competitor, the local Fatah cadres.
Jointly, the rejectionist groups among Israelis and Palestinians can be counted upon to do whatever is in their power to obstruct or break up the peace process.

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