When reading about the Israeli/Palestinian conflict in the mainstream media, one constantly comes up with the same flaw: Israel is virtually always portrayed as acting in `good faith', i.e. that it is acting with the aim of increasing Israel's security, or that it is trying to achieve peace, albeit in a thoroughly misguided fashion.
Unfortunately, the evidence does not bear this out. What the evidence tells us is this: Israel does not want peace with the Palestinians. Some Israelis point to Oslo and Camp David to prove how much they were willing to compromise for peace. Others point to the Gaza disengagement to show that unilateral Israeli concessions are met with terror and violence. There are several problems with this idea.
Firstly, let's talk Oslo. The Oslo Accord was not an attempt at peace. Essentially, the main outcome of the 1993 Accord was to legitimise the Israeli occupation. After the Gulf War, the PLO was `on the verge of bankruptcy' and `in [a] weakened condition' (Uri Savir, Israel's chief negotiator at Oslo, cited by Finkelstein, Image and Reality of the Israel-Palestine Conflict, page xix), and Israel seized the chance to recruit them as "enforcers". As Finkelstein writes, "This was the real meaning of the Oslo Accord signed in September 1993: to create a Palestinian Bantustan by dangling before Arafat and the PLO the perquisites of power and privilege…"
The Accord essentially gave the Palestinians nothing — it didn't even speak of self-determination. Israel's intent in signing it was illustrated well by its actions in the decade following — it continued to rapidly expand its illegal settlements in Palestinian Occupied Territory, as this report from B'Tselem notes: "The political process between Israel and the Palestinians did not impede settlement activities, which continued under the Labor government of Yitzhak Rabin (1992-1996) and all subsequent governments. These governments built thousands of new housing units, claiming that this was necessary to meet the 'natural growth' of the existing population. As a result, between 1993 and 2000 the number of settlers on the West Bank (excluding East Jerusalem) increased by almost 100 percent."
Former Israeli Foreign Minister Shlomo Ben-Ami describes accurately how the Israelis viewed Oslo:
Arafat conceived Oslo as a way … to come back to the territories and control the politics of the Palestinian family. Don't forget that the Intifada, to which Oslo brought an end, started independently of the P.L.O. leadership, and he saw how he was losing control of the destiny of the Palestinians … So in Oslo, he made enormous concessions.
In fact, when he was negotiating in Oslo with us, an official Palestinian delegation was negotiating with an official Israeli delegation in Washington, and the official Palestinian delegation was asking the right things from the viewpoint of the Palestinians — self-determination, right of return, end of occupation, all the necessary arguments — whereas Arafat in Oslo reached an agreement that didn't even mention the right of self-determination for the Palestinians, doesn't even mention the need of the Israelis to put an end to settlements … So this was the cheap agreement that Arafat sold, precisely because he wanted to come back to the territories and control the politics of Palestine.
So now let's move on to Camp David in 2000. The popular myth is that at Camp David, Barak offered these crazy concessions no Israeli leader had dared make before, and the stubborn Palestinians still rejected it. In fact, what was offered at Camp David was the creation of a Palestinian state split into four separate cantons — de facto non-contiguous. Also included was a clause stating that, once signed, this agreement would be the final settlement. In other words, upon signing, the Palestinians would give up prior claims based on international law. There was no way Arafat could sign. Again, contrary to popular mythology, it was not the Israelis who compromised at Camp David, but the Palestinians. As Finkelstein explains:
Under Article 49 of the Fourth Geneva Convention, it's illegal for any occupying country to transfer its population to Occupied Territories. All of the settlements, all of the settlements are illegal under international law…The Palestinians were willing to concede 50% – 50% of the Israeli settlements in the West Bank. That was a monumental concession, going well beyond anything that was demanded of them under international law.
Borders…Under international law, Israel had to withdraw from all of the West Bank and all of Gaza. As the World Court put it in July 2004, those are, quote, "occupied Palestinian territories." Now, however you want to argue over percentages, there is no question…the Palestinians were willing to make concessions on the borders.
Jerusalem…under international law Israel has not one atom of sovereignty over any of Jerusalem…The World Court decision said Jerusalem is occupied Palestinian territory. Now, the Palestinians were willing…to divide Jerusalem roughly in half, the Jewish side to Israel, the Arab side to the Palestinians.
…refugees … under international law every Palestinian, roughly five to six million, has the right to return…to their homes or the environs of their homes in Israel. That's the law. Now, Dr. Ben-Ami will surely agree that the Palestinians were not demanding and never demanded the full return of six million refugees. He gives a figure of 4-800,000…other authors have given figures of the tens of thousands to 200,000 refugees returning. That's well short of six million.
On every single issue, all the concessions came from the Palestinians. The problem is, everyone, including Dr. Ben-Ami in his book – he begins with what Israel wants and how much of its wants it's willing to give up. But that's not the relevant framework. The only relevant framework is under international law what you are entitled to, and when you use that framework it's a very, very different picture.
In fact, the only significant break in almost constant U.S./Israeli rejectionism in recent years was Taba in 2001. Just as that initiative looked like it was going somewhere, Barak left the negotiating table.
As to Gaza, this argument is disingenuous, at best. Firstly, Israel didn't stop occupying Gaza, it simply changed the nature of the occupation. As John Dugard, UN special rapporteur on human rights in the Occupied Territories, recently explained:
In August 2005 Israel withdrew its settlers and armed forces from Gaza. Statements by the Government of Israel that the withdrawal ended the occupation of Gaza are grossly inaccurate… First, Israel retained control of Gaza's air space, sea space and external borders…In effect, following Israel's withdrawal Gaza became a sealed-off, imprisoned society. The effectiveness of Israel's control was further demonstrated by sonic booms caused by its overflying aircraft, designed to terrorize the population of Gaza, regular shelling of homes and fields along the border and targeted assassinations of militants, which, as in the past, were carried out with little regard for innocent civilian bystanders…The actions of IDF in respect of Gaza have clearly demonstrated that modern technology allows an occupying Power to effectively control a territory even without a military presence. [source: go here, and open document `A/HRC/2/5′]
Secondly, even if we pretend the disengagement did end the occupation, the West Bank remains occupied and the Palestinians remain stateless. Gaza and the West Bank are to be considered as one unit, so if resistance in the West Bank is justified (and it is) then resistance in Gaza is justified. Imagine if Tel Aviv were occupied — would mean that only people in Tel Aviv would be allowed to resist? It's an absurd argument.
Of course, the rejectionism goes back beyond Oslo as well. What was the reason for the invasion of Lebanon? In order to crush the PLO, which was threatening the Israeli occupation with its "peace offensive" (Avner Yaniv, cit. Finkelstein p. xix) — recognition of Israel and support for a two-state settlement (which, of course, Israel didn't want).
And, unsurprisingly, U.S./Israeli rejectionism continues today. In Beirut in 2002, the Arab League produced a peace proposal that not only met the requirements of international law, but went beyond them. Essentially, it called for an Israeli withdrawal to the pre-1967 borders and the establishment of an independent Palestinian state with E. Jerusalem as its capital. The initiative called not for the Palestinian refugees' 'right to return' to be observed, as demanded by international law, but merely for 'a just solution' to the refugee problem. In return, the Arab states offered not only 'comprehensive peace', but a 'full normalization of relations'.
If Israel were a state that truly wanted peace, you would have expected it to jump for joy at this proposal, unanimously approved by all the Arab states, for full peace with Israel in return for Israel simply adhering to the law. Granted, the proposal didn't address everything — it wasn't perfect. For example, it didn't mention water rights. But it was an amazing step, and the least a peace-seeking Israel would do is sit down and negotiate with the Arab League based on the proposal. So what did Israel do? It dismissed it, and has ignored it since.
In his excellent book, Image and Reality, Norman Finkelstein describes another occasion where Israel worked to prevent peace:
In July 2002, Israel moved quickly to avert yet another political catastrophe. With assistance from European diplomats, militant Palestinian organizations, including Hamas, reached a preliminary accord to suspend all attacks inside Israel, perhaps paving the way for a return to the negotiating table. Just ninety minutes before it was to be announced, however, Israeli leaders – fully apprised of the imminent declaration — ordered an F-16 to drop a one-tonne bomb on a densely populated civilian neighbourhood in Gaza, killing, alongside a Hamas leader, eleven children and five others, and injuring 140. Predictably, the declaration was scrapped and Palestinian terrorist attacks resumed with a vengeance. `What is the wisdom here?' a Meretz party leader asked the Nesset. `At the very moment that it appeared that we were on the brink of a chance for reaching something of a ceasefire, or diplomatic activity, we always go back to this experience — just when there is a period of calm, we liquidate.
More recently, Jordan's King Abdullah tried to inject some life into the peace process, worried as he was by the observation the `Arab street' was becoming increasingly radicalised, "I don't think people are taking us [moderates] seriously. The moderate voice now has been neutralized…the reason [for the Arab street cheering Hassan Nasrallah as opposed to King Abdullah] is because Israel is not committed to a process of peace."
Eariler this month, the Arab League called for a U.N Security Council meeting to revive the peace process by focusing not on the incremental step-by-step approach of the `oadmap', but by getting both sides to sign on the dotted line first, again based on the Arab peace proposal of 2002. This call won virtual unanimous approval — but, predictably, both the United States and Israel dismissed it. The U.S. was "unequivocally opposed" to the idea of a meeting to discuss the peace process, on the basis that, "we all unfortunately know that … when we get in a room or we get a document in front of us, there is a pattern of hostility toward one party and that's Israel".
The U.S. is evidently so concerned about shielding Israel from possible offence, it is no longer willing to allow peace talks with its neighbours. Likewise, when Russia proposed a similar Middle East peace conference in the same month, Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni rejected it, declaring, "I think putting all of the issues … into one bowl would only make things more complicated".
This is very interesting. The Arab states that matter here — Syria and Lebanon — have made clear that their peace with Israel is inseparably linked to a solution to the Palestinian problem. The Arab League peace proposal likewise requires the creation of a Palestinian state based on international law in return for peace with all Arab states. Israel, unfortunately, does not want to make peace with the Palestinians. It figures, correctly, that as long as it enjoys uncritical U.S. support, it can prolong the occupation for as long as it wants to, perhaps forever.
Meanwhile it will create "facts on the ground" and wait for the "right time" so that when it comes to a peace settlement, the terms will be favourable to Israel. Alternatively, if it gets another opportunity like the war of `48, Israel can execute the `transfer' option – that is, to forcibly evict the Palestinians from their land. Thus, Livny has good reason to reject the Arab peace proposal, and to reject "putting all of the issues…into one bowl". Doing so would entail resolving the Palestinian conflict, which as the historical evidence shows, is an anathema to Israel.
Recently, indepedently from the Arab League, Syria has been making noises about peace. For example, in an interview for Der Spiegel, President Bashar Assad said, "There can be no peace in the Middle East without Syria. The Lebanon and the Palestinian conflicts are inextricably linked with Syria. I have already mentioned the 500,000 Palestinian refugees. Were we to resolve our territorial dispute with Israel over the Golan Heights alone, we wouldn't achieve stability. We would only be taking away the Palestinians' hope and would be turning them from refugees into resistance fighters. This is why Syria is so determined to achieve a comprehensive peaceful solution … I don't say that Israel should be wiped off the map. We want to make peace — peace with Israel."
Olmert responded to these overtures with a firm dismissal, emphasising that there can be no talks with Syria, "These are reasons that even Syria's statements that it is interested in negotiations cannot be taken seriously … It (Syria) was and remains the main supporter of the Palestinian terror groups who daily try to carry out terrorism against the state of Israel. In my opinion, this is not a foundation on which it is possible to hold peace negotiations."
Is that the action of a state seeking peace? Of course not. The sad fact is that Israel does not want peace with Syria, as Gideon Levy explains, "If there is a positive angle to the Israeli refusal to consider the Syrian president's proposals, it is the exposure of the bitter truth: Israel does not want peace with Syria — period. No linguistic trick or diplomatic contortion can change this unequivocal fact … In the Middle East, a new rejectionist axis has formed: Israel and the United States, which is saying 'no' to Syria."
In today's Ha'aretz, Uzi Benziman asks a similar question, "Is Israel a partner?" His answer, essentially, is "no": "There is no way of knowing whether Israel's willingness to withdraw from the West Bank and the Golan Heights would result in reliable, long-term peace agreements, but it can be confirmed that Israel is largely responsible for the fact that such moves have not been seriously considered or formulated."
But his explanation for "why?" is wrong: "Israel missed and continues to miss opportunities to normalize relations with the Palestinians and with the Syrians not because of mental blocks, but rather because of domestic political considerations. Mahmoud Abbas and Bashar Assad are defined as non-partners not because Ehud Olmert and Amir Peretz have an emotional problem preventing them as partners in dialogue, but because they do not have the political power to do so."
This is precisely the wrong way round, atleast when talking about the Palestinians. Granted, Israeli public opinion is against returning the Golan Heights to Syria, thanks in large part to the mistaken belief that it still gives a significant strategic advantage to its owner, aswell as the annexation law which allows some Israelis to pretend the Golan Heights are not occupied land. But regarding the Palestinians, in recent years the Israeli government has almost always been to the right of Israeli public opinion. For example, in a poll conducted this September, it was found that 67% of Israelis support negotiations with a Palestinian national unity government which includes Hamas, and 53% of Israelis support negotiations with a Hamas-led government.
Despite this, Olmert's government have chosen to ignore Hamas' tentative hints of peace talks, refused to engage with them and used collective punishment and economic strangulation to try and force them out of power. This has nothing to do with political will; Israel knows that in any future peace agreement, Hamas will strike a much harder bargain than Fatah, and so Hamas has to go.
So once we, as Jonothan Cook suggests, cast off the lens of "good faith" and "good intentions" through which the media usually examine the Israel/Palestine conflict, we can see that, despite the will of the Israeli public, despite the opinion of virtually the entire international community and despite the rule of international law, it is evident the Palestinians truly have no partner for peace.Powered by Sidelines