Vol. 5 Num 244 Mon. January 31, 2005  

What next on the Middle East peace process

The observers of Middle East conflict scenario have been overly optimistic about Israeli-Palestinian settlement this time around with a successor to redoubtable Yassir Arafat in place. Mahmood Abbas, the President of Palestinian Authority (PA) elected recently in a peaceful and democratic transition of power, is expected to revive the stalled peace process. Ariel Sharon, the Israeli Prime Minister, has already congratulated Abbas on his victory -- a sign that in all probability the talk will be in motion soon. The US, Israel's strategic ally in the Middle has also given a positive nod by inviting Abbas to the White House. Both Bush and Sharon once called Yassir Arafat the only obstacle to peace. With that obstacle now removed the road ahead for peace has, according to conventional wisdom, no barrier whatsoever.

Yet the disturbing questions are raised by the sceptics if Abbas is equal to treading the tract Arafat was unable to do. As with the talk's formulae and the peace processes in pursuit of 'land for peace' shibboleth it is highly unlikely that new round of talks, if any, will yield much in ending bloodshed in the holyland. The idea of 'land for peace', reportedly first broached by Late King Hussain of Jordan, spawned a large series of talks, summit conferences, partial agreement, ceasefire, accords and wholesale treaties. The most important among them was, of course, the Oslo accord, co-sponsored by the US and Russia with Norway being the host.

When talks around Oslo accord led to the signing of historic declaration of principles (DOP) on the lawn of White House on September 13, 1993 an euphoric Bill Clinton called it a peace of the braves. It was supposed to be the beginning of the end of Arab-Israeli conflict and the start of a new era with donors pledging billions of dollars in aid to reconstruct a war-ravaged Palestine.

Ironically for the Israelis, however, the DOP negated the very raison d'etre of Israel. The highly secretive Zionists let few know of the basic assumption behind the Zionist movement and the founding of Israel. One historical falsehood of monumental proportion: that Palestine was a land without human habitation, a land without any population and for that reason "a people without land" (the Jewish diaspora) had a proprietorial right to it. Theodore Herzl, the founder of Zionist movement never touched upon the question of Palestine's existing population when he published his book Judeastaat (the Jewish state) in 1896. The British statesman who offered Palestine to the Zionists on a silver platter behaved no differently.

The truth was however that when the Balfour declaration was signed in 1917 with a view to considering with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people the declaration was charitable enough to point out that nothing would be done to jeopardise the rights of existing non-Jewish communities -- another shenanigans of British diplomacy which wanted to show that Palestine already had a Jewish majority. But in fact when the declaration was issued in the form of Balfour's letter to British banker Rolthchild, the Jews constituted only 10 percent of Palestine's population. This included the European Jews who had settled there during the Ottoman period. The local Arabic speaking Jews were only 6 percent who had no problem with local Muslims or Christians.

Once the British occupied Palestine in 1917 Jewish migration from Europe began in earnest, the aim being to occupy as much of Palestine's land as possible and create the base of a future Jewish state while the mandate lasted. This was neatly done by setting up Jewish agency operating with full British cooperation. Its ostensible purpose was to look after the Jews arriving for settlement. In actual fact it was a government all put in name for it maintained well armed thugs who terrorised and massacred Arab civilians. The moment the British pulled out in May 1948 this Jewish agency converted into full fledged government and proclaimed the independence of Israel.

After coming into being Israel, as a matter of state policy, denied the very existence of Palestinian people at any stage of Palestine's history. All that the world knew of was an Arab refugee problem -- a myth shattered by Arafat when following the battle of Karameh he infused a new life into his Fatah movement and put the Palestinian question in the fast track of world politics.

Let us now come back to the question asked earlier. Can Abbas revive the peace process? Or why will Sharon negotiate peace with the Palestinians at this stage?

Yes the peace process can be revived by Abbas because America in her greater interest will egg Sharon on to revive the peace talks. As a result the status quo can not hold on indefinitely. But what is indeed important is the quality of peace and in whose term the peace will be established or a settlement effected.

1993 onward two stalwarts of Middle East politics -- Yassir Arafat and Yitzhak Rabin -- occupied the centre stage of the peace process. After Yitzhak was gunned down by an Israeli fanatic, Arafat dragged on with the peace process negotiating with Rabin's successors: Netanyahu and Ehud Barak who were not willing to fulfil their obligations under 1993 accord. They reneged on solemn international treaties and UNSC resolutions. Small wonder, the Oslo accord ended in fiasco with the outbreak of second Intifada in 2000. George Bush came to White House the same year and Sharon seized power the next year. Ever since both the US and Israel shunned all contacts with Arafat. Because negotiating with Arafat any longer would have meant conceding the basic principles behind Oslo accord: Israel's painful process of dicolonisation occupied territories which were already coming in clash with the founding assumption of Israel and the emergence of an independent Palestinian state. Neither was acceptable to Bush's America or Sharon's Israel.

But now with no visible excuse Sharon will be under pressure to resume talks but the way the talk will be told cannot be different from Shamir and Begin once did. Both used to say that they would 'create facts' while the talks dragged on. By 'creating facts' the Israeli leaders meant getting more Jewish migrants. Establishing more Jewish settlements, shrinking or where possible uprooting Arab villages and farms, building highways and security installations through and in Arab land itself. Israel's infamous security wall encroaching Arab land is one of the examples. Diverting water resources and destroying Arab orchards by felling thousands of olive and citrus trees are other examples of creating facts. Few people know an Arab in occupied territory cannot dig a well and if he stores rain water in a pond the Israeli authority destroys it.

Sharon will thus negotiate in this fashion. He will prolong the process by obfuscating facts, focussing on non-issues and re-opening settled issues because he is at the giving end and enjoys all the initiatives. All along the western media would blame Abbas for failing to clinch a peace deal even if it is a rubbish while Sharon will go about creating facts. He is on record to have said that the Gaza disengagement does not mean that he will quit West Bank because he intends to enlarge the existing Jewish settlements there and accommodate all those to be pulled out of Gaza. He is learnt to have obtained prior approval for it from president Bush who fondly calls him "my friend."

Back in 1956 in an interview with general Ouze Merham, Sharon, a remorseless butcher of Sabra and Shatilla, said: I don't know something called international principles. I vow I will burn every Palestinian child (that) will be born in this area. The Palestinian child and woman are more dangerous than man because the Palestinian child's existence infers that the generation will go on ... It is with this kind of man with bestial instinct that poor Abbas would be negotiating with.

If it were in Sharon's power he would create a greater Israel by annexing West Bank and Gaza. The US and EU would make a lot of angry noises over it. Even the US controlled Security Council would pass a resolution condemning the move. But in the long run both the US and EU would accept the fait accompli. Yet Sharon wouldn't do it for different reasons. His problem is that of demography. At present Israelis enjoy a small majority when Israel and occupied territories are taken together. It is crucial for Israel to maintain that majority.

However what Sharon can and indeed wants to do is to carve up West Bank into Bantustan in which the only freedom the Palestinians will have is to collect garbage and sweep streets. If Abbas does not opt for this, all Sharon will do is to drag on the peace process while 'creating facts.'

And then Mahmood Abbas is certainly not an Yassir Arafat who had been statesman of stature. He knew from this bitter experience of intra-Arab politics that at certain point of conflict and in certain milieu the peace is not attainable without resorting to negotiation. He shunned the first Intifada while signing DOP in 1993. But he also knew that peace is never given on the platter. It is to be negotiated from a position of strength. With the skilful combination of both he could keep alive the Palestinian cause till his death. We have to wait to see what stratagem is followed by Abbas to deal with a deadly opponent.

Brig ( retd) Hafiz is former DG of BIISS.