by Yacov Ben Efrat
Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon recently described his engaging Palestinian counterpart, Abu Mazen, as "a chick awaiting its feathers." The sprouting did not take long. Two weeks later, Sharon invited the kosher pullet, along with his close associates, to the cabinet room adjoining his Jerusalem office. Yasser Arafat had never entered thus, through the front door in broad daylight, to meet an Israeli PM. They sat in the very same room where, after an attack, ministers rack their brains in search of measures they haven't yet tried against the Palestinians. Those days are not so distant and may dawn again, but at the moment of the present writing, a deceptive euphoria laces the clouds that lower upon this land. The Palestinian factions have signed a cease-fire (hudna). Anxious silence grips all.
The Israeli hosts took delight in their guests. Dov Weisglass, Sharon's right-hand man, labeled Abu Mazen a Mensch. "His word," he said, "is a word: you can count on it." Justice Minister Yosef (Tomi) Lapid, unrivalled for his polemically poisonous tongue, was deeply moved by the speech (in Hebrew) of Hisham Abed al-Razek, the PA's chief representative for the release of Palestinian political prisoners. Outside the cabinet room, the euphoria went to the normally level head of Moshe Ya'alon, the IDF Chief of Staff. He claimed Israeli victory: the air strikes against the Hamas leaders, he said, had defeated the Intifada.
We hate to poop on the party. The truth, however, is far from the fine fellow-feeling that envelops, for now, the Sharon people and the Abu Mazen people. It would be simple-minded to think that a century-old dispute has come to an end because one side has worn down the other. The Palestinians take up the Road Map, indeed, without the hopes or expectations they had ten years ago at Oslo. The element of reconciliation, prominent then, is missing. Before us is an exhausted, disappointed, downtrodden people in need of rehabilitation.
From where shall their help come? The key to the conflict's solution lies today in the hands of the US and Israel. Their proposals, however, are a far cry from the minimum that Palestinians – most Palestinians in the long run – will be willing to accept. The US and Israel have, we believe, not the faintest notion of that minimum. The gap between the sides is abysmal. "The lands occupied in 1967" really means, in Palestinian minds, the lands occupied in 1967. (A word is a word.) These lands would include, for example, an area on which almost half the Jews of Jerusalem live today.
The Palestinian minimum is common to the rest of the Arab world. The satellite TV network, al-Jazeera, recently surveyed millions of its Arab viewers on their feelings about the Road Map. Over 90% opposed.
At the Aqaba Summit, according to Abu Mazen (as reported in Ha'aretz on June 24), US President George W. Bush informed him, "God told me to strike at al-Qaida and I struck them. Then He instructed me to strike at Saddam, which I did. Now I am determined to solve the problem in the Middle East. If you help me, I will act." He added, "If not, the elections will come and I will have to focus on them."
Bush's God would appear to be no stickler for details. The US is still entangled up to its neck in Iraq. The overthrow of Saddam Hussein was supposed to work wonders for the region's geopolitics. Three months have passed, and Bush finds himself under attack on two main points:
1) His failure to find weapons of mass destruction (the major pretext for the war) discredits the doctrine that bears his name, by which the US assumes the right to make pre-emptive strikes. The pummeling of Afghanistan failed to smoke Bin Laden out, and the pounding of Iraq has yielded no trace of WMD. Bush won't find it easy to mobilize his public for yet another war against shadows. His popularity at home is slipping. The decline of his international credibility may be measured by that of British PM Tony Blair ("Bliar", in the Economist).
2) The American Occupation regime in Iraq should be called "Desert Snowball"; it has as much of a chance. That dismantled land, destined by Bush's God as the laboratory for Western democracy in the heart of the Middle East, may become a new Ayatollah state – or the killing field of a lengthy civil war. The exemplary model will likely become the bugbear to avoid.
Having so handily dispensed with our neighbor to the East, details be damned, God sends Bush to us. What could be more dramatic, what could sooner silence the critics, what could better distract attention from domestic problems than to pull off a miracle in the Holy Land, where two "folks" have been at each other's throats for a hundred years? A solution may not be possible, even for Bush's God, but the impression of one might last as long as election time. So what if it leads to a new round of bloodshed? What other rabbits are left in the Texas hat?
From Israel's point of view, the Road Map is premature (Sharon would have preferred to cut more deeply into Hamas first), but the terms amount to "Oslo, new and improved". Oslo required the Palestinians to play the only cards they had: recognition of Israel and the cessation of violence. Having done so without receiving a substantial return (e.g., a state with borders, the dismantling of settlements, Jerusalem as capital, return of the refugees), their recourse was to grab back the cards. That took the form of the Second Intifada.
The return to violence has left the Palestinians much worse off. By the terms of the Road Map, in order to retrieve what they had ante bellum, they will first have to squash the resistance, risking civil war. By way of prelude, Israel has already interfered in their internal affairs, replacing Arafat with Abu Mazen. The change occurred without elections, rather by means of pressure from the US, Europe and Russia.
If the Palestinians manage to leap the hurdles, how far can they hope to get? Only as far as the point where the Oslo Accords exploded: absolute uncertainty about the depth of the Israeli withdrawal and the degree of sovereignty their future state will have. In Israel's view, the West Bank (like Jordan but unlike Gaza) is its strategic hinterland. It won't let this territory develop in any way that might threaten its dominance. Israel does not oppose the establishment of a Palestinian state, but it will not permit the West Bank true independence. It will not allow it the resources, the territorial continuity, the gateways to the outside world, the control of air space, the freedom of commerce or the armed forces that might enable it to hold its own as a normal state. The result will hardly resemble what Palestinians have in mind.
The attempt by the latter to solve their problems within the current balance of forces is doomed, therefore, to failure. Palestine belongs to the third world. It is one of many societies that have fallen prey to colonialism. Israel, by contrast, is itself colonialist. A solution will come when the American-Israeli pincers lose their grip, that is, when new political forces enter the scene and re-organize society: not along the lines of political Islam, nor on the basis of capital, but through a fundamental change of rules, whereby the majority that creates social wealth will determine its distribution.
Such a revolution cannot be the work of the Palestinians alone. There is no other way, however. Abu Mazen, Arafat and the like are willing to renounce the vision of a free society and accept "reality", as defined by Washington or Tel Aviv. That is why they can never represent the longings of their people.
New leaders must arise, who can read the situation with all its limitations, but who nonetheless look beyond, joining an international strategy that can bring transformation not only to the Palestinian people, but through the same struggle to other peoples as well: the Iraqi people, for instance, the worker in America, the worker in France.
Yacov Ben Efrat is the editor of Challenge, a bi-monthly leftist magazine focusing on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict within a global context, where this article first appeared. Published in Jaffa by Arabs and Jews, Challenge features political analysis, investigative reporting, interviews, eye-witness reports, gender studies, arts, and more. Please visit their website: http://www.hanitzotz.com/challenge/index.html