This conference won’t help the Palestinians

This conference won’t help the Palestinians
By Adrian Hamilton

14 January 2003

An Armenian friend of mine surprised me the other day by seizing my wrist and declaring that he couldn’t “sleep some nights just thinking of the unfairness of it”. He wasn’t talking about the plight of his own people – although Heaven knows the Armenians have reason to feel the injustice of fate – but about the Palestinians.

What he would say now that we are adding humiliation to injury with today’s conference to further “Palestinian Reform”, I hate to think. Cast aside the fact that the Palestinians are in a state of virtual siege in their own land. Never mind that their representatives have been prevented from coming to the meeting, that the Americans have said it is pointless before the Israeli election and that the Israelis themselves have refused to have any part in it. Yet still we are going ahead with a meeting formally aimed at discussing how the Palestinians can reform their structures, remove corruption from their practices and become more disciplined in their behaviour. Like schoolboys in an unruly fifth form, they have been told that they have to prove that they can be properly behaved before they can expect to get any privileges.

Only they are not schoolchildren, they are a people, most of whose land is occupied, three million of whom are under Israeli control and whose chances of achieving any kind of viable or peaceful civic life have been made impossible by the terms of their daily existence.

And what we are telling them, and will tell them today, is a lie. It is simply wrong to lead them to believe that the reason Washington doesn’t sympathise with their case and the Israelis reject it is because their leadership is poor or their administration corrupt, however true that may be. Ariel Sharon has made his views perfectly clear. He rejects the whole leadership of the Palestinian Authority and is uninterested in any potential alternatives unless they are quislings.

Nor does America cold-shoulder the Palestinians because of the practices of the Authority. Support for Israel is a bipartisan fact of US political life. There are no votes and virtually no voices to gainsay it. In so far as President George Bush has any deeper instincts on the issue, it is probably with the Christian Right in America, whose theology is in favour of a Greater Israel, not a lesser one. The Palestinian leadership could appear like the Burghers of Calais on the lawn of the White House and still they wouldn’t get a hearing.

Which isn’t to say that the Palestinians wouldn’t get a hearing with the American public or, I believe, with the Israeli voters. Only that there is virtually no mileage in their present mixture of anguished violence at home and the search for outside intervention abroad. There isn’t going to be any positive action from outside the Middle East, and even amongst the Arabs the oft-betrayed Palestinians can’t expect much. As for suicide bombing, it is repugnant in principle, self-defeating in practice and, in so far as it is the expression of a desire to hit back at those who oppress you, targeting civilians is deeply corrosive to your own values.

If I was to give any advice to the Palestinians – and who outside has any right to say much at all to a people so sore oppressed – it would be this: forget the so-called “road map” currently being proposed for Middle East peace. It isn’t going to get anywhere. If you want to reform, do it for your own sake, not to propitiate gods who will never grant even your most moderate request.

Forget, too, the Oslo agreement and the Taba deal. Diplomacy has little to offer at this time. Instead concentrate on a simple, straightforward goal that can be hammered home in Israel, at the United Nations and among the public of the West. And that should be the removal of settlements and the restoration of the 1967 borders.

“Back to 1967” may lack resonance as a battle cry. But it has the authority of a succession of UN resolutions. It has been endorsed explicitly by Tony Blair and implicitly by the Bush administration. It is almost impossible for anyone in the outside world to argue with. And it pinions Israel on the point of greatest political and military weakness: its policy of settlements.

More than any other single cause, it has been the building of settlements that has removed all trust in the relations between Palestinian and Israeli over the last generation, when Ariel Sharon introduced them, when Netanyahu was Prime Minister and even when Ehud Barak was Prime Minister. As long as they are built, there will be no trust between the two nations. Until they are removed, there will be no peace.

Settlement building has no support worldwide. I don’t even think it has that much approval among Israelis themselves. Just as with Sharon’s other ill-begotten venture, the invasion of Lebanon, there is a limited appetite within Israel to sacrifice all for the morally indefensible.

By concentrating on the settlements, by detailing each plot of land sequestered, every family driven from their home, each mile of road and metre of wall built on occupied land, the Palestinians can build up an indisputable case for their rights. “Back to the 1967 boundaries.” No ifs. No buts. That is what international law demands. That is what will give Israel a security guaranteed by the whole Arab world. And that is what will bring peace to the Middle East.