Core issues absent from Rice’s peace rhetoric agenda

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas meets with U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice at the Palestinian Authority headquarters in the West Bank city of Ramallah, 18 February 2007. (MaanImages/POOL/PPO)


Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice will meet today with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. Ostensibly, they are to talk of a “political horizon” in order for Abbas to relay to the Palestinian people a “vision” of what could be.

This now appears to be little more than a hallucination put out for public consumption. Borders, Jerusalem, and Palestinian refugees cannot be expected to highlight the agenda. Consequently, if these three issues are not central to discussions, this is not a political horizon but a cliff for Palestinians. A horizon, properly viewed, simply cannot omit these three central concerns.

The mini-summit can be expected to focus instead on Abbas’s decision to join Hamas in stopping Palestinian bloodletting by agreeing to a unity government. American officials are vexed by Abbas’s decision. Former Middle East Envoy Dennis Ross, now with the conservative Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP), described the deal as a trap for Rice ahead of her talks with Olmert and Abbas. Only the ideologically obsessed could reason that internal Palestinian peacemaking is part of an elaborate Palestinian scheme to put Rice in a tight spot with the Israelis, the Palestinians, and the Saudis, whose support the Bush administration desperately seeks to shore up the deteriorating conditions in Iraq, Iran, and Lebanon.

As a result of the Mecca agreement, American officials are now treading water, waiting to see what positions the unity government takes. Namely, will it recognize Israel, renounce violence, and accept previous Israeli-Palestinian agreements? This is the threesome that newspapers across the land repeat like a mantra as if all demands for peacemaking should be directed exclusively at the Palestinians. If Hamas will not accept the three demands, the United States seems certain to continue inflicting sanctions on the Palestinian people in conjunction with Israel and possibly the Quartet. Russia, however, may jump ship and the European Union faces increasing questions as to why it is causing hardship for the occupied rather than the occupier.

Indeed, it is long past time for hard questions of the Quartet. One can hope that before long Hamas will recognize Israel, renounce violence, and abide by previous agreements, and yet find it shocking that commensurate demands are not made of Israel as its occupation of the Palestinians fast approaches 40 years.

For example, if Hamas is expected to recognize Israel, why is Israel not similarly expected to address the ethnic cleansing of some 700,000 Palestinians that occurred at the time of Israel’s founding? But, of course, polite society inside the Washington Beltway is scarcely even aware of Palestinian rights and claims, while those outside that loop have systematically been kept uninformed. Palestinians are more forthright about the rights of the refugees, yet their entirely fair demands on this front are rarely heard.

In fact, on 14 February in a hearing of the Subcommittee on the Middle East and South Asia, Rep. Gary Ackerman’s first question to the witnesses — a loaded panel of David Makovsky, Martin Indyk, and Daniel Pipes — was whether Palestinians have legitimate rights and concerns. There was not a powerful or passionate word from the three that indeed they do. Peacemaking in their minds was entirely geared to Israeli security, and Palestinian freedom was at best an afterthought. Shamefully, though unsurprisingly, newly ensconced Democrats, including Rep. Ackerman, appear every bit as capable of being ignorant on Israel/Palestine as their Republican predecessors. It should be viewed as both extraordinary and disturbing that Congressional Democrats could hold a hearing on Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking and then fail to invite a single witness capable of raising the concerns of the occupied.

Hamas is expected to renounce violence even as Israel employs it regularly and has killed far more civilians than Hamas has. Hamas’s suicide bombings have been reprehensible, but is it a reasonable expectation to ask an occupied people to give up even the violence directed at a military occupation? I abhor violence, but find it peculiar that an American government whose founders fought off British colonization would think another people should surrender even violence directed at an occupying army. Calls for Palestinian nonviolence at the very moment the Bush administration is enveloping Iraq in a vortex of sectarian slaughter seem at best hypocritical. Indeed, Israel’s entire occupation is based on violence, both explicit and implicit, and yet this irony is seldom recognized here.

Israeli settlements are also based on violence and are a clear violation of international law. But Olmert faces only pro forma calls to dismantle them or even to stop their expansion. Such language is in the Road Map, but it barely registers in practice. Settlements proceed very much as if that document does not exist. Moreover, these settlements foreclose the possibility of a Palestinian state and make far more likely that Palestinians will be told they will have to accept a Bantustan in place of a contiguous and viable state that includes all of the West Bank.

Palestinians, we are told, will have to “accept” previous agreements; “respect” is insufficient. Perhaps the Bush administration and Congressional Democrats have not noticed, but Olmert’s government can scarcely be described as accepting previous agreements.

The difference, of course, is that Palestinians are weak and the Israelis are backed by the Bush administration and almost the entire U.S. Congress. Consistency in policy is of little import here. But it matters enormously to Palestinians. Hamas, it bears remembering, has hinted a deal is possible. Yet such an accord will most certainly not occur when Palestinians are treated exclusively as the victimizer. If Rice wants peace, if Democrats and Republicans alike want peace, they will have to recognize that Palestinians do have the legitimate rights and concerns Rep. Ackerman wondered about on 14 February. And unless the fulfillment of these rights (on borders, Jerusalem, and refugees) is put on the “horizon,” then negotiations seem certain to fail and to serve as little more than one more mirage manufactured by the aptly dubbed “peace process industry.”

Michael F. Brown is a Fellow at the Palestine Center. Previously, he was executive director of Partners for Peace and Washington correspondent for Middle East International. He is on the Board of Interfaith Peace-Builders. His views are his own.

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