The futile diplomacy of buying time

The Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat, has finally, and as expected, decided to postpone legislative and presidential elections, originally scheduled for January 2003, under pressure from Israel, the United States and the usual chorus that rallies behind such delaying tactics. The Palestinians had, however, been warning that the continued Israeli occupation and its paralyzing impact on all aspects of life would have made carrying out elections all but impossible in the first place. They were right about that; the occupation makes elections impossible not only due to the cruel and repressive nature of the Israeli military dictatorship that rules over the Palestinians. But Israel also intends not to allow the Palestinians to overcome any of the demands and hurdles that have been placed before them — such as political reform and unilaterally ending violence while Israel continues its massive attacks on civilians and leadership alike — ostensibly the preconditions for resuming a useful dialogue.

There are other factors of no less significance. One is the place of Arafat himself in the elections. Israel and the U.S. (but what matters most here is the U.S.) did not want Arafat to run. Arafat, however, has no intention of giving up his position. Yet, Arafat was reluctant to run in open defiance of the United States and he was hoping that as the January date approached, some favorable development in the troubled political scene would lift the U.S.-Israeli embargo placed on his future. That has not happened either. Therefore, postponement was the most convenient option.

A second significant factor, which also relates to the Palestinian scene, is the current state of fragmentation of the Palestinian political formations and the steady erosion of the power of the Palestinian Authority. A third factor is the absence of any form of strategy to guide the entirely legitimate Intifada, and the astonishing failure of the Palestinian leadership to formulate its own peace initiative to be placed before the Palestinian electorate, as well as the Israelis and international public opinion. Freelance diplomacy, such as the Nusseibeh-Ayalon, Abu-Mazen-Beilin, and Abu-‘Ala-Peres adventures, which offer the illusion of peace at a bargain price, have only further undermined the Palestinians’ standing, and distracted attention from the urgent and primary need to dismantle Israel’s occupation completely as a first step towards a any workable resolution to the conflict. Whereas the Palestinian leadership were quick to claim credit for the Intifada when it started, some figures like Abu Mazen, now disavow and condemn “the arming of the Intifada,” as if it was not Israel that introduced lethal weapons and the Palestinians were not merely responding with the few weapons they had in order to defend themselves as every other people has before them. Such statements implicitly accept the Israeli logic that separates the Intifada from the entire context of endless occupation which provoked it and made it necessary.

The Palestinian Authority, for its part, has only been reacting to pressure and orders from Israel, the United States, and the so-called “Quartet,” (The United States, Russia, the European Union and the UN) mostly with helpless irrationality and spontaneity. And while striving to prove how positive, receptive and responsive to any ideas it is, in order to regain its adversaries’ (and intermediaries’) favors, the Palestinian leadership has seen its status and rights further reduced and compromised. It has done none of what it would take to retain any amount of respectability abroad, but especially at home.

How could any leadership face its electorate with such a disastrous record and with no plan for the future? How could the abandoned Palestinians, who with meager means confront one of the cruelest and most powerful military onslaughts in recent history, while the world stands watching indifferently, vote such a bankrupt administration back into office for even a single day?

One should not however be misled by any of the above into believing that the postponement of the elections created any genuine disappointment, especially among those who had been calling for them most loudly. On the contrary, the postponement served the albeit undeclared purposes of the Israelis, whose continued occupation and frenzied campaign of death squad killings and liquidations is provided the continued excuse of the Palestinian “failure to reform.” It also serves the Americans who, in line with their policy of declaring a goal but meandering endlessly to avoid reaching it, just decided to shelve even the rather timid “road map” of the Quartet — the outcome of over six months of work — until the Israelis decide if and when it should ever be timely.

The common belief is that the Americans need badly to avoid any pressure on the Sharon government while preparing for their war on Iraq. By avoiding a confrontation with Sharon, it is thought, Israel can be kept from further antagonizing the Arabs whose acquiescence and cooperation in the U.S. attack on their Iraqi brethren is needed. The truth is that while such calculations are a factor, there is no reason to believe that absent the Iraq issue, Washington would go in any direction which does not meet total Israeli approval, or which Israel could not subject to endless delay and sabotage as has happened with every single U.S. peace initiative in history. And it is evidently clear that the U.S. decision to shelve the “road map” against the insistence of the EU (and probably the other two members of the Quartet) simply followed Israel’s open rejection of the plan. The harsher fact is that even with escalating atrocities by the Israelis, some Arab states have not been deterred from cooperating fully with America’s declared and undeclared plans towards Iraq.

With the expiry of both the prospect of Palestinian reform, and the “road map,” the region has no more to look forward to but the outcome of the Israeli elections which will most certainly produce another ultra-right-wing government led by Sharon. With a renewed mandate, he is certain to intensify the brutality of the occupation with the intention of settling the conflict the “Israeli way,” once and for all. The other factor is the outcome of a war against Iraq, which promises only greater disaster.

The war itself, for which almost no one in the world sees any justification, will exact an unacceptable price in devastation and regional destabilization, and may only whet the appetites of the extremists within the U.S. administration who harbor the desire to impose on the region a new form of imperialism. In addition, this war will end any prospects for winning the “war on terror,” and deal a severe blow to hard won gains in the effort to establish international rule of law in the past fifty years.

It is time that those who bury their ill-intentions and political failures and hypocrisy in mountains of documents, ‘peace plans’ and initiatives explain how any policy can at the same time combine appeasement of Israel’s absolute refusal to truly end the occupation; the Palestinians need and right to live free (in a state built on a fraction of their national homeland); the entire Arab world’s expressed desire for a just and comprehensive peace; the planning for Middle East peace; and finally the preparations for a devastating war on Iraq that may set the hopes of the region back generations.

A diplomacy of buying time, based on irreconcilable contradictions, inevitably carries the seeds of its own failure. That is why such diplomacy — as we have seen from the United States and its Quartet — declares the ultimate goal but then undermines any genuine effort to reach it. It is amazing that the U.S. invests effort and political capital in establishing an objective — an end to the occupation so that two states, Israel and Palestine, can live side by side — and then invests extra efforts into diluting, undermining and avoiding anything that could bring this closer. Instead of courageously facing the fact that unconditional material and diplomatic American support for Israel’s colonization and repression fuels the killing of innocent Israelis and Palestinians, all efforts are designed simply to obscure this from view and to keep the blame and initiative focussed firmly on those with the least power to change the situation — the Palestinians.

Hasan Abu Nimah is former Ambassador, Permanent Representative of Jordan at the United Nations.