Mass hypnosis in the Middle East

The election that just took place in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip has been hailed as a great democratic achievement and breakthrough for the region. It is actually no more than a thin layer of light shaving foam which will soon be blown away by the strong winds of reality.

What explains the widespread readiness of various groups to lapse into hypnosis and euphoria about a non-existent “window of opportunity” for peace? Some parties have sought to assert their consistency by exaggerating this opportunity. Their enthusiasm about new Palestinian Authority chairman Mahmoud Abbas merely justifies their former insistence that the late Yasser Arafat had been the key obstacle to peace. Others are gullible victims of an ongoing propaganda campaign waged by Israel and its allies since the failed Camp David summit in July 2000 that the Israelis have been waiting only for the emergence of a “moderate” partner with whom to rush towards the desired peace.

Then there are those who adopt anything that holds promise for the Israeli line and embrace all developments that distract from Israel’s actions on the ground. There are people too who believe that any activity — no matter how futile — will save them the embarrassment of cowardly inaction and shameful silence and some servants of power who simply want to jump on the bandwagon in case accidental, effortless progress gives them the chance to gain prestige or profit.

A growing group forms the hard core of the international peace process industry — those who have grown accustomed to living as parasites off other people’s tragedies, basking in luxury and benefitting personally as they move endlessly from conference to meeting to seminar, shuttling from one capital city hotel to another extruding hand-wringing statements and “initiatives” in their wake. They “exhaust” their precious time supposedly in the service of other people’s interests but demonstrate none of the honesty needed to confront the growing crisis caused by Israel’s intransigence.

These factors and others account for the existence of the large, enthusiastic crowd who hail the new season of political manipulation and self-serving opportunism. A “moderate” is born and a peace settlement is at last knocking on the door. Unemployed Middle East envoys and their travel agents rejoice.

It is baffling and unsettling that so many people can so easily succumb to fantasy and deception, but this is the mesmerizing effect of propaganda combined with power.

As far as the Bush administration is concerned, it welcomes the engineered Abbas victory and believes, with the same dissociation from reality that drove Washington’s plans for Iraq, that Abbas will be ready, willing and able to accomodate the full extent of Sharon’s positions and that this could lead to a resolution to the conflict which avoids any need to put pressure on Israel and rids America of a troublesome burden.

The Europeans, whose perception of the situation is supposed to be fundamentally different, have now adopted wholesale the anti-Palestinian view of Bush-Sharon: that the problem lies on the Palestinian side and that cosmetic change at the top will somehow magically push change on the ground. Just look at the latest “contribution” to the peace process from the EU. Following an attack by Palestinian fighters on an Israeli army facility in the occupied Gaza Strip on 13 January, which killed several Israeli subcontractors of the occupation forces, the presidency of the EU, currently held by Luxembourg, issued a statement condemning the action as “terrorist” and offering “its sincere condolences to the Israeli government and the families of the victims.”

By contrast, the EU presidency stayed absolutely silent when on January 4 Israeli occupation forces in Gaza killed seven Palestinian children with a tank shell, literally shredding their bodies to pieces according to eyewitnesses. Nor did the EU find it worthy of comment when the day following the Palestinian election, the Israeli army revealed a plan to demolish an additional 3,000 homes in Rafah refugee camp in southern Gaza. This activity has previously been condemned by Amnesty International and John Dugard, the UN’s Special Rapporteur for the Occupied Palestinian Territories, as a “war crime.” And none of the endless stream of EU envoys has found it worthy of comment that Israel’s deputy defense minister, Ze’ev Boim, recently threatened to bombard Palestinian refugee camps in the Gaza Strip with artillery to punish civilians for harboring resistance fighters. Last year Mr. Boim speculated that violence by Palestinians was caused by a “genetic flaw.”

Many others are too indifferent to take the mere responsibility of forming a position. They follow the easiest course: why should they be more royalist than the king?

But what does this charade offer the Israeli leadership and the Palestinian Authority?

It is hard to imagine that the Palestinian leadership is oblivious that the chances of any meaningful movement towards a settlement are nil. They may certainly take great comfort from positive comments on their choice of a likable leader, especially when such praise comes from great statesmen such as President Bush, who instantly opened the doors of the White House to Abbas. But they cannot be so naïve as to expect that Bush will retract his firm assurances to Israel that the facts Israel created in the occupied territories — the ever-growing settlements — are there to stay and that in accordance with Israel’s desire to maintain Jewish ethnic dominance, Palestinian refugees will be banned from returning to their homes. Neither can the Palestinian leadership be naïve enough to think that from these extremist positions any peace agreement can be extracted.

They must know that Sharon, whose expansionist positions are enunciated to the global public, will not allow any Palestinian initiative to take off no matter how moderate, and Washington will not pressure Israel to do otherwise. They must know that Sharon will present the new PA leader with impossible demands, which if he ever miraculously manages to meet will be instantly followed by ever more onerous conditions.

Above all, the Palestinian Authority leaders must know that any possible agreement on the available Israeli-American terms will endanger their grip on power and therefore, contrary to what many may believe, it is in their keen interest to keep pushing it away.

If for PA leaders a bad agreement is hazardous because it exposes them to charges of selling out, so is stagnation, which would indicate inaction and failure. Therefore the ideal situation is a “peace process” which is all process and no peace, all promise but no fulfillment, fueled by aid money from the European Union and the United States. This allows the leaders to buy time and exercise the luxury of authority without any specific responsibility.

For this reason, the PA and the Fatah movement that dominates it rallied around Abbas, ganged up to discourage and intimidate any competition, and mobilized all their forces to protect their monopoly. With great political skill they succeeded in winning broad international support for their candidate by demonstrating their preparedness to end the Intifada and rid Israel of its most serious problem: Palestinian resistance to its ongoing aggression and occupation. These leaders seem prepared now, as they were at Oslo in 1993, to say and do whatever it takes to secure their position at the top.

Hence the Intifada is a problem not only for Israel but also for the PA. If the ideal situation for the PA is an open-ended peace process, it also needs to be one conducted without the bothersome fact of Palestinian resistance throwing it “off track.”

What the Israelis and the PA have in common is that they see no urgency for a final settlement. The Israelis want time to complete the colonization of the West Bank, especially the huge tracts recently grabbed through construction of the apartheid wall. Israel wants no discussion of such final status issues as Jerusalem or refugees as long as there exists any slight chance that such issues might not be settled their way.

So the convenient alternative for both parties is the status quo accompanied by endless negotiations. The big difference of course is that while Israel is deferring to consolidate its gains, the PA is deferring to satisfy its desire for power. The people are left to fend for themselves.

Hasan Abu Nimah is the former permanent representative of Jordan at the United Nations. Ali Abunimah is co-founder of The Electronic Intifada and Electronic Iraq.

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