What is happening in Palestine?

ON JUNE 24 this year, President George Bush delivered an important speech in which he spelled out his, and his administration’s, vision of the future and the future of peace in the Middle East. That vision “is two states, living side by side in peace and security”, as the president put it. Many saw that as a great declaration, even if it was not the first to come from the US administration; Secretary of State Colin Powell and the president himself had earlier spoken about the two-state option as the basic concept of a Palestinian-Israeli settlement. It was still great because it came from the mouth of the superpower which, we all agree, is the only power that can influence a constantly rejectionist Israel to respond positively.

Nearly five months later, there is no visible sign of progress on the blocked road to peace. Violence continues to be the daily staple for innocent civilians, including children falling daily on both sides. Little, if anything, of the ambitious demands for wide ranging democratic, financial, institutional and judicial Palestinian reforms has been achieved, except for a cosmetic cabinet reshuffle which was hardly taken seriously. How could any meaningful reform be conducted under the present occupation circumstances, anyway? President Yasser Arafat, declared persona non grata by Bush in June, remains in the little still standing structure the Israeli bulldozers had spared, and the few loyal people around him in his besieged bunker wait to leap again, once circumstances change and permit. Arafat even refrained from raising any objection to the deliberate and indeed humiliating American policy of totally boycotting him and conducting business with his lieutenants instead, something he never tolerated before.

Remarkably, though, it seems that maintaining the status quo, even with its violence, is serving more than the purpose of Arafat. Ariel Sharon has clearly been comfortable with it because a virtually immobilised and all but incapacitated Palestinian National Authority president is not only rendered harmless, but his presence helps Sharon who opposes any move towards a political settlement and who can always blame lack of movement on Arafat. That provides Sharon with a handy excuse to abort any peace plan including the road map, on the basis that the PNA leader did not fulfil what is required of him, such as reform and ending violence.

Sharon can also claim a lot of credit, if not a price, from the Americans for pretending that his hands-off Arafat policy is the result of his due deference to Bush’s expressed wishes that the Palestinian front remain calm until the Iraqi case is settled one way or the other. On the internal scene, Sharon should be far from unhappy as, while everything else is blocked and most attention is diverted, his army is continuing, unchecked, its systematic daily action of suppressing Palestinian resistance by collectively punishing all Palestinians and individually rounding up or eliminating its leaders and activists.

Arafat’s regular condemnations of every Palestinian attack on Israeli targets can also add some legitimacy to the claims of the occupation army that its atrocities are only acts of self defence against Palestinian terror, condemned no less than by the Palestinian leadership itself. According to an account in the Christian Science Monitor (Nov. 14, by Cameron Barr), Sharon benefited a lot from the Palestinian situation which, according to Israeli analysts (Barr’s conclusion), vindicated him, and secured him the Labour Party’s collaboration to carry on with his settlement-building agenda.

Even in his fateful battle to save his political life over the leadership of the Likud Party, Sharon is posing as the restrained and wise statesman who refrains from touching Arafat, against the reckless and impulsive Netanyahu, the competitor who is making daily promises that his first decision once elected prime minister is to expel Arafat. By contrast, Netanyahu’s, excessive drift to the right makes Sharon look like a moderate.

Much of what has already been said also applies to the American position. Apart from the well-known fact that what suits Israel suits Washington as well, it is obvious that Washington’s need to keep the Palestinian-Israeli situation strictly under control at this stage requires much caution before pressing such ideas as the establishment of a Palestinian state or being more specific on other permanent status issues, to avoid any possibility of confronting, and certainly provoking, Sharon.

Therefore, the road map was designed to be for future use only, except for what Israel wants urgently, which is the immediate cessation of Palestinian “terrorism”.

“What the plan does do,” according to the Jerusalem Post (Herb Keinon, Oct. 24), “is buy the US more time.”

“It is no more than a “diplomatic initiative that gives the impression of movement even if it is really nothing more than just an impression,” Keinon adds.

The disturbing reality is, therefore, that while political leaders (mainly in Israel) are totally engaged in unprincipled opportunistic fights for their personal ambitions and short-sighted selfish interests, while world powers lack the needed political will, and indeed the moral courage, to enforce the rule of international law, and while regional powers remain largely incapacitated by their accumulated failures, innocent blood continues to be senselessly spilled and the cycle of violence continues to spiral wildly out of control.

On the one side are the Palestinians who are determined not to acquiesce to the reality of an endless occupation which is not only intolerably cruel and unbearably dehumanising, but is also steadily displacing them, annihilating their rights and threatening their very existence. After decades of endurance, patience, suffering, neglect, humiliation, pain, expulsion and despair; after being denied that little they did happily agree to settle for the mere 22 per cent —the West Bank and Gaza Strip — of their lawful historic land; after coming face to face with the hard reality that the oceans of hope dangled before them by the so-called peace process were no more than a distracting mirage which seven years of effortless and costly pursuit never managed to make into a reality, they decided to exercise their legitimate right to fight the occupation and seek their freedom.

On the other side are the Israelis who are equally determined to crush the Palestinian will and to deny their struggle for independence any acceptability, let alone legitimacy. They saturated the world media with the myth that the Palestinians shunned Barak’s hand, which he extended to them at Camp David over two years ago, with his “generous offer” of a state of their own on 97 per cent of the West Bank and Gaza and with Jerusalem as its capital, but they opted to reject it and start a war of terror against the Israelis instead. No amount of correction and denying of that myth, from American, Israeli, Palestinian and other independent sources, has managed to dispel the vicious myth.

In the meantime, the Israelis continue with the destruction of the Palestinians and of their society and with their disintegrating the PNA. Israeli practices, such as war crimes, flagrant violations of basic human rights, violation of international law, rejection of UN resolutions, stockpiling of weapons of mass destruction, atrocities, starvation, blocking the supply of food and water to isolated villages and refugee camps, endless curfews, house demolition, destruction of farms and crops, destruction of small factories and businesses, attacking apartment buildings with gigantic missiles and heavy machinegun fire, confiscation of territory, shooting of playing children, assassinations, summary detentions, extrajudicial executions, humiliations, collective punishment, barricading, discrimination, colossal injustice, disruption of schooling, of medical care, of the right to worship, tearing off of the fabric of the society, are becoming normal daily routine. In normal times, it is enough to commit one of these atrocities to cause a loud international uproar, and probably a war, but in this case, and because Israel has always been the exception, these ugly words are no more than familiar terms which daily enrich our political lexicon.

To add to the gravity of an already grave state of affairs and to the existing deadlock, the collapse of the Israeli government will further block, for three extra months and until after the Israeli elections, any possibility of movement. By then, we would probably know more about the turn of events with respect to the Iraqi crisis. The chances that they may turn in the right direction are no more promising than the Israeli elections producing a rational government.

We have been, for decades in this region, shifting our misty hopes from waiting the results of the American presidential elections to waiting the results of Israeli parliamentary elections. The waiting intervals, on which we spent precious numerous years but brought us no more than repeated disillusionment, had not yet convinced us to abandon the practice of justifying our inaction by waiting for magic solutions to descend on us from the horizons of our fantasy.

It is astonishing that there are still many around who would warn against the grave risk of losing Sharon because the alternative could be Netanyahu, or would hope that a Labour victory would instantly remove the barricades from the way of a just, comprehensive and lasting peace; they had pinned their hopes on Barak before, but do not seem to have learned the lesson. How many more precious years do we need to spend switching from a seeming “dove” to a seeming “hawk” in a futile process of trial and error, while our people’s suffering continues, before we realise that until and unless we take the initiative ourselves, we will continue to long for the mirage and count disasters.

The situation cannot be allowed to continue while we only watch and wait. The next three months are going to be crucial for our region. It is only logical that we seize the initiative, not just react helplessly to circumstances, come what may. It is necessary that the situation be reviewed and assessed at the highest possible Arab level.

The writer is former ambassador and permanent representative of Jordan to the UN.