What is needed is a real peace plan for a change

AS OUR region awaits the threatened war on Iraq, is it conceivable to see a “promise” of peace on the Palestinian-Israeli front with so much activity, and supposedly hope, from the American and the European Quartet joint efforts that have recently produced a peace plan which, this time and obviously for a good reason, was called a “road map”?

Although a road map is definitely not the same as a peace plan, in the sense that it is only meant to help those who truly want to reach their desired destination, but may need direction, the case in question is entirely different. The real issue is not how to get “there”. It is rather to define first where “there” is, what it is in fact, and if the parties truly want to reach it.

With Israel’s declared opposition to any form of final settlement, and the Palestinians’ total helplessness and apparent inability to move one step in any direction, the “road map” may not be of much use. In spite of that, and of all the well-known previous failures, the claims for peace from every party continue with a lot of enthusiasm and vigour. Why are we so far from that goal then?

The Israelis, including Sharon, continue to insist that all they want is peace. Most, if not all, of their commentators, when they show up on the media, repeat the common claim that they want nothing more than the violence to stop so that they and the Palestinians can head back to the negotiating table to deal with any remaining problems by talking rather than fighting. Is it not possible that when President George Bush called Ariel Sharon “a man of peace” he meant just that?

The Palestinian National Authority, on the other hand, insists that all the Palestinians want is peace. Right from the top, President Yasser Arafat and all the PNA spokespersons spared no time reaffirming that all they want is to see violence stop so that they can resume the stalled peace negotiations. Towards that goal, Arafat has been constantly declaring ceasefires and calling on his people to refrain from any acts of violence against the Israelis, including the harmless practice of pelting Israeli invading tanks and house-demolishing bulldozers with stones. With hardly any exception, all Arafat’s lieutenants continue to echo the same bid. They even went as far as disclaiming the arming of the Intifada, if not the Intifada itself; which had in fact been already rendered unjustified and had its raison d’Itre eliminated by the PNA’s recent acceptance of what had been earlier rejected as ludicrous at Camp David.

In addition to the main parties to this raging conflict, who want nothing other than peace, add the Arabs who, no less than a decade ago, joined the peace chorus and declared peace as their “strategic choice”. Never mind the adverse implication that the other alternative, “war as a strategic choice”, would be in this case, an option which the Arabs did never and would never normally contemplate. The Arabs had established their credentials to join the peace camp. They have been launching one peace initiative after the other, individually and collectively, and each one provided not only commitment to the course of peace and reconciliation but detailed plans as well. From the pulpit of the United Nations, this commitment is annually and quite diligently reconfirmed and renewed. The last initiative, launched in March in Beirut, is by far the most generous and most comprehensive, in the sense that this time no reservations were made on the plan by the usual hardliners who hitherto excluded themselves from such undertakings.

The peace camp is already overcrowded not only due to the presence in full force of the Europeans, the Americans, the Russians and the United Nations (now united under the umbrella of the Quartet), but also because every nation in the world is also adding its voice as well as its solid support to the cause of peace. European, American, UN and other representatives regularly roam the region, make countless statements (though mostly identical) about the need to put an end to the suffering, to stop the bloody violence and to return to the negotiating table. Although Europe is now one, the EU does not have only one representative but two, probably to work in shifts and to ensure that the region is not left off guard at any time, lest the peace they are building should slip away. As a result, and over the decades, the international scene has also become crowded with peace plans, initiatives, recommendations, road maps, papers and even non-papers, (a novel invention to guarantee no binding commitment to what a party may submit even in written form).

If the constituency for peace is so unanimous and large, and if there is not one voice against, why has peace been so far elusive and impossible to achieve? The answer is very simple. We use the same words without prior agreement on what they are supposed to mean, and that is by no means accidental. It is deliberate. To play on the meaning of words with the intention to mislead, as the case is clearly here, would normally be considered a form of deception and dishonesty, but in politics and in the context of the present issue, it is not so. This form of deception has been afforded legitimacy and given an acceptable name: “constructive ambiguity”. (I believe it was Kissinger who used this expression first).

With constructive ambiguity as the key guiding principle for our peace process, a “road map” could “legitimately”, and sometimes with consent, lead nowhere near the intended destination. Constructive ambiguity allows each party to make its own interpretations and draw its own conclusions from a loosely formulated text without committing any violation. The idea is to accommodate contradictory positions, facilitate the achievement of an “agreement” without actually reaching an agreement.

Most of the Palestinian-Israeli accords which were signed in elaborate ceremonies but later collapsed were of this type: agreements which were meant for their own sake rather than marking real and successful resolution of real issues.

Here are some of the prominent deceptive, though “legitimate”, aspects of the current peace efforts, which the loose mantle of “language” have been permitting.

When the Israelis claim that they want “peace”, they simply mean that the Palestinians should stop all forms of opposition to the occupation, abandon any form of active resistance, stop any incitement, which simply means any complaining about being occupied, abide strictly and obediently by the occupation rules, stop talking about the past and preferably forget it and forget about anything to do with it, such as the right of return or even compensation for whatever they have lost.

They should keep quiet while the Israelis continue the implementation of their expansionist plans, including accompanying measures, such as confiscation of more territory and displacement of more people, and they should wait silently for whatever and whenever the Israelis decide their destiny should be, an eventuality for which they should feel grateful without argument.

They should not ask for a final settlement to the conflict because the Israelis do not want to run the risk of what a final settlement may imply by way of placing limits on their future expansionist designs. Once they do all that, the Palestinians will be allowed to go on with their lives normally, provide cheap labour for Israeli business and be left alone, unless their land is needed for building new settlements or their houses have to be demolished on the pretext that they did not obtain proper building permits; and they would be expected not to object to any of that, as well.

Even the daily Israeli violence and the severe occupation measures to which the Palestinians have been subjected, according to this concept, is supposed to be part of their (the Israelis’) good work towards achieving peace. All they are doing is eliminating Palestinian violence (an undertaking the PNA failed to achieve), protecting their citizens and creating the calm needed to precede the desired peace.

That is what is required from the Palestinians. For the Israeli peace, the Arab states have a lot to do as well. They have to establish normal relations with the Jewish state, as if every pending issue had been lawfully resolved. The UN, on its part, has to close the question of Palestine file and remove that case from the UN agenda.

This peculiar meaning of “peace” contradicts any other concept of this very term. None of the other parties, the Europeans, the Arabs, the Russians, the UN, the countries of the Non-Aligned Movement, the Latin Americans, the Asians, the Muslim states and any other state in the world, would approve any element of the Israeli interpretation of the meaning of peace. Even the Americans, who are normally the closest and most supportive of the Israeli position, would not go as far as endorsing such an extremist position, but they do not seem to be prepared to oppose it openly and effectively. Because of that, and because no attempt has been made so far by any of the others to enforce consensus, Israel alone could maintain its position and, as a result, its understanding of what “peace” should mean, with no visible challenge in sight.

Most unfortunately, the current peace moves, mainly of the Quartet, and the “road map” chose not to benefit from the hard experience of the previous failures, clearly to avoid a confrontation with Israel, and opted instead to recondition and recycle old plans and discredited ideas. As long as the peace makers continue to try to ignore the only appropriate terms of reference, which is international law and the Security Council relevant resolutions, their efforts will most sadly be doomed.

It is clear that the current moves rely heavily on two assumptions which are both counterproductive and wrong. One is that all the Israeli “unacceptables” should not be challenged, no matter how extreme and contradictory with international and common sense. Therefore, the starting point of the plan is to accommodate most of them and to recognise all the facts which Israel illegally created on the ground. This concerns the Israeli position on Jerusalem, the refugees, the settlements, the characteristics of the envisioned Palestinian state and its to-be-defined borders. On all these issues, the Israeli position violates international law and the very terms of reference of the peace processes.

The other assumption is that the PNA is still in a good position to accept a meagre project, which may turn out to be less than what instigated the Intifada. The PNA may indeed accept it, with some face-saving reservations from a position of weakness, but that is by no means a guarantee for its durability and success. The PNA is in no position to sell such a plan to the majority of the Palestinians. That is to say nothing about the Israeli position on the plan, which will most certainly ensure its destruction even if every other factor worked in their favour. All the indications from Israel so far confirm that.

The region does indeed need a peace plan, but one with teeth, clarity and purpose. The last thing we need is more tranquillisers or a placebo, as the “road map” was correctly described by some columnists.

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