Why all the fuss about the Bush-Sharon meeting?

President George W. Bush and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon after talking with the press in the Cross Hall of the White House on April 14, 2004. White House photo by Eric Draper

The 14 April meeting between President Bush and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in Washington sent Palestinian leaders into a flying panic. But their response reeks of desperation and self-interest rather than any real concern for the fate of the Palestinian people and their land or because the results of the meeting represented any new setback for Palestinian rights.

Hours before departing Israel, Sharon announced that large Israeli settlement blocks would remain in the West Bank forever. Referring to the largest Israeli colony, east of occupied Jerusalem, Sharon said, “Ma’aleh Adumim will remain part of the state of Israel forever and ever.” Sharon who spoke at a Passover celebration in Ma’aleh Adumim itself, named other settlements he plans to keep, including the large Gush Etzion block south of Jerusalem, Giv’at Ze’ev, Ariel and Kiryat Arba.

When he got to Washington, Sharon received the two public assurances he badly wanted from Bush as prize for his announced withdrawal from Gaza. At their joint press conference following their meeting, Bush said that Palestinian refugees should be resettled in a Palestinian state, not in Israel. Sharon had wanted such a statement of US opposition to Palestinian refugees exercising their right of return to homes in Israel from which they were expelled or fled. Bush also said that any final peace deal should reflect that “realities on the ground and in the region have changed greatly.” This was a nod to Sharon’s demand that Israel ought to be allowed to keep its large illegal colonies in the occupied West Bank.

Prior to the Bush-Sharon summit, Palestinian leaders were hysterical about the prospect of such American assurances — which had been widely previewed in the Israeli press. Palestinian negotiations minister Saeb Erekat declared that “the maintenance of six settlement blocks in the West Bank is a recipe for closing all the doors in the peace process and its destruction.” Palestinian Authority (PA) Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia was no less strident, warning that “any US guarantees to Israel that affect the final status issues…are unacceptable and will be rejected.” On the day of Sharon’s Washington visit, Yasser Arafat issued a hyperbolic statement from his Ramallah prison predicting that Bush’s guarantees would “end the peace process” and cancel all existing agreements between Israel and the Palestinians — as if there were a peace process, and signed agreements were worth more than the paper they are printed on to either Bush or Sharon.

But, really, what is all the fuss about? Sharon and Bush did not say anything new. In fact, Sharon’s position indicates a significant shift towards Israel’s traditional Labor-led “peace camp,” while Bush simply rephrased formulas already used by former president Bill Clinton. Consider the vision former Israeli Labor Party prime minister Ehud Barak laid out in a May 2001 New York Times commentary:

What Israel ought to do now is take steps to ensure the long-term viability of its Jewish majority. That requires a strategy of disengagement from the Palestinians — even unilaterally if necessary — and a gradual process of establishing secure, defensible borders, demarcated so as to encompass more than 80 percent of Jewish settlers in several settlement blocs over about 15 percent of Judea and Samaria, and to ensure a wide security zone in the Jordan Valley. We need to erect appropriate barriers to prevent the entry of suicide bombers and other attackers. (24 May 2001)

What on earth is the difference between Barak’s vision of 2001 and Sharon’s vision of 2004? While Barak is viewed as being at the “hawkish” end of the Labor Party, things don’t get much better at the “doveish” end. Barak’s successor as Labor leader, General Amram Mitzna was one of the architects of the so-called Geneva Initiative — a virtual peace plan signed by Israeli opposition politicians and former PA officials acting with Arafat’s blessing. Attempting to sell the virtues of this initiative to a skeptical Israeli public, Mitzna wrote in Ha’aretz last October:

For the first time in history, the Palestinians explicitly and officially recognized the state of Israel as the state of the Jewish people forever. They gave up the right of return to the state of Israel and a solid, stable Jewish majority was guaranteed. The Western Wall, the Jewish Quarter and David’s Tower will all remain in our hands. The suffocating ring was lifted from over Jerusalem and the entire ring of settlements around it - Givat Ze’ev, old and new Givon, Ma’ale Adumim, Gush Etzion, Neve Yaacov, Pisgat Ze’ev, French Hill, Ramot, Gilo and Armon Hanatziv will be part of the expanded city, forever. None of the settlers in those areas will have to leave their homes. (16 October 2003)

Mitzna named more settlements he wants to keep than Sharon!

Yossi Beilin, of the far-left Meretz Party is former Israeli justice minister, and the main force behind the Geneva initiative. Beilin confirmed Mitzna’s interpretation of the Geneva parameters last February in Israel’s Ma’ariv newspaper, writing that if Israel and the Palestinians managed to sign an agreement in the “spirit” of Geneva, “Israel will receive many benefits.” Among them, “an internationally recognized eastern border; a large capital including the Jewish neighborhoods in east Jerusalem, the Jewish Quarter and the Western Wall - recognized by the world, with all embassies moving to it from Tel Aviv; the refugee problem will finally be taken off Israel’s agenda and all the relevant U.N. resolutions will be replaced by the signed agreement.”

Yet when Shlomo Ben-Ami, Barak’s “doveish” foreign minister who headed the Israeli negotiating teams at Camp David in July 2001, and in Taba in December 2001 criticized the Geneva plan it was because it was much too generous to the Palestinians. In an 11 December 2003 interview with France’s Le Figaro newspaper, Ben-Ami complained that Beilin and the other Israeli participants in Geneva were “outbidding each other with concessions.”

Looking at the accumulation of evidence, there is no qualitative difference whatsoever between what Sharon on the one hand, and the mainstream Israeli “peace camp” on the other are prepared to give the Palestinians. There are slight differences in emphasis and perhaps over a few percentage points of West Bank land. Sharon is committed to keeping Kiryat Arba near Hebron, seen even in Israel as a hotbed of settler fanaticism, while the Labor-led “peace camp” might be prepared to sacrifice it since its inhabitants would never vote for them anyway. What is indisputable is that Sharon and his “opposition” agree that Gaza is a burden that Israel is best rid of, while the vast majority of the settlers in the biggest settlements in the West Bank should remain precisely where they are forever.

But as far as the Palestinian Authority is concerned, there is a difference — not in substance — but in style. While Labor has historically preferred to get PA endorsement and consent for Israeli colonization (and the PA has with few exceptions obliged), Sharon has no need for the PA. This explains why Palestinian leaders are prepared to make a fuss when Sharon says something, but remain silent and cooperative when their “friends” in the Israeli “peace movement” say exactly the same things or worse. For Palestinian “ministers” actual peace is not a requirement. All they need is an endless “peace process” in which they are seen as “partners.” For this they have repeatedly shown that they will pay any price unless and until pressure from the people they purport to represent stops them from committing irreversible blunders.

For Israel’s “peace camp” Palestinian agreement to the humiliating terms on which they agree with Sharon is far preferable to unilateral action because they believe it will give them what they deeply crave — international credibility and respectability without any significant sacrifice of Israel’s ill-gotten gains. The Palestinian Authority, the Israeli “peace camp” and a lot of liberal commentators in the United States all find it convenient to pretend that Sharon is the problem. The real problem is the Israeli consensus that a demographically and therefore politically untenable “Jewish democratic state” in Palestine must be preserved, entirely at the cost of the Palestinians. Recognizing this reality means facing the unpalatable truth that a fair and workable partition of Palestine is not possible today if it ever was.

Sharon, the man who literally tried to destroy the Palestinian national movement and the Lebanese state, and who always believed that “Jordan is Palestine,” is laundering the extreme and racist policies of the Labor party. From Sharon, such policies suddenly appear moderate or as Bush called them, a demonstration of “boldness and courage” that ought to be matched by the Palestinians.

It might be argued that what distinguishes Sharon’s initiative from earlier Labor Party declarations is that he managed to get a US president to publicly support his position. But here too there is less new than meets the eye. President Clinton announced his “parameters” for Palestinian-Israeli “peace” in a speech to the Israel Policy Forum on 7 January 2001, and in writing to Barak and Arafat shortly before he left office. These explicitly included “the incorporation into Israel of settlement blocks, with the goal of maximizing the number of settlers in Israel while minimizing the land annex.” Clinton did not mention removal of any settlements, simply incorporating as many of the settlements as possible — intact — into Israel.

On the right of return, Clinton declared, “We cannot expect Israel to make a decision that would threaten the very foundations of the state of Israel, and would undermine the whole logic of peace. And it shouldn’t be done.” In other words, Clinton explicitly supported the Israeli view that it should have an absolute veto on the return of any refugees, lest they threaten its “Jewish character.” Clinton actually defined the notion of refugees returning home in accordance with international law and UN resolutions to be anti-peace. Arafat accepted Clinton’s parameters and they formed the basis of the Taba talks in which all the Palestinian officials now protesting Sharon’s statements gleefully participated. The dismay expressed by the PA leaders also reflects how much they have mortgaged themselves to the whims of the United States and how little faith they put in the justness of the Palestinian cause. So what if Bush is against the right of return as were Clinton and Barak? The right of return still exists and it will not disappear just because Bush and Sharon want it to. Palestinians, thank goodness, do not draw their inalienable human rights from the lips of George Bush.

Of course one could argue that Clinton is history and guarantees from the current administration represent a new and dangerous setback for the Palestinians. Perhaps so, but this would hardly justify the PA’s recent professions of outrage and panic when they have been willing partners in approving, encouraging and promoting so many disastrous Israeli ideas for so long.

Ali Abunimah is co-founder of The Electronic Intifada

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