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Palestine Has Always Been Off the Agenda

by GREGORY HARMS

It was recently noted, correctly, by Al Jazeera and the New York Times that the Palestinians and their situation have been “sidelined” and moved off the “world agenda.” On account of factors including US-Israeli tensions with Iran, unfolding Arab Spring developments, and the US election year, things have indeed been quiet, but more by a matter of degree. At the moment, the Palestinian national movement is simply further off the agenda, with the status quo firmly intact.

Israel’s occupation of the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem continues uninterruptedly. For the last number of years, Gaza has been at the receiving end of ongoing and brutal military punishment. Most recently, the Israeli Defense Forces assassinated Zuhair al-Qaissi, a leader of the Popular Resistance Committees, thus provoking reprisal rocket fire from Gazan militants. Over the course of the violence, 25 Palestinians were killed, five of whom were civilians, including a school boy and a father and daughter; approximately 80 were wounded, mostly civilians.

The violence was initiated by Israel disturbing a period of calm between Israel and Hamas – a behavior not without precedent. The response in the US media was predictably cautious in how it portrayed Israel’s conduct. New York Times journalist Isabel Kershner, in a video segment on the Times‘ website, made sure to keep the event in perspective: “Although of course Israel did set off this latest round, Israel’s action has been very pinpointed, a lot more restrained than it might have been.” In the paper that day (March 13), Kershner quoted but failed to question Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s warning after a truce was established: “Our message is clear: quiet will lead to quiet.” Things, Kershner might have noted, were quiet.

In addition to military assault, Gaza’s forced economic isolation remains crippling; despite withdrawal from the territory in 2005, Israel maintains its occupation externally. Human rights groups have carefully documented the territory’s hardship, creating an immense and unequivocal documentary record. According to the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, “The Gaza blockade [imposed since 2007] … is a denial of basic human rights in contravention of international law and amounts to collective punishment.” The news headlines alone are revealing. The title of a Haaretz piece in February read “Gaza’s only power plant stops due to smuggled fuel shortage.” Taking into consideration everything contained in those words, an accompanying article is close to unnecessary.

As Dov Weisglass, an adviser to former prime minister Ariel Sharon, stated prior to Israel evacuating Gaza: “The disengagement is actually formaldehyde. It supplies the amount of formaldehyde that’s necessary so that there will not be a political process with the Palestinians.” The subsequent years up to and including the present have done nothing but give credence to Weisglass’s admission. With Gaza basically removed from the picture, Israel has concentrated on the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

While the development of settlements in the West Bank continues – and did so even during the 10-month “moratorium” on their expansion during 2010 – Palestinians continue to experience worsening restrictions of movement. As reported in the Guardian, “91 permits were issued for Palestinian construction in Area C [the majority of West Bank] between 2001 and 2007. In the same period, more than 10,000 Israeli settlement units were built and 1,663 Palestinian structures demolished.” Area C was to be negotiated after the Oslo Accords, and ever since has been the focus of Israel’s land expropriation, and preemption of a viable Palestinian state.

The period commonly referred to as the “peace process” spanned from 1991 to 2000. It started with the George H. W. Bush administration convening a conference in Madrid, Spain, and ended with Bill Clinton conducting negotiations at Camp David and then issuing the Clinton Plan at the very end of his second term. While these years helped foster periods of calm, what is starkly visible is Israel’s ceaseless consolidation and refinement of its occupation.

Though Clinton’s last-minute parameters represented the high-water mark of US-Israeli-Palestinian diplomacy for that decade, they also drew that diplomacy to a close. Independent initiatives were produced over the following years, in particular, the Saudi proposal in 2002 (reissued in 2007), and two “track-II” proposals: the People’s Voice principles and the Geneva Accord, both issued in 2003. The Clinton Plan and these three later proposals bear much in common with one another, and contain reasonable, workable paths to a two-state resolution of the conflict.

Regardless of this fact, since Camp David II, the situation in the Palestinian territories has basically remained in a post-peace-process limbo. Which is not to suggest that the peace process was a strenuous and genuine effort to end the Palestine-Israel conflict. A simple survey of the diplomatic history all the way from 1967 to the present makes it clear that the United States has opted for suspension and delay.

For Washington, the Palestinians have no strategic value, only intermittent tactical value. Palestine mainly functions as a diplomatic lever when the White House needs to manage regional tensions. The executive branch also uses the Palestinians as an example of how difficult gaining independence can be, falling into the category of democracy prevention – a highly visible pattern in US foreign relations. And postponing Palestinian statehood – and thus sustaining Israel’s occupation – helps keep Israel in the mode of militancy, its primary function in the US-Israeli “special relationship.” Apart from utility, the Palestinians are considered a trifling entity by American policymakers.

Western Europe makes the occasional compelling pronouncement, but falls in line with US policy. Middle Eastern leaders have generally been disinterested throughout the conflict’s history, with thought usually only given to the Palestinians’ plight unsettling their own domestic populations, and therefore the stability of their regimes. This, of course, is now in flux.

So while the Palestine question is presently being eclipsed by other affairs in the international arena, it bears consideration that the Palestinians have always been off the agenda. The occupation has become procedural, and the Bush II-Obama paradigm could conceivably go on for years to come. While not peaceful by any rational standard, things are stable enough for Washington and Tel Aviv’s liking. Placing the matter front and center, and in the context of practical solutions already in reserve, will likely only be achieved by way of popular pressure.

GREGORY HARMS is an independent scholar focusing on American foreign relations and the Middle East. He is the author of The Palestine-Israel Conflict: A Basic Introduction (2nd ed., Pluto Press, 2008), and  Straight Power Concepts in the Middle East: US Foreign Policy, Israel, and World History (Pluto Press, 2010) and the 2012 forthcoming It’s Not about Religion (Perceval Press).

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