It is the traditional role of the Israeli Labor party to pose as the “peace party,” a notion that in the past some Palestinians, “moderate” Arab states, and the wider international community have accepted out of a mixture of naivete, wishful thinking and political expediency. Whenever Labor wins, however, lofty words, are replaced with policies that more resemble than contrast with the “hard-line” they were supposed to replace.
In 1992, Yitzhak Rabin became prime minister, following the “hawkish” Yitzhak Shamir. This lead to the signing of the Oslo accords, but it also heralded the biggest colony construction binge since Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip began, designed to solidify Israel’s control. For Palestinians it marked the beginning of the period in which Israel was free to continue all the practices of military occupation, except now with a veneer international legitimacy.
When Barak came to power in 1999 it was with promises that Labor would restore things to their intended course, from which the Likud’s Benjamin Netanyahu had supposedly derailed them, and bring quick peace with the Palestinians. Yet, Barak’s vision, offered at Camp David, was not for a genuine Israeli withdrawal from the occupied territories, and the creation of a sovereign Palestinian state, but for nominal statehood within a greater Israel. Since the Camp David summit ended, Barak and his ilk have been repeating the myth that the Palestinians turned down an amazingly generous offer, refused further negotiations, and launched the Intifada.
Now, after twenty months of the Sharon-Peres-Ben Eliezer coalition, leading lights of the Israeli Labor party and self-styled “peace camp” have begun to trot out the old line that only they can offer a solution. The cornerstone of their claim is that they know the path to peace with the Palestinians. In recent articles, Shimon Peres, Yossi Beilin (a Rabin disciple and former justice minister), and Shlomo Ben Ami (a former foreign minister), offer up their visions. It is hard to imagine a more bankrupt collection of ideas and assertions.
Most brazen is Peres, who after twenty months as Sharon’s foreign minister and defender-in-chief of Israel’s war crimes, offers the way forward in an Ha’aretz commentary. Peres writes that he supports President Bush’s “vision” of a Palestinian state alongside Israel. To show just how serious he is, he states that as one of the conditions to achieve this,
“New settlement construction must be frozen and we must announce that we are ready to include removal of settlements in any permanent agreement, as proposed by President Clinton at Camp David.” (“Because of the Stammering,” Ha’aretz, 6 November 2002)
Who is this supposed to persuade? Certainly not Palestinians who will surely recall that it was the Rabin-Peres government of 1992 that invented the idea of a “freeze” on “new” settlements, so that Israel could continue massive expansion and “natural growth” in “existing” settlements while at the same time appearing to yield to American pressure. Even now, Peres is still not willing to call for a genuine freeze and the removal of all of Israel’s settlements from the occupied territories, but offers only a vague commitment to possible removal of some settlements. Where? How many? Peres’ appeal to the Camp David proposals does not suggest a promising answer since Barak envisaged eighty percent of the settlers remaining under Israeli rule right where they are. Clinton’s later proposals included the formula that as far as Jerusalem is concerned what is Jewish will be ruled by Israel, while what is Palestinian will be ruled by the Palestinians. In other words, what Israel has stolen since 1967 it can keep, and what is left, the Palestinians might get. Since Israel defines municipal Jerusalem as including massive areas of settlements, including the largest, Maaleh Adumim, under this formula removing many if not most of Israel’s settlers is ruled out in advance.
Peres’ justification of his participation in Israel’s government of assassins, ethnic cleansers and war criminals that “the right wing tried — and we tried to help it — achieve peace,” bespeaks a furious political and verbal promiscuity that is unrivalled anywhere in the world.
Yossi Beilin, long a champion of Oslo, and a leading Labor “dove” tells readers of The Guardian that the Israeli election is an opportunity for the “peace camp” to regain the ascendancy if the Labor party seizes it. To do this, the party must offer “a clear message,” that the “the Israeli-Palestinian border will be determined either by means of an agreement or unilaterally if the negotiations are not successful. All the settlements beyond the border, as shall be determined, will be evacuated.” (“Vote offers new opportunities for peace camp,” The Guardian, 6 November 2002)
This is another masterful example of “clarity” without substance or commitment. Nobody, not even Sharon, disagrees that the Israeli-Palestinian border should be negotiated. The disagreement is about where it should be. Sharon has often spoken about a Palestinian “state” whose borders would no doubt run very close to those of “Area A,” the tiny spots of land once controlled by the Palestinian Authority. Netanyahu proposed a similar “state” when he was prime minister. The Palestinians, backed by international law and the United Nations, believe the border should run along the 1967 lines, with some minor adjustments to remove anomalies. What does Beilin believe? Well, of course he doesn’t say, except that the Israelis and Palestinians should agree. And if the Palestinians do not agree to what the Israelis want then Israel can impose its own border. As far as settlements are concerned, Beilin, like Peres makes no commitment to removing them. He only says that those beyond the eventual border may be evacuated. If the Palestinians are forced to agree to a Camp David-style border which keeps most of the settlements within Israel, or Israel imposes such a border, then few or no settlements would be evacuated. Hardly a breakthrough and certainly not a “clear message.”
The most confused of the three is Shlomo Ben Ami, who writing in The Financial Times, calls on the Labor party to find the “courage to form a much-needed opposition,” and “to design a road map leading to the future.” Labor should, he continues, try to
“constitute a solid political axis around which the centre-left could rally and mobilize the great number of grassroots organizations that have emerged throughout Israeli society in the past year, in a desperate search for a way out of this dangerous impasse of bloody hopelessness and unprecedented economic decline.” (“Israel needs a Labor opposition,” Financial Times, 6 November 2002)
Ben Ami does not even attempt to get beyond these platitudes and provide a single concrete suggestion, let alone recognize the need for a quick end to Israel’s occupation as the most obvious and important element in ending the bloodshed. Instead, he casts vitriolic blame at the Palestinians and excuses Israel’s destruction of Palestinian society as the overreaction of “a nation determined to defeat terrorism and to repel the Palestinian homicidal campaign away from homes, shopping centers, buses and kindergartens.”
Unable to accept any responsibility for the disaster, Ben Ami asserts that the Palestinians are guilty of “imposing on Israel a war it did not want,” without mentioning that for decades Israel has imposed on the Palestinians a military dictatorship, a regime of murder, destruction and dispossession they certainly do not want and have every right and every reason to resist.
Ben Ami’s anger reaches a fever pitch:
“Yassir Arafat’s murderous flirtation with terrorism and his obsession with missing one peace opportunity after another is the sin that fatally undermined the peace camp in Israel. But if Mr. Arafat committed the sin, the rise of Mr. Sharon was the punishment.”
So not only is Israel’s “peace camp” blameless — the only evil ones are the Palestinians and the Israeli right — but this is quite a change of tune even for Ben Ami who had previously refused to peddle the official propaganda that Israeli-Palestinian negotiations stopped with Arafat’s rejection of Barak’s “generous” Camp David offers in July 2000. In fact, Ben Ami, who participated in the negotiations which continued in Washington DC, and in Taba, Egypt, until Barak broke them off in early 2001, once described them as “the most fruitful, constructive, profound negotiations in this phase of the peace process.” (“Mideast Talks End With Gain But No Accord,” New York Times, January 28, 2001) Now they are just another “missed opportunity” on the part of Arafat, the serial bungler.
Beilin too repeats the old cliche that “the Palestinian partner will need to prove that missing opportunities has not become its second nature.”
It is an irony that the Palestinians, who by agreeing to two states and recognizing Israel in 1993 have relinquished their claim to seventy eight percent of the country in which they were until fifty years ago an overwhelming majority, are the ones accused of intransigence and “missing opportunities” even by these members of the “peace camp.”
The greater irony though is that the chief attraction of the two-state solution is that it allows Israel — at least until the tendency of human beings to have babies gets the better of it — to preserve its “Jewish and democratic” character. For Israeli Zionists, therefore, the two state solution is a gift they should eagerly seize while praising their good fortune. For Palestinians it is an enormous and painful sacrifice which the vast majority willingly embraced for the sake of a lasting peace.
Yet if even three leading members of the “peace camp” can recognize none of this it should come as no surprise that an increasing number of Palestinians are concluding that appeasing Israel has brought them nothing but more colonies and less freedom. The obvious corollary is to look for a solution that provides everyone, Palestinians and Israelis, with equality, and freedom in a single democratic state.
Although such ideas are usually dismissed as a plot to destroy Israel, at least one prominent Israeli, Meron Benvenisti, has broken the taboo, writing that he is:
“Starting to think about what appears to be heretical and fantastic, such as, perhaps a binational solution,” which he thinks may “create less friction than separation and partition?” Benvenisti concludes that, “perhaps an open debate about binational arrangements, even if it’s only theoretical, will do more for reconciliation than sticking to ethno-nationalist separation.” (“The binational option,” Ha’aretz, 7 November 2002)
When mainstream Israeli commentators like Benvenisti are willing to give serious consideration to binationalism and democracy, as opposed to Jewish ethno-nationalism, the bankruptcy of Israeli political discourse is laid bare. The bankruptcy of Sharon’s policy of seeking to crush the Palestinian will to resist through brute force was obvious within weeks of his election. At the other end of the mainstream Israeli political spectrum, the “peace camp” is offering ideas that are just as implausible and irrelevant.
What unites Peres, Beilin and Ben Ami is that they are calling for a rapid resumption of a journey along a road that leads only to a dead end. They offer no new ideas, and no incentives for Palestinians who want true reconciliation and coexistence to build a peace front with them. Their goal is to preserve Israel as a Jewish-dominated state through ethno-nationalist separation at the expense of any one but the shrinking Labor-voting elite they represent, be it the Palestinians or the settlers.
At the same time they will use anyone, no matter how unsavory to try to achieve their goals, whether it is Arafat or Sharon. Because of the record of failure and the bankruptcy of ideas, Labor’s chances in this election are as slim as ever. All predictions suggest that the best Labor can hope for is to act as kingmaker between the “mainstream” right represented by Sharon and Netanyahu and the openly pro-ethnic cleansing faction whose voice and strength is growing every day. Unless the Israeli “peace camp” finds leaders and ideas not compromised by Oslo, it will play a role as irrelevant to Israel’s body politic as Sharon’s appendix is to him.