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The Israeli cabinet’s highly qualified acceptance on Sunday of the “roadmap” to peace between Israel and the Palestinians is likely to mean the final derailment of this latest in a line of misbegotten peace plans. Just a random sampling of the Sunday morning talk shows demonstrates why this perverse reality is so.
Reacting to the Israeli cabinet’s twelve-seven vote (with four abstentions) in favor of the roadmap, but taking no note of the crippling preconditions imposed on Israel’s adherence to the peace plan, Fox News Sunday host Tony Snow asked Senator Joseph Lieberman if he did not agree that the Bush administration should now ignore the other members of the Quartet altogether (the others being the European Union, the UN, and Russia) and go ahead with the roadmap in whatever way the administration saw fit; the U.S. should simply assert its prerogative as principal peace broker. “Well, yes,” Lieberman responded, in a tone implying that the answer was so obvious the question need not have been asked. The Israelis mistrust the rest of the Quartet, Lieberman observed, and if we expect Israel to make peace we have to accommodate its concerns.
Period. Whatever Sharon wants Sharon gets.
Later, on Wolf Blitzer’s Late Edition on CNN, Blitzer asked Representative Tom Lantos about the impact of the Israeli cabinet’s rejection, as a condition for accepting the roadmap, of any consideration of a Palestinian right of return. With a figurative wave of his hand, Lantos dismissed the right of return as a spurious demand. The bulk of Palestinian refugees never lived in what is now Israel in the first place, he said; most of the refugees are descendants of the original refugees. And in any case, the right of return has never been considered a serious part of the negotiating process.
At least not by Tom Lantos or the Israelis. Whatever Sharon wants Sharon gets.
Simultaneously with these Israel-is-good, Palestinians-are-bad pronouncements by the congress members and the media outlets who essentially control what Americans know about the peace process, the Israeli peace group Gush Shalom, led by Uri Avnery, issued a newsletter discussing what is really going on in Israel and Palestine, significantly entitled “Behind the Diplomatic Moves: Intensified Assault on Peace Activists.” Noting that Sharon’s acceptance of the roadmap is so heavily cratered with caveats as to be devoid of any meaning, Gush Shalom writes about what Israel is actually doing on the peace front: ongoing raids, killings, and curfews throughout the occupied territories; a stepped-up offensive against all peace and human rights activists, whether Israeli, Palestinian, or international; continuing arrests and expulsions; the barring of humanitarian aid and development workers from reaching projects in Palestinian territories.
While the United States congratulates Sharon for his statesmanship, the Israel campaign to fence in those small areas of the West Bank that might be given over to some measure of Palestinian control continues with the construction, on devastated Palestinian agricultural land, of a massive apartheid wall that will mark out the huge settlement blocs and vast expanses of Palestinian land that Israel intends to retain. While the U.S. praises Sharon’s vision, the Israeli campaign to destroy Palestinian national existence and Palestinian identity continues. While the U.S. bends over backward to accommodate Israel’s demands, the Israeli campaign to silence the witnesses to its depredations against Palestinians, which began with the killing of Rachel Corrie on March 16, continues in numerous ways.
Oblivious to these concrete indications of Sharon’s attitude toward making peace with the Palestinians, the U.S. media and most commentators have been concentrating on Israeli rhetoric, hailing the cabinet decision on the roadmap as a “dramatic breakthrough,” highly significant because it is the first-ever official Israeli acceptance of the notion of Palestinian statehood. Although the media generally note the Israeli reservations, these are downplayed in the rush to highlight the supposed breakthrough. Few note that Ariel Sharon has long spoken of accepting a so-called Palestinian “state,” but a state so truncated (encompassing only about 40 percent of the West Bank in multiple small disconnected segments, including none of Jerusalem, and completely surrounded by Israeli territory) that it would be a travesty of commonly accepted notions of independence and sovereignty. There is nothing in the Israeli cabinet decision or in Sharon’s personal “commitment” to the roadmap to indicate that his destructive view of Palestinian nationhood and the right to statehood has changed.
Not surprisingly, media outside the United States seem to be taking a more sober and realistic approach to the Israeli decision. The Canadian television network NWI reported the decision on Sunday as being so heavily freighted with reservations as to raise serious doubts about the fate of the roadmap. No such skepticism mars the U.S. media’s rapturous reporting. Even the Israeli media is more realistic. The Israeli daily Ha’aretz bases all of its reporting and commentary on the underlying assumption that Sharon and Israel are not serious about implementing the roadmap and are simply maneuvering to delay implementation and avoid any confrontation with a U.S. administration momentarily animated by the idea of pursuing a peace process.
Because the Bush administration, the media, and Congress are all so eager to believe the best about any Israeli government, Sharon, brilliant strategist that he is, has maneuvered them into thinking that he has taken a major step toward accepting real Palestinian statehood and that all now depends on Palestinian good will. Sharon has put himself forth as the moderate in the Israeli establishment fending off his virulently anti-Palestinian, transfer-minded extremist colleagues but unable to get too far out in front of them for fear of arousing their extreme rightwing settler constituencies. In fact, he is only more pragmatic, not more moderate, than the hardliners in his cabinet. His goals are the same: perpetual Israeli domination of the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem; never agreeing to relinquish any territory except possibly for temporary tactical reasons; and squeezing the Palestinians so hard that they will eventually leave or, perhaps in an unguarded moment when the world is not looking, can be forcibly expelled. His stated goal for decades has been moving the locus for any Palestinian state, if there must be one, across the Jordan River to Jordan.
Through his pragmatic approach, Sharon has succeeded for now in diverting pressure on himself to dismantle outpost settlements and freeze other settlement activity, as called for by the roadmap, and has placed the ball back in the Palestinian court. In fact, the Palestinians have already lost this game. Mahmoud Abbas will not be able to control terrorism, and Israel will interpret any further terrorism as license to ignore its own obligations under the roadmap. Even if Abbas does negotiate some sort of cease-fire with Hamas and other militant organizations, Israel will undoubtedly be ready and willing to conduct some assassination operation or raid that will provoke more terrorism. This has occurred repeatedly during Sharon’s two-plus years in office, and the Israeli provocations since the roadmap was released less than a month ago are numerous enough to be counted on the fingers of two hands.
Even were the roadmap not badly flawed, and unburdened by Israel’s now-official reservations, the Israeli demand that the Palestinians drop their insistence on recognition of a right of return would be a deal breaker. For the Palestinians, the right of return is a matter of principle as much as or more than it is a literal demand. The Palestinian leadership does not demand an unrestricted right for millions of refugees to return to Israel and has frequently spelled out a range of acceptable alternatives. But some acknowledgement by Israel that it played a role in the creation of the refugee problem is essential from the Palestinian standpoint. In concrete terms, they want assurance that all refugees will be accommodated in some way, by being offered a choice either to return in limited numbers to Israel or to be resettled somewhere, either in a new Palestinian state or in some third country, and compensated for lost homes and property. The Palestinian leadership recognizes Israel’s demographic concerns and is prepared to accommodate Israel’s fear of being swamped by large numbers of non-Jews. Palestinian officials, including Yasir Arafat himself, who wrote a New York Times op-ed last year expressing understanding for Israel’s demographic fears, have frequently stated explicitly that the problem must be resolved in a way that does not affect the Jewish character of Israel.
But the problem must also be addressed in a way that does not simply ignore the refugees’ needs. The refugees’ situation is so fundamental to the roots of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, and is such a festering issue for the Palestinians themselves, that any final peace agreement that did not accommodate their needs in some satisfactory way would be no final agreement at all but merely a new source of conflict. If the Palestinian leadership today accepts the Israeli objections and simply continues negotiations without explicitly reiterating its demand that this issue be addressed, it will destroy its own legitimacy in the eyes of the Palestinian people and will ultimately be undermining its own negotiating position. For “going along” silently now and tacitly accepting the Israeli rejection will mean that, if negotiations ever come to deal with final-status issues, the Palestinians cannot again raise the right of return; the world will have come to accept that the leadership forfeited this right when talks on the roadmap began.
Essentially, Sharon has maneuvered a compliant United States into a situation in which he has carte blanche to do whatever he wants with the roadmap. The U.S. has all it needs from him in the form of a pro forma acceptance of its peace plan, and it will now accommodate him completely, because in the end the primary US interest, among Bush administration policymakers, in Congress, among most of the media, and among the uncaring public, lies less in forging a genuine (that is, a just and therefore a stable) peace between Israel and the Palestinians than simply in enabling and guaranteeing whatever the government of Israel wants.
KATHLEEN CHRISTISON also worked in the CIA, retiring in 1979. Since then she has been mainly preoccupied by the issue of Palestine. She is the author of Perceptions of Palestine and The Wound of Dispossession.
She can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org