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Ariel Sharon’s speech at Herzilya encapsulated what could the single most apt phrase to summarize Israel’s historical policies towards the land’s previous inhabitants, the Palestinians. He announced, “If there is no progress toward peace in a matter of months, then Israel will initiate the unilateral security step of disengagement from the Palestinians.” The ultimatum is clear. He meant make peace on our terms, or we will make peace on our terms. More unilateral steps.
To explain, if Sharon and his right-wing cabinet are to be the judges of what constitutes progress towards peace, it could only be the beginning of peace on their terms. Sharon demands that the Palestinian Authority “uproot terrorist groups” as the conditional first step. This is a non-starter of course. How could the PA ever muster the political capital to destroy groups that have more popular legitimacy than themselves in many parts? This is clearly a recipe for festering internal divisions in Palestinian society and weakening the Palestinian negotiating position; an unworkable initial condition.
A negotiated peace, such as the fulfillment of the Road Map, would ultimately be on Israel’s terms. Under that formula, Israel’s illegally constructed settlements will remain largely intact, millions of Palestinian refugees would have to forget about returning to their ancestral homes, and Israel would retain structural control over a frail Palestinian entity. Most likely, Israel will control its borders, airspace, everything below the ground, and this segmented, quasi-sovereign portion of historic Palestine would have to be de-militarized.
Max Weber spent too much time and energy trying to define statehood to have some politicians concoct such a radical experiment. The so-called state that results from these negotiators tinkering in social science contradicts Weber’s definition that a state has the monopoly of use of legitimate force over a given territory.
More fundamentally, a negotiated peace is still basically on Israel’s terms because the negotiations are over land that Israel wrongfully and forcefully occupied and colonized since 1967–against the wishes of the civilians they made into subjects. How can I articulate the inherent absurdity of a settler-promoting military government (as Israel is in the West Bank and Gaza) negotiating the shape and form of land with: a) people who can trace their heritage on that land back more than a millennium b) refugees and their descendents who are only there because Israel took their original homes, now in Israel proper, in 1948. The Palestinians of the West Bank and Gaza mostly fall into either category.
In the sterile official terminology, the negotiations are “land for peace.” Israel maintains that peace negotiations are about achieving security, which is often used falsely as a synonym for peace. The bottom-line is that peace is not something one trades, gives or takes, but land is. After all, the lack of security is a much larger problem for the Palestinians than it is for the Israelis. Simple statistics of casualties due to violence from the conflict demonstrate this empirically. If it were truly about Israel’s security, there would be no settlements, since they clearly endanger the lives of Israel and have only enflamed the conflict. The West Bank and Gaza would be closed off completely as a neighboring, sovereign state with defensible borders by now since that would give Israel the most security. The settlement policy was clearly driven by a unilateral hunger for more land, as well as a unilateral strategy for surrounding and gaining control of “greater” Jerusalem.
Sharon’s unilateral security steps will likely appropriate even more Palestinian land. His planned unilateral actions will take shape around the Apartheid wall/fence complex Israel is constructing to encircle most of the Palestinians within the West Bank. As Negotiation Affairs Department for the PLO estimates, it will result in the de facto annexation of “approximately 43% of the Occupied West Bank (containing approximately 94% of the illegal Israeli settlers).” I highly doubt that taking that much more land will benefit Israel’s long-term security situation.
Sharon’s ultimatum is not exactly in the spirit of peace often needed to actually make peace. Given this belligerent posturing, as well as the pathetic state of the PA–mostly due to Israel’s occupation, but also the result of corruption, ineptitude, and self-degradation due to political survivalism–if there are any agreements or moves in the name of peace, they will firmly be on Israel’s terms. The Palestinians have very little to bolster their position. Israel has a clear advantage that will only be strengthened by the consistently gross American partisanship.
The king of unilateralism, the United States government, actually criticized Sharon’s speech. A US spokesperson said that it would oppose Israeli efforts to unilaterally impose a settlement. The critique must not have been too deep however. The AFP reported that an Israeli official, speaking on condition of anonymity, stated that “We are very satisfied with the reactions of the US administration, which quite understands that we remain firmly committed to the roadmap.” He added that the “Americans … are as a whole satisfied, even there is not total agreement on their part.”
Following the trend of speaking anonymously, Haaretz reported that an American official called Sharon’s speech “a positive development.” This is strange since the point of disagreement was not some small detail, but rather one half of Sharon’s ultimatum. In all the parading of Israel’s dedication to the roadmap, no one cared to mention the fourteen reservations and conditions Sharon’s administration outlined in May.
The situation is a bit like the United States in Vietnam. Israel, like the United States, has the audacity to negotiate the terms of ending an invasion and occupation it had no right to initiate.
Israel was founded on unilateralism vis-à-vis the Palestinians. The Zionists who worked to colonize Palestine and build Israel on top of it did not negotiate with the 750,000 Palestinians they made into refugees. This dates to the origins of Jewish colonization in Palestine. In 1891, Ahad Ha’am, a cultural Zionist wrote about the “despotic tendencies in” the “hearts” of early Jewish settlers in Palestine. He went on, “They deal with the Arabs with hostility and cruelty, trespass unjustly, beat them shamefully for no sufficient reason, and even boast about their actions.”
Despite the few progressive strains of Zionism that forwarded visions of integration and interaction with the Palestinians, Zionism ultimately took shape as extreme and exclusive ethno-religious nationalism. At the root is the basic problem is that Palestine was too religiously diverse to become a state predisposed towards one religious group–especially one that was a very small minority less than 50 years before their state was founded. The conflict seems intractable today because of these unilateral and colonial origins of the power grab known as Israel today.
This track of negotiations is furthermore on Israel’s terms because they are premised on the erasure of this history. Unilateralism of the past, the stolen land of yesteryear that shapes the Israel of now, is taken as set in stone; non-negotiable. This mirrors the American history of treaties with the Native Americans. They almost never opened up their prior colonial conquest for re-consideration. What the Palestinians might get at best is a very small percentage of what was theirs historically–not just of their historic land or country, but the actual houses, businesses, and belongings Israel took, plus the loss of years the refugees have been forced to live in exile.
There will not be peace until these fundamental wrongs are addressed. Peace negotiations and Sharon’s back-up plan are temporary arrangements that everyone hopes will result in the cessation of violence. The mere absence of violence is not enough for peace because the underlying issues will remain. All settlements, no matter the how grand their illusions of historical closure, will ultimately give way to further conflict until the basic problems of Israel’s foundation come up for negotiation.