The Trouble with Optimism

We need to be very clear on one vital point about Palestinian-Israeli relations, particularly in this time of promised movement toward peace: there will be no real Palestinian state anytime in the foreseeable future, and this will not be the Palestinians’ fault. Despite all the Cheshire-cat optimism in the media and among politicians around the world since Yasir Arafat’s death, despite the sanctimonious hopes that Palestinian “terrorism” will end now that Arafat is gone, despite the patronizing visions of Palestinian “reform,” despite the demise of the Palestinian bogeyman who supposedly stood as the only obstacle to peace, we must not lose sight of the fact that there will be no Palestinian independence, and therefore no peace and no justice, anytime soon, for the simple reason that Israel does not want it.

In a recent scathing commentary, Israeli peace activist Uri Avnery bluntly characterized the current talk of a “window of opportunity” in the conflict as “repulsive” and “ridiculous” because, simply put, “there is no window and no opportunity, not as long as Sharon is in power.” This critical reality has been lost in the outpouring of obscene glee over Arafat’s death and the likely election of a supposed “moderate” to succeed him. Ding dong, the wicked wizard is dead, the world’s politicians and eager commentators are singing. But, sadly, the future promises no magical kingdom where peace and happiness reign — not, at any rate, for Palestinians.

Every so often the media and the world political community lose all sense of proportion, and the optimism — better to call it mindless wishful thinking — lately coming out of the visits of various luminaries to Palestine and out of media reporting and commentary is enough to make any honest optimist cringe in embarrassment. Commentators and politicians and so-called experts have been experiencing mild paroxysms of anticipation about the prospects for peace since Arafat’s death. Tony Blair went to Palestine and Israel in December to try his hand at restarting the peace process, and the British press was awash in hopeful analyses portraying Blair’s visit as a kind of Second Coming (though not of the Christian fundamentalist variety). The Guardian’s European correspondent Ian Black ran an article just preceding the visit claiming with absurd elation that seldom since Britain ended its mandate and left Palestine almost 60 years ago have “hopes been so high that the former mandatory power can do something useful to help to bring Arabs and Jews closer to peace.”

BBC News carried an interesting item on Blair’s trip that shines a little of the cold light of reality on the enthusiasm of Black and his political and media colleagues: reporting on the visit, then impending, a reporter in the northern West Bank town of Jenin asked Zachariya Zubeidi, who heads the al-Aqsa Martyr’s Brigades in Jenin and essentially runs this besieged, isolated town, if he thought anything would come of the Blair trip. “Who is Tony Blair?” was Zubeidi’s response.

Quickly covering what must have been a certain consternation — or perhaps a desire to guffaw — at this devastating evidence of Blair’s unimportance in the scheme of things, the British reporter explained who Blair was, to which Zubeidi responded that high-level visits such as this have little effect on the situation on the ground. “On the ground” is where real life is, where Palestinians daily cope with Israeli oppression, where people like Tony Blair and George Bush never venture. It is only ignorant politicians like this and those in the media who stay in the U.S. and in Europe, none of whom ever see “on the ground,” who can find any reason for optimism.

Not surprisingly, Blair never saw “on the ground” when he passed briefly through Palestine on his way to meet with Arafat’s successor and the leading Palestinian presidential candidate, Mahmoud Abbas, and nod his head curtly at Arafat’s memorial; he never saw the separation wall, never visited with Palestinians whose existence has been altered irrevocably by its meandering path through their lives. Zachariya Zubeidi did not go into detail when he said visits like Blair’s do no good, but he might have mentioned that, despite all the hopeful talk by people pontificating from outside the occupied territories, the killing of Palestinians continues, the checkpoints remain, the wall continues to be built, Palestinian homes are still being demolished while new Jewish homes in Israeli settlements are still being constructed, the Palestinians are still being smothered, and Zubeidi himself continues to live underground, dodging Israeli assassins. Blair and his ilk have managed to miss this.

Defining “Moderation”

The nearly universal Western obsession with terrorism, with Arafat’s supposed perfidy, with Palestinian corruption and other failures, has shifted the world’s focus away from where it should lie, on Israel’s occupation as the root cause and the original grievance of the current conflict. This myopia has rendered intelligent people incapable of deep or logical thought. So few anymore can understand where or why the conflict originated, so few can fathom how it might be resolved, so few “get it.” Take the overweening desire for a “moderate” at the helm of the Palestinians. But a moderate, by almost unanimous definition, is simply anyone who will condemn all opposition to the occupation, in any form. No nuances. No allowance for a legitimate struggle to gain freedom or fight oppression through armed action, no recognition that Israel’s domination is anything but benign and sacrosanct.

Washington Post columnist Jackson Diehl displayed this rigid, unnuanced point of view when, recently showing some rare skepticism about the future possibilities, he worried that Abbas’s “moderation” may not truly reflect general Palestinian attitudes. The very popular jailed Palestinian fighter, Marwan Barghouti, Diehl said, had delivered a “poison pill” in backing out of the presidential contest by conditioning his withdrawal on a list of 18 demands on Abbas and the Palestinian leadership. These demands included such stipulations as that Israel should withdraw from the occupied territories before peace negotiations begin, that there be no partial or interim agreements, and that the principle of armed resistance be maintained. Diehl, exhibiting no recognition that the occupation remains the basis of the conflict or any understanding of the conflict’s history, called this Barghouti list a “militant agenda.” One is led inevitably to some comparisons. Was it not the essence of the American Revolution to demand that British occupiers withdraw from the colonies, to reject partial and provisional agreements and insist that only a final peace agreement would do, and to hold high the right to fight against the occupying British army? Does Diehl consider this “agenda” unacceptably militant?

Diehl worried that Barghouti was expressing the secret desires of most Palestinians and that, if Abbas begins negotiations with Israel, this deep-seated “militancy” will sprout and upset the talks. But what Diehl clearly does not understand is that, although Abbas has gone quite some distance to show his “moderate” credentials by calling for an end to armed resistance at the moment and prohibiting anti-Israeli incitement on Palestinian airwaves, he has not and cannot, if he wishes to maintain his credibility as a potential leader, reject any of Barghouti’s demands.

During the election campaign, he must maintain the demand that Israel withdraw from the occupied territories; this is the heart of the issue, whatever border adjustments might be negotiated at a later stage. He must also refuse to allow the Palestinians to be diddled, as they have been for the last decade-plus, with a further succession of inconclusive partial and provisional agreements (the heart of Oslo was a series of interim agreements that permitted endless Israeli delay, and the heart of the Roadmap is establishment of a so-called provisional Palestinian state that by definition would be meaningless and that any leader would be a fool to accept). Finally, no self-respecting leader could possibly renounce his nation’s right ever to resume armed struggle in the face of continued oppression by a foreign army. Unfortunately, the fact that Diehl does not understand these rudiments of national self-determination and national dignity is not at all surprising in the current atmosphere.

Today’s optimism is merely a diversion for those who refuse to think and observe. Palestinians are still dying, still being made homeless, still losing land and livelihoods to Israel’s inexorable expansionism. Forcing reforms in the Palestinian political system, however necessary some reform may be, will not bring peace, will not end the Israeli violence. Palestinian farmers in the small West Bank town of Jayyous, which lost three-quarters of its agricultural land and all of its fresh water wells to Israel when the separation wall was built through the village a year ago, recently told a correspondent that peace would be wonderful but reform and elections are meaningless to them when they no longer have a livelihood and cannot even provide their families with water.

The obstacle to peace has always been Israel’s occupation, not Arafat or any other Palestinian leader; the source of violence is not Palestinian “terrorism,” but Israel’s occupation and everything that goes with it: the land confiscations, the settler depredations, the house demolitions, the wall, the destruction of property, the checkpoints, the Israeli-only roads, the ethnic cleansing. It is Israel that is not a partner for peace, Israel’s violence that impedes peace.

Today’s optimism is a diversion from these continuing realities. Optimism allows us, allows politicians and commentators, to ignore the real situation on the ground; it allows us all to ignore Israel’s explicitly stated intention never to relinquish its domination of the West Bank (most recently elucidated by Sharon’s senior political adviser Dov Weisglass, who crowed openly about having put the Palestinian issue in “formaldehyde” and, with full U.S. knowledge and support, frozen the peace process so that “you prevent the establishment of a Palestinian state and you prevent a discussion about the refugees, the borders and Jerusalemindefinitely”); it allows us all to ignore the gross land hunger and racism inherent in Israel’s occupation policies.

The patronizing attitude being shown by nearly everyone is breathtaking. Blair went to Israel pushing a broad peace conference to be convened in London in March and, when Israel said “Sounds great but we aren’t going to attend,” he changed his tune and claimed that, well, Israel’s presence would have “politicized” a conference that is really intended to get the Palestinians to end violence and embrace institutional reform, in order to “ensure there are proper partners for peace on either side. Viability [that is, of a Palestinian state] cannot just be about territory. It also has to be about proper democratic institutions, about proper security [that is, for Israel] and proper use of the economy.”

It’s About the Occupation

One is tempted again to ask the obvious of these obtuse Brits (and of the equally obtuse Americans): what’s wrong with politicizing a peace conference — or, it must also be asked, with demanding that both the warring parties attend? And one wants to ask Blair what happens when the Palestinians do end violence, but the Israelis continue to perpetrate violence in multiple forms day after day? And what happens when the Palestinians get a democratically elected president running a “proper” democratic government, but Israel continues to perpetrate violence in multiple forms day after day? And what happens when the Palestinians show themselves to be true partners for peace, but Israel continues to reject peace day after day — when Israel continues to deny the Palestinians territorial contiguity and economic viability and security and adequate space and water and dignity, when those democratic Palestinian institutions have nothing to rule over but an impoverished, imprisoned people squeezed into native reservations surrounded by Israeli walls, Israeli settlements, Israeli roads?

What happens when the Palestinians do everything demanded of them, but the occupation, no matter whether it might be called a “two-state solution,” continues?

Tony Blair might, just might, be excused for not knowing, for not even thinking about, the answers to those questions, but one expects much better of the supposed Middle East experts who are spouting the same line. Ambassador Edward Walker, once a U.S. ambassador to Israel and to Egypt and an assistant secretary of state and now president of the Middle East Institute in Washington, took the same patronizing approach to the Palestinians in a commentary written both for an Institute newsletter and for, of all the inappropriate places, an Arab newspaper. Expressing the hope that Bush will find that he must deal with the Palestinian issue in order to achieve success elsewhere in the Middle East, Walker treated the Palestinians as though they are a joint pet project of Bush and Sharon: if the U.S. and Israel play it smart, he said, “we” will be able to “lend credibility” to a new Palestinian leadership so that it can institute reform and begin “measured movement” on the Roadmap. Mahmoud Abbas lacks credibility with the Palestinians now, but he will gain stature if he can be seen to deliver a deal with Israel on the Gaza disengagement. He could then, Walker pronounced with amazing condescension, “become the partner that Arafat never was and never could be.”

Quite apart from the distasteful notion that the U.S. and Israel just naturally must work together, hands on hearts, to coach the Palestinians into modernity, Walker forgets that Arafat, whatever his several shortcomings, would have been an eager partner for peace if Sharon and his predecessors had wanted it at any point. He conveniently ignores the reality that it is Israel that has made no “measured movement” toward advancing the Roadmap, and that the Gaza disengagement, assuming it comes off at all, is specifically designed to obviate the need for any Israeli concessions in the West Bank. Whatever credibility Abbas might gain from a deal with Israel is entirely Israel’s to deliver, but Abbas will grow old waiting for any kind of deal from Sharon that would give the Palestinians justice and genuine statehood. Walker of all people should know better.

Those who demand so much of the Palestinians fail or refuse to recognize the Palestinian situation on the ground. Almost three years ago, during the April 2002 siege of the West Bank, Israeli forces rampaged through the territory, destroying the entire infrastructure of Palestinian civil society: Israeli soldiers laid waste Palestinian civil ministries for education and health and agriculture; smeared feces throughout the Ministry of Culture; destroyed computers and hard disks and, with them, the entire written record of Palestinian society; ransacked Palestinian businesses and banks; bulldozed whole housing blocks; destroyed land registry maps and census records, as if to erase all trace of Palestinian existence. Yet Western commentators and Western politicians like Bush and Blair wonder why the Palestinians may not be running their government at the peak of efficiency.

Gaza is largely in ruins, a Middle Eastern Dresden, thanks to repeated Israeli air and bulldozer assaults. Nearly two thousand homes have been demolished in Gaza since the intifada began, leaving many more thousands of innocent civilians homeless, and Israeli helicopter gunship attacks and assassination operations have wrought still more destruction. Israel controls Gaza’s southern border with Egypt and its Mediterranean coastline and fences off the other two sides of the Gaza Strip with razor wire and electronic cages, a system of domination that will continue even if Israel “disengages” from Gaza and removes the 8,000 Israeli settlers who now control one-third of the tiny territory. Gaza is where, within the space of two months in 2003, Israel killed American peace activist Rachel Corrie, British peace activist Tom Hurndall, and British journalist James Miller — killing off the witnesses, so that George Bush and Tony Blair and commentators like Jackson Diehl do not have to know what goes on in this prison. And because they choose to know nothing, they can glibly demand that the Palestinians install “proper” institutions and make “proper” reforms and run a “proper” economy.

Israel’s separation wall has destroyed prime Palestinian agricultural land, bulldozed hundreds of thousands of Palestinian olive trees, destroyed or more often appropriated for Israeli use most Palestinian water wells, destroyed Palestinian markets and halted commerce, destroyed Palestinian homes. Israeli closure policies have prevented most Palestinians from working inside Israel since the beginning of the peace process a dozen years ago. Israeli checkpoints throughout the West Bank impede movement and halt commerce. Movement of people and goods into and out of both the West Bank and Gaza is totally at the mercy of Israel. Yet the West wonders why the Palestinian economy is not thriving.

Israel has reduced every Palestinian security headquarters throughout the West Bank and in Gaza to rubble. These structures, which served not only as security headquarters but as the center of municipal governance, with mayor’s offices, jails, and health clinics, were large compounds serving multiple purposes, the locus of what Tony Blair would call “proper” infrastructure — now mere heaps of concrete. Arafat’s own headquarters in Ramallah, the Muqata, was a multi-structure compound covering one or two city blocks, in which Israel imprisoned Arafat for three years and where during the assault of 2002 Israel’s military left only one building undamaged. Yet Blair and the rest of the West wonder why the Palestinians do not have proper control over their security apparatus — and why many have no particular incentive to prevent violence in any case, nonviolence being a rather unilateral Palestinian enterprise at this point.

Can the Blairs and Bushes and Walkers and the media commentators who preach to the Palestinians possibly not be aware of what is going on on the ground in Palestine?

It bears repeating that under Bush’s and Sharon’s present plans there is no Palestinian state on the horizon; we need to be very clear on that. There are only Bantustans or a few areas that might look suspiciously like reservations, someday perhaps even containing a casino or two for the occupier’s use. We need to be clear that there will be no real state because Israel will not end the occupation. (It is worth noting that the left in Israel is no more willing than the right wing to permit the establishment of a genuinely sovereign, contiguous, viable Palestinian state. The Labor Party ruled Israel for the first ten years of occupation and settlement growth; Labor ruled Israel through most of the Oslo “peace process,” overseeing a doubling of Israeli settlers and a massive Israeli encroachment in the very territories supposed to be turned over to the Palestinians; and the party is about to join forces, yet again, with the Likud in a rightwing government whose stated purpose is to marinate Palestinian statehood in political formaldehyde. With friends like Labor, the Palestinians don’t need the Likud as enemies.)

No matter what George Bush may say about wanting two states living peaceably side by side, there will be no such arrangement; he does not want it. No matter what Ariel Sharon promises (wink, wink) about working for two states, there will not be two real states; he in particular does not want it. No matter how much Tony Blair desperately attempts to get some of the peace action, there will be no Palestinian state; he can do nothing. No matter how much well-meaning peace activists may talk about hoping for two states, they will not achieve this; they are not willing to push hard enough. Despite all this talk — all this optimism — there will be no action toward genuine Palestinian independence because, purely and simply, Israel does not want it, the United States does not want what Israel does not want, and Britain is a powerless bystander.

KATHLEEN CHRISTISON is a former CIA political analyst and has worked on Middle East issues for 30 years. She is the author of Perceptions of Palestine and The Wound of Dispossession.