Paradigmatic Progress?

A look back at the 20 turbulent years that have characterized the roadmap to peace – culminating in the recent Israeli assault on Gaza – helps illuminate some potential new paths to the occupation’s end.

The Israeli-Palestinian peace process was inaugurated in the aftermath of the 1991 Gulf War, with the US pressuring Israel to negotiate over the future dispensation of the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Israel’s initial strategy was to draw out the process interminably in order to avoid substantive agreements. Based on its understanding that it could not impose a unilateral capitulation on the Palestinians, Israel used the cover of diplomacy in order to consolidate control of strategic regions within the occupied territories through the expansion of its illegal settlement enterprise; prevent a further escalation of the Palestinian uprising that had erupted in 1987; drive a wedge between the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and the population of the occupied territories; and reverse the process of international ostracism that came in the wake of the June 1967 War and gained widespread traction after the 1973 October War.

The Oslo Accords

By 1993, Israel’s realization that the PLO leadership ensconced in Tunisia was prepared to offer Israel terms that approximated surrender led it to reverse its core policies of rejecting negotiations with the PLO and bilateral political agreements with Palestinians.

The negotiations resulted in the Oslo Accords, which won Israel formal Palestinian recognition without a reciprocal commitment to end the occupation, or even recognize its reality. The accords also introduced a limited Palestinian self-governing regime, while conceding continued Israeli control over most occupied territory without restrictions on further colonization. Finally, although they set forth a process for conflict resolution, this was devoid of instruments for enforcement or arbitration and omitted any reference to the ultimate dispensation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

A Palestinian commitment to ensure Israeli security despite continued occupation formed the core of Oslo. Textual realities aside, the Palestinian leadership interpreted Oslo as a deal whereby its maintenance of security within the occupied territories would lay the basis for a consistent expansion of self-government culminating in statehood and independence.

Where the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat perceived himself as defending a process (and thus used security as leverage to influence its development), his Israeli counterparts insisted that security was an absolute and unconditional commitment to be maintained irrespective of Israeli conduct – including a consistent refusal to respect either negotiated agreements or agreed timelines. For example, then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in December 1993 stated that “no dates are sacred,” while in 2000, Ehud Barak went so far as to brag – correctly – that he had implemented even fewer of these agreements than had Binyamin Netanyahu.

The failed 2000 Camp David summit, hastily convened by former US President Bill Clinton to end more than a century of conflict in less than a fortnight, produced Oslo’s inevitable collapse. Presented with the prospect of a fragmented entity under permanent Israeli control, Arafat became increasingly disengaged from fulfilling the security commitments outlined in Oslo.

Israeli unilateralism

Faced with the reality that the Palestinian leadership and security forces were in no position to protect Israeli domination ad infinitum, Barak and then Ariel Sharon replaced Oslo’s bilateral framework with unilateralism, whereby the Palestinian Authority (PA) was effectively dismantled and the Israeli military resumed direct responsibility for the security of the occupation. If the Palestinian leadership would not accept Israel’s version of conflict resolution, the military would impose it without an agreement, using extraordinary force and prolonged socioeconomic warfare to quash resistance and batter the captive population into submission.

The substance of Israel’s permanent settlement began to take concrete form – often rather literally – in 2002. Most prominently, the West Bank Wall extended well into occupied territory, enveloping major settlement blocs, devouring agricultural land and other natural resources, encircling towns like Qalqilya and Tulkarm and hermetically sealing off East Jerusalem.

In August 2005, Israel unilaterally ‘disengaged’ from the Gaza Strip, withdrawing its soldiers and settlers while retaining complete control over what had effectively been transformed into the world’s largest open-air prison. As Sharon and other Israeli leaders stated at the time, Gaza disengagement was intended to thwart the prospect of renewed international engagement while diverting attention from continued settlement expansion in the West Bank.

Disengagement had the additional benefit of further fragmenting the occupied territories, particularly after the Islamic Resistance Movement (Hamas) won the 2006 PA legislative elections and in June 2007 seized power in the territory to preempt a US-sponsored coup to restore the hegemony of Arafat’s successor, Mahmoud Abbas.

Renewed engagement

Ironically, unilateralism had by this point created the conditions for renewed engagement. On the one hand, Israel’s post-2000 policies outlined above and Washington’s active support facilitated the rise of Abbas, a stalwart opponent of armed resistance since the mid-1970s and devoted elitist who holds Hamas, the Palestinian National Liberation Movement (Fatah) he ostensibly leads and their combined constituencies in equal contempt.

At the same time, disengagement deprived his agenda of a negotiated partnership with Israel. This loss was significant for Abbas given his longstanding preparedness to reach a settlement that would run roughshod over Palestinian rights and aspiration. In 1995, for example, he affixed his name to a joint proposal with Yosi Beilin that would have inter alia rebranded the village of Abu Dis as Al-Quds (as Jerusalem is known in the Arabic language) and proclaimed it the united and eternal capital of the Palestinian people, thereby leaving Israel in sole control of the city known universally – including to Abbas’ own people – as Jerusalem.

Indeed, it was Hamas and resistance rather than Abbas and negotiation that claimed responsibility for Israel’s evacuation of the Gaza Strip. It was thus Arafat and Abbas’ strategic failure to negotiate an end to occupation, more than popular disenchantment with the corruption and mismanagement of their administrations, which primarily accounted for Hamas’ 2006 electoral sweep.

Desperate to avoid a further strengthening of Hamas in the West Bank in the aftermath of its rout of Abbas’ forces in Gaza, Washington latched onto the idea of renewed Israeli-Palestinian partnership, including a resumption of peace negotiations, as a core component of its efforts to resuscitate Abbas’ ailing fortunes. His Israeli counterpart Ehud Olmert, sensing that he could succeed where Barak had failed and determined to oblige his American sponsors, discarded his electoral platform – West Bank disengagement – and started meeting regularly with Abbas.

If the possibility for a two-state settlement died with Rabin’s assassination and was buried with his Palestinian counterpart Arafat’s passing, Olmert and Abbas sought to revive it in different form. Specifically, the two leaders were largely motivated by narrow factional considerations to shore up their increasingly tenuous domestic standing, and in both cases proved considerably more forthcoming than their predecessors at Camp David. Yet their joint effort to forge a peace treaty – one that would have made a complete mockery of a viable framework for Israeli-Palestinian coexistence – nevertheless failed.

At the end of the day, the maximum Israel was prepared to offer remained well short of the minimum that a highly accommodating Palestinian leader confronted with militant challenges to his legitimacy could accept.

The Gaza war

Israel’s war on the Gaza Strip was in large part fought to ensure that Abbas could make way for a highly attenuated form of Palestinian statehood. Remove Hamas from Gaza, the thinking goes, and he’ll effortlessly sprint to the finish line of statehood.

In this sense, the campaign was a complete failure. Hamas emerged from the ordeal significantly strengthened. Abbas, widely derided as at best a spineless spectator while his partner in peace, Olmert, was slaughtering his people by the hundreds, has been compelled to drop his array of preconditions for dialogue with the Islamists and currently engages them on a regular basis in Egyptian-sponsored talks.
Similarly, Abbas is under unprecedented strain from various Fatah quarters, for many of whom his conduct during Gaza’s ordeal underlined the need for the development of a meaningful strategy. For their part, the Islamists appear more determined than ever to claim their share of the Palestinian political system, and revise its political program to reflect the bankruptcy of the Oslo years.

That said, Abbas continues to conduct himself as if he emerged from the Gaza conflict as its only victor. To this day, and in a transparent attempt to extract political benefit from Israel’s recent onslaught – he continues to insist that Hamas accept the Quartet’s preconditions for engagement with any PA government as the price for reconciliation – this at a time when these conditions are rapidly losing popularity even among the ranks of its authors. (Russia already deals openly with Hamas, while key EU states have lowered the bar by their willingness to deal with any PA unity government that does not accept the Quartet conditions provided it does not explicitly reject them).

Likewise when it comes to the reform of the Palestinian security forces, Abbas insists that Fatah and Hamas should integrate only in the Gaza Strip, providing him a renewed foothold in territory controlled by Hamas while continuing to exclude Hamas from the West Bank.

Just as Abbas cannot accept an agreement with Hamas that legitimizes resistance to Israeli occupation, so the Islamists cannot acquiesce to a formula that endorses Oslo and Annapolis- whether in terms of open-ended diplomacy or continued security cooperation with Israel. Either would be an act of self-negation requiring too high a political price. Absent consensus on the big issues, meaningful agreement on interim measures seems equally unlikely because any equitable agreement will be seen as a mechanism for the other to gain traction in what has been hegemonic turf since the factional conflict of mid-2007.

Given that one issue the parties have agreed upon is the conduct of new presidential and legislative elections in early 2010, one might conclude that the only viable option is to grin and bear it until the electorate breaks the deadlock. Yet here again, the commitment to participate in these elections in the absence of national reconciliation in 2009 should not be taken for granted. Nor should the determination of the US, EU and Israel to sabotage Palestinian democracy be underestimated – including episodes like the US-sponsored coup preparations, the diplomatic boycott of the post-2006 PA government and the refusal to provide reconstruction assistance to Gaza after the war earlier this year.

Ultimately, Abbas’ confidence derives from his conviction that Obama will act where Bush failed and that active US engagement makes Israeli recalcitrance irrelevant and will enable him to outflank and marginalize Hamas – and, judging by his recent appointment of a government despite vehement opposition from within his own movement, Fatah as well.

While it stands to reason that Obama will seek to reinvigorate Bush’s framework for addressing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it is far from clear this will prove a boon to the intended beneficiary.

For one, the Islamists have sufficient power on the ground to deal effectively with any effort to strengthen their rival and cut them down to size. Perhaps more importantly, Palestinian popular opinion, while not necessarily supportive of Hamas’ own program, appears to be swinging decisively against any revival of a process that exists for its own sake rather than for an irreversible end to occupation.

MOUIN RABBANI is a Senior Fellow at the Institute for Palestine Studies.