The Palestinian elections and the emergence of a new Palestinian government, the declaration of a ceasefire between Israel and Palestine, and what looks like a serious attempt by the US government to revive the long-stalled “roadmap for peace”, have revived hope for a settlement of the Israel-Palestine conflict. Is it false hope?
The publication of the “roadmap” in March 2003, backed by the USA, the UN, the European Union, and Russia, was widely hailed as a possible basis for peace between Israel and the Arabs. The roadmap advocated the setting up of an independent and territorially viable Palestinian state side by side with Israel.
The Arab League immediately accepted the roadmap. So, in words, did Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon. But the peace “process” which the roadmap’s sponsors said they wanted to set in motion never really got started. Why?
The Israeli government’s “support” for the roadmap was never real. It was lip service only. Real Israeli involvement in looking for a solution acceptable to the Palestinians probably required, as an editorial in Solidarity said when the roadmap was published, a change of government in Israel — or at least a lot of US pressure to compel Sharon to do what the roadmap required.
In 2003, the US government, preoccupied with difficulties it had not anticipated in post-invasion Iraq, and valuing Israel and Sharon as allies and exemplars in the “war on terror”, declined to deploy the pressure on the Israeli government without which there could not, and can not, be progress towards a Palestinian state.
Will anything be different this time round? The fate of the new drive for a settlement will be determined by whether or not the US government is now prepared to put enough pressure on the Israeli government.
Many things are already different. Yasser Arafat, with whom both Israel and the US government deemed it a waste of time to negotiate, is gone, and both Israel and the USA are willing to negotiate with his successor, Mahmoud Abbas, as the democratically elected leader of Palestine. The ceasefire is a first fruit of that.
War-weariness and the desire for peace is strong in both the Israeli and Palestinian peoples. In Iraq, the election makes possible the setting up of a government possessing a democratic mandate from the majority Shia population — though that will not necessarily end the Sunni-supremacist insurgency.
All this is new, and has led to talk by the USA and others of a “moment of opportunity” for Israeli-Palestinian peace. US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has urged that it be seized. And thus the roadmap is being revived.
Many of the necessary conditions for a settlement exist now, but one decisive question is: what sort of settlement? Will it be some botched half-and-half deal, forced by US and other pressure on the Palestinians, which falls far short of an independent, territorially viable, Palestinian state — a settlement which might bring a war-weary peace now but would not be viable beyond a short period? Or will the US government exert sufficient, and sufficiently consistent, pressure on Israel to gain a viable independent Palestinian state?
The entire history of US dealings with the Sharon government points to pessimistic conclusions.
So it may all quickly come to nothing, like last time. It may even be just the US “going through the motions” under pressure of the Europeans, with whom the Bush administration is now trying to mend the fences torn down by the US war on Iraq. The US administration will face pro-Sharon pressure from Christian fundamentalists in the Republican camp.
But there is also a strong underlying reason not to dismiss the possibility that a serious attempt is being made to reach a settlement.
A “stabilisation” of the Middle East, and therefore a viable Palestinian-Israeli peace, is in the interests of the hyperpower. It always has been. But now it is an urgent necessity, linked immediately and inseparably to the USA’s major enterprise in Iraq and the Middle East as a whole. The medium-term interests of the USA are at odds with the favoured policy of the Sharon government — expansion, and the prevention of a meaningful Palestinian state.
There can be no “stabilisation” of the Middle East without an Israeli-Palestinian settlement, and there can be no Israeli-Palestinian settlement without conditions which most Palestinians accept as just, or at least livable.
For generations to come there will be Arab chauvinists and Islamists who think that any settlement which leaves Israel in existence is unjust. But they can be pushed to the margins only by a Palestinian-Israeli settlement which the majority in Palestine and the Arab countries think is, in the circumstances, acceptable. Nothing other than an unstable and precarious “armistice” could come from an Israeli-Palestinian settlement that a majority of Palestinians and Arabs see as radically unjust.
That is why we cannot rule out the possibility that the sponsors of the roadmap are serious about setting up an independent, territorially viable Palestinian state — a real Palestinian nation-state, and not a collection of Israeli puppet bantustans, which is what Sharon means by a Palestinian state.
It is possible that sufficient pressure will be exerted on Israel to force it to agree to a settlement. Or that US pressure, and moves towards negotiations, will shift the political balance within Israel sufficiently, encouraging so much pro-peace sentiment, that Sharon will be ousted and replaced by a government willing to negotiate seriously.
There are many obstacles however. Israeli withdrawal from Palestinian-populated Gaza is intended by Sharon to strengthen the case for not dismantling the major Israeli settlements on the West Bank, some of them deep inside Palestinian territory. The Wall, built for defence but made an occasion for seizure and de facto annexation of Palestinian land, is now an enormous “fact” which stands in the way even of the sort of deal discussed by Barak and Arafat at Camp David four years ago.
An out-and-out dismissal of the move to negotiations — in the name of what? — would be foolish. But, especially in the light of what happened to the roadmap first time round, it would also be foolish to trust those who will determine the fate of the new initiative for a peace settlement. Or to give them any political confidence as people who can be relied upon to secure justice for the Palestinians and a viable democratic peace between Israel and the Arabs.
Even limited moves towards negotiations can shift the political balance among both Israelis and Palestinians, giving credibility to the idea of peace, lessening the pressure on both sides to support “hard-liners”. They can provide better conditions for the growth of democratic, secular, pro-peace movements on both sides and of pressure for peace “from below”: the job of the labour movement in Britain should be to support such movements, and especially the socialists in Israel and Palestine.
Israel out of the Occupied Territories!
For an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel!
Two nations, two states!