ISRAELI-PALESTINIAN PEACEMAKING AND ITS DISCONTENTS
University of California, San Diego
Why does the Israeli-Palestinian conflict seem so intractable and, in particular, why did the Oslo process --the most ambitious attempt to bring it to resolution through compromise-- fail so tragically? This short article cannot do justice to all aspects of the conflict and in the following I only promise to explore the twin issues of colonization and extremism.
Most analyses of the Oslo and post-Oslo process have been conducted from an international relations perspective which highlights the asymmetry of power between the two sides, a view also accepted here. This "realist" methodological perspective also portrays each side as a single actor animated by one will; an approach that any sociological perspective must contest. From the latter vantage point the conflict is best analyzed not as being between 'Palestinians' and 'Israelis' as such, but between the extremists of both societies who gained disproportionate influence and thereby sideline, sometimes silence and, on occasion absorb, their own larger moderate camps.
In the following I will argue that from a comparative-historical perspective the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the last unresolved legacy of the colonial era. Consequently, the peace process between Israelis and Palestinians is a decolonization process which, however grotesquely, coexists with continued Israeli colonization. The agonies of Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking are related to this split political personality disorder. Continued colonization perpetuates the territorial core of the conflict and is stimulating political and, in particular, religious extremism on both sides. Jewish messianic fundamentalism, on its part, legitimates Israeli settlement in the "holy land," and Palestinian jihadist movements simultaneously engage in acts of indiscriminate terror and shelling to prevent territorial compromise.
I. COLONIZATION AND SETTLEMENTS
The Oslo Declaration of Principles of September 13, 1993 relegated all the truly divisive issues: Jerusalem, refugees, settlements, and borders to article V, paragraph 3, and postponed their resolution to the final status negotiations to be concluded in five years time. It was unrealistic to contemplate such a long hiatus. The downward spiral of the peace process began as soon as the implementation of the Oslo DOP collided with prior Israeli colonization.
The original Oslo plan implicitly envisioned Israeli withdrawal from the occupied territories while leaving the individual settlements within the Palestinian-administered territory. But just a month later, Israel grouped the Jewish settlements in Gaza and their intermediate land into three continuous blocs that, in effect, cut Gaza into separate cantons. The Gaza blocs of Jewish settlements, military installations, and bypass roads gave the then 6,000 Israeli settlers one third of the territory, whereas the 1.1 million Gaza Palestinians received the other two thirds. The AInterim Agreement,@ or Oslo II agreement of September 28, 1995, extended this arrangement to the West Bank and formalized it by dividing the region into three types of jurisdiction. Area A, consisting mostly of the seven major Palestinian towns, was to be under the Interim Palestinian Authority's civilian and security control. In Area B, which incorporates the remaining Palestinian population centers and some of the refugee camps and villages, civilian control was to reside with the Palestinian Authority while security control was to remain in Israeli hands. Area C, comprising Jewish settlements and military bases as well as public land, was left under both Israeli civilian and military jurisdiction. In September 2000, the eve of the al-Aksa intifada, Area A comprised about 17 percent, Area B about 24 percent, and Area C the remaining 59 percent of the West Bank. The West Bank was so fragmented that the Palestinian Authority had under its full or partial control 227 cantons separated by cantons under Israeli control.
Instead of laying the groundwork for separating Israelis and Palestinians into two distinct geopolitical entities, the Oslo process became a plan to accommodate the Israeli colonies. These settlements fell into three different types. Conflicting motivations and disagreements over post-1967 political goals gave rise to distinct military, religious and suburban settlement waves. Security settlements were built along the Jordan River (which serves as the border with Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan), suburban settlements along the old armistice line between the West Bank and Israel (the Green Line) and, in-between, atop the mountain range that is densely populated by Palestinians, a messianic drive mapped settlements onto the region's rich ancient religious geography. The latter's effect was the most deleterious since it had prioritized a map which disrupted, frequently deliberately, Palestinian territorial contiguity and ignored Palestinian demography. These religious settlers spearhead the settlement movement.
Under the guise of peacemaking, Israeli occupation was continued in another significant respect as well. Between the signing of the Oslo DOP and the outbreak of the al-Aksa intifada, the Israeli settler population grew roughly by 100,000, in effect doubling in seven years.
The large shadow cast by Israel over the Oslo process is explained, most commonly, as "hegemonic peacemaking." (The term hegemony is not used in the Gramscian sense of moral and intellectual leadership but is drawn from the literature in international relations and means its opposite - domination.) Stable peace agreements, in this view, are concluded between relative equals or between a victor and a vanquished enemy, whereas the Oslo agreement was signed by two "significantly unequal powers," namely Israel backed by the U.S. versus the PLO which enjoys mixed Arab support (Robinson:17). Consequently, it is pointed out, "the Oslo process...did not represent the end of Israeli occupation but its continuation, albeit in less direct form" and Palestinians are worse off in the wake of Oslo DOP than they were before (Roy:9). The ability of Israeli governments to significantly shape the Oslo process is unmistakable but the "hegemonic peacemaking" model endows only a sole actor --the Israeli government-- with agency. Other Israeli actors are conflated with the government, whereas Palestinians of various stripes appear to be but passive observers as their destiny is being determined by outsiders.
However, anyone even vaguely familiar with Israeli political life will testify that ever since the 1973 War it has been deeply polarized: divided roughly equally between supporters and opponents of the Aland for peace@ idea that undergird Oslo. The proportionate electoral system both represents and reproduces this fragmentation: no party has received absolute majority in the Knesset and fragile coalitions based on complicated trade-offs between multiple parties are needed to form coalition governments. In the thirteen years since signing the Oslo DOP, six Prime Ministers alternated and no Israeli government completed its full term in office. Even small groups can tilt the balance of power between the two blocs and, as a result, small ideological groups committed to single issues have amassed disproportionate power.
The most effective of these groups is the settlement movement, that comprises both secular and religious elements. While the division of the West Bank into Areas A, B, and C may be explained by reference to the settlement map as it was in 1993, the continued expansion of settlements cannot be. Why did both Labor-led and Likud-led Israeli governments agree to withdraw from parts of the West Bank, but continued building new colonies and settling new colons? And as long as Israeli governments wished to expand settlements, why did they not do it strategically? Why were settlements that were obviously unviable, such as those in the Gaza Strip from which Israel unilaterally withdrew in September 2005, also expanded? In short, why would Israeli governments tie their own hands? There appear to be too many questions that cannot be explained by thinking of Israel as a unitary actor.
The continued expansion of the settlements as well as the indiscriminate nature of their expansion suggests the pervasive influence of the Council of Yesha - the organization of the existing settlements, Members of Knesset who reside in the occupied territories, and especially the religious settlement movement Gush Emunim and Amana, its settlement arm. Not surprisingly, they take credit for detouring Oslo around their settlements. In one article with the telling title: "The Maps of the Oslo Accord are the Maps of Jewish Settlement," a settler leader triumphantly concluded that "the Oslo process is the best example...of the influence of Jewish settlement on the political process."
Settler representatives and the Israeli military establishment played an inordinate role in negotiating the extent and layout of the phased Israeli withdrawals. The negotiations were either conducted by or led behind the scenes by the Israeli military, especially the Central Command in charge of the West Bank, which sought to retain control over vital roads or demanded the construction of "by-pass roads" in order to ensure the settlers' safety. Before Oslo II was approved, the Secretary General of Gush Emunim's settlement arm was allowed to recommend changes to the agreement. When it was discovered that the provisions of a map already approved by Knesset hurt settler interests, the map was surreptitiously changed. The committee to prepare the map for the three withdrawals agreed to at the Wye Plantation Accord of October 1998 was composed entirely of settlers, representing the various Israeli ministries, even the military itself. Even at the low point of the settlers' influence, Ehud Barak's December 2000 final status plan, which offered to withdraw from all of Gaza and over 90 percent of the West Bank, extended two deep territorial Afingers@ into the West Bank east of Ariel and Ma=aleh Adumim, in effect subdividing the Palestinian state into three cantons and controlling the major artery connecting them. When they could not have their way, settlers and their sympathizers cursed, condemned, threatened, carried out vigilante style attacks on Palestinians villagers, and murdered Yitzhak Rabin.
II. BOMBINGS AND CLOSURES
Whereas the polarization of Israeli politics invested the settler population with influence disproportionate to its size, we encounter the opposite dynamic in Palestinian political life but, ironically, with the same outcome. After the 1948 naqba, Palestinians have become one of the most fragmented national groups in the world both geographically and in terms of legal standing and the major challenge facing the PLO leadership was to try and forge a measure of unity among disparate factions and scattered communities. As a coalition of organizations, the PLO managed to maintain its grip by accepting an artificial consensus rather than seeking majority rule. "Consensus politics granted disproportionate influence over decisions making to the smallest group..." which, often was the most militant one. (Sayigh:679; Rubin:200)
This preference dovetailed with the historical rejection of compromise with the Jewish nationalist-colonialist project and the accompanying use of an extraordinary measure of violence aimed against the Jewish settler-immigrants but also against moderate Palestinian leaders. As Khalidi points out, even after the PLO seemed to have agreed to a two-state solution and renounced terrorism it continued equivocating for many years under the influence of its more radical constituent groups in regard to the use of violence (Khalidi:146). And today, even when the Hamas government undertakes to cease fire from Gaza it does not stop Islamic Jihad from lobbing Qassam rockets at southern Israeli towns.
The exception to the pursuit of consensus was the signing of the Oslo DOP by Arafat. This he did at the time when public support began moving away from the PLO and it became afraid of being upstaged by the new revolutionary leadership of the spontaneous intifada, the younger generation of the Tanzim, and a politicized Hamas. The 100,000 "Tunisian" returnees of the PLO were an outside elite that did not lead the intifada but returned to end it. Maybe it is not so surprising that under Arafat the Interim Palestinian Authority, fearful of the new forces and unable to either catch up with or incorporate them, adopted such an authoritarian bend. Ultimately, the inability of the Tunis leadership to deliver the "goods" of Oslo limited its appeal. That failure pushed Arafat to rely more and more on the forces behind the intifadas, in particular on Hamas, in spite of the fact that their extremist agenda had diverged from his (Robinson:19-20).
Just as the analysis of settlements may be used to illuminate the autonomous role and decisive influence of the settlers and their organizations in Israel, so a discussion of terrorism will rekindle the question of agency and highlight the diversity within Palestinian society. The Hamas ideology consecrates all of Palestine for future Muslim generations as an Islamic endowment and homeland that could never be surrendered to non-Muslims, and asserts that jihad to wrest control of the land from Israel is a religious duty for individual Muslims. Consequently, Hamas is opposed to forswearing violence, pursuing territorial partition, and a two-state resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Hamas and Islamic Jihad travel the well-trodden path of extremism. Terror had primarily been a tool of propaganda and recruitment as far back as the Russian nihilists and European anarchists. Such groups target innocent noncombatants with the express purpose of provoking a disproportionate governmental response that will increase solidarity for terrorists causes. "The victim's innocence," as Michael Gross points out, "is a necessary condition for terror, without which its perpetrators fail to provoke moral outrage of sufficient intensity to elicit the response they desire" (Gross: 370). Significantly, terror had regularly been unleashed when other, less violent options of reform and change, were available. In Russia it was Alexander II, in Weimar Germany Walther Rathenau, in Sri Lanka Neelan Tiruchelvam - all moderates, who were murdered. The worst ETA terrorism was directed not against Franco's regime but the newly emergent Spanish democracy. The peak of the IRA attacks date not to Protestant Ascendancy but to the 1970s when the British government sought to improve Catholic citizenship rights. The al-Aksa intifada broke out not under Netanyahu but Barak (Ignatieff: 63-66, 102-104). And, of course, a Jewish terrorist murdered Yitzhak Rabin, the signer of the Oslo DOP.
As Kydd and Walter conclude: "...terrorist attacks...show a clear and recurrent pattern: violence is timed to coincide with major events in a peace process." "Extremist violence plays on the uncertainty that exists between moderate groups and can lead them to reject a peace settlement even if the majorities on both sides initially favored the deal" and, consequently, "extremists...are surprisingly successful in their aims" (Kydd & Walter:263-265).
The gravest over-reaching of the Palestinian resistance organizations was to adopt the weapon of suicide bombings and, in particular, to aim it against all Israeli civilians (Khalidi: xxiv) since such attacks show an "inability...to understand the limits of violence" (Khalidi: 178). The choice of suicide bombings as a strategy of resistance by Hamas, Islamic Jihad and later Fatah=s al-Aksa Martyrs Brigade is far from self-evident. Suicide bombing, a strategy originally invented by Shi'ites in Lebanon, was at odds with, and required the reinterpretation or radicalization of Islamic traditions and tenets of warfare, martyrdom, and suicide. The suicide attack was also deplored as an illegal form of resistance, for example by Human Rights Watch which designated it, even when perpetrated on civilian settlers, as a crime against humanity and as a war crime (HRW: "Erased in a Moment"). It proved "disastrously counterproductive strategically" (Khalidi: xxv). Attacks not only against settlers in the occupied territories but residents within the 1948 Green Line put into practice the view that all of Israel is occupied territory. Consequently they undermined of support for the peace process among Israeli moderates; and saw the election of Sharon as Israel's Prime Minister, the reoccupation of Palestinian towns, raids, targeted assassinations, closures, and the construction of separation walls.
The work of the extremists in both camps Bthe shielding of Israeli settlements from the Oslo DOP and the terrorist attacks-- quickly interlocked: the cantonization of the West Bank and Gaza provided the infrastructure for the imposition of effective closures on the Palestinian population. Closures were first imposed in early 1991 "in response to heightened violence by Palestinians against Israelis inside Israel," but produced their most deleterious mark once they operated in tandem with the canton system. Even more than the expansion of settlements, the closures, according to Sara Roy, had the "single most damaging effect on the Palestinian economy." (Roy: 9)
At the same time, suicide bombings, wrapped in the guise of martyrdom, had generated massive support far and beyond the ranks of Hamas and Islamic Jihad: they were adopted by Fatah=s al-Aksa Martyrs Brigades and at times hailed by the majority of Palestinians in the occupied territories. Moderate Palestinians, including Mahmoud Abbas and intellectuals who wished to engage in a non-violent intifada or restrict it to attacks on soldiers and settlers, were unable to be heard or implement their vision. In the longer run, the lowering of moral constraints which allows the indiscriminate targeting of civilians might return to haunt Palestinians themselves, as it did in Algeria where the campaign of terror against the French occupiers and settlers in the 1960s has been replicated during the civil war between Islamicists and the government in the 1990s. Recently, Ghazi Hamad, the Hamas government's own spokesman, caused a stir by sharply asking whether violence has become a "Palestinian disease."
There is no shortage of explanations which portray Israeli colonization or Palestinian violence, respectively, as self-sustaining forces. There have emerged, in fact, a school which sees only an "Israeli conflict" and another which thinks that there is only a "Palestinian conflict," each respectively holding that the opposing side is doing what it does not only because of what it wants but because of what it is. I belong to the older school that perceives an "Israeli-Palestinian conflict" in which the strongest cause of behavior seems to be the impact of each side on the other, and in particular, the impact of the extremists of each side on the moderates of both sides.
My admittedly partial survey demonstrates what Michal Walzer has laid out so clearly: there are not two but four sides to this conflict, and consequently four wars or conflicts are fought between Israelis and Palestinians. They are the Palestinian war to destroy Israel, the Palestinian war to create an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel, the Israeli war for security within the 1967 borders, and the Israeli war for the settlements and Greater Israel (Walzer:113). Two of these are waged by the extremists, the other two by the moderates of each side. The failure of Oslo resulted from the crowding out of the moderate conflicts by the extremist wars.
It will be argued that the boundaries between moderates and extremists are not fixed; the size of these respective camps ebbs and flows. This holds true for followers and leaders alike; Sharon and Arafat for example, were at times leaders of the moderates and at other times of both the moderates and the extremists. The size of the extremist camps swells at times of violent confrontation since ethnic or religious identities require closing ranks but such transfer of loyalties, after all, is the very goal of extremist strategies of faits accomplis, provocation, and terror. It would, however, be a mistake to take the extremist strategy as an accurate description of two irreconcilable camps; the question for the peacemaker is how to enlarge the moderate camp and shrink the extremist one.
What does this analysis suggest for the future? The Oslo DOP left a legacy within which the resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict remains impossible, but without it would not be possible. First, Oslo is conterminous with the mutual recognition and legitimation of Israel and the PLO, namely with transformation of an existential war into a political conflict. Six Israeli Prime Minsters (Rabin, Peres, Netanyahu, Barak, Sharon, and Olmert) and two Palestinian Presidents and two Prime Ministers (Arafat, Qurei, Abbas) accepted, some with clenched teeth, the inevitability of certain aspects of the Oslo process. During the second intifada, Palestinians elected Abbas to continue it. Second, Oslo also saw the beginning of Israeli withdrawal from Palestinian cities and the creation of the institutions of a Palestinian state, though admittedly, the former incomplete and reversed, the latter imperfect and corrupt. And this process did not stop there, for the first time the unthinkable issues, Jerusalem and the refugees, were put on the table during the Camp David II summit in July 2000 and later in Taba. It is too soon to write off the Oslo process of "land for peace," leading through partial decolonization to a two-state solution.
How can this process be best resumed? None of the current proposals for addressing the conflict are viable. The Israeli withdrawal of settlers and troops from Gaza in September 2005 was carried out in a singularly counterproductive fashion. Though it has shown that against moderate resolve settlers are powerless, this withdrawal was carried out in a unilateral fashion which played into the hands of Hamas. Though Barak offered to fully withdraw from Gaza in 2000, when it was carried out five years latter, the withdrawal seemed to have been a capitulation to the violence of the second intifada. The ten year cease fire idea Hamas floated in return for complete Israeli withdrawal is a non-starter. There is no reason that an agreement between Israel and the Palestinian Authority not be based of international law but on an ambiguous Muslim historical tradition which can only be arbitrated by Islamic ulema. President Bush=s June 2002 Road Map, which was adopted in April 2003 by the E.U., Russia, and the UN, and was supposed to have led to the creation of a Palestinian State in stages by 2005, was never implemented.
It is a sad conclusion that given the stalemate of Israeli-Palestinian relations in result of their respective extremists influence, the best and maybe only hope for now, is to seek the help of moderates from the outside. Now that the U.S.'s prestige and influence are at an ebb in the Middle East due to its own extremism, room has opened up for less influential players to play a greater role and try out new models of peacemaking. Two come to mind. The first is the March 28, 2002 Beirut Declaration put forward by the, then Saudi Crown Prince and now King Abdullah and adopted by the Arab League. In return for full Israeli withdrawal and a "just solution" to the Palestinian refugee problem it offers to "establish normal relations with Israel in the context of this comprehensive peace" and "consider the Arab-Israeli conflict ended" (http://www.al bab.com/arab/docs/league/peace02.htm).
This plan was never considered seriously since March was one of the bloodiest months of the al-Aksa intifada and on the proceeding day a Hamas suicide bomber blew himself up at a Passover seder in Netanyah and Israel retaliated by re-occupying parts of the West Bank it vacated under the Oslo accord. Recently Israeli cabinet members spoke of the declaration approvingly and Hamas and Fatah have considered adopting a version of it.
An alternative or complimentary approach, made more probable with the deployment of UN peacekeeping forces in southern Lebanon, would be the establishment of an interim international governing authority which would prepare Palestine for an end to Israeli occupation and independence for the Palestinian people. Such a United Nations mission would be modeled on the Security Council's United Nations Transitional Administration in East Timor (UNTAET) as an integrated, multidimensional peacekeeping operation that was fully responsible for the administration of East Timor during its transition to independence from October 1999 to May 2002. Resolution 1272 mandated UNTAET to provide security and maintain law and order; to establish an effective administration; to assist in the development of civil and social services; to ensure the coordination and delivery of humanitarian assistance, to support capacity-building for self-government; and to assist in the establishment of conditions for sustainable development (http://www.un.org/Depts/dpko/missions/unmiset/background.html). To gain legitimacy such governing authority would have to be approved by a Palestinian referendum and, as in East Timor, local participation in the governing authority would be required.
Though needing further elaboration, either the Beirut declaration or an UN plan would tip the balance away from the extremists and re-energize moderates. The involvement of the moderate Arab states in resolving the conflict would add the regional dimension that has been missing since the early 1990's Madrid talks and UN's imprimatur would bring legitimacy based on international law and precedent.
About six month after the submission of this article, the Palestinian civil war it forewarned about had come to pass. Though the Hamas putsch in Gaza was over so quickly that it seemed as if it did not happen, its impact is profound. Hamas most likely had overplayed its hand by overthrowing the democracy that elected it, inflicting violence on fellow Palestinians, becoming more dependent on Israel, and effectively partitioning Palestine. Abbas’s uncharacteristically energetic actions had also reduced Hamas’s institutional power and authority. The moderates and the extremists are now separated not only ideologically, but are rooted in different geographical locales and led by separate governments. The existence of a “moderate” West Bank, buttressed by Israeli gestures and supported by US and European financial aid seems to give new life to a negotiated Israeli-Palestinian agreement.
But no amount of Israeli gestures will help out Abbas as long as Israeli occupation and colonization continue in the West Bank. The Israeli settlement project, as we have seen, can either expand or shrink, but had never stayed at a steady state. Israel had not negotiated with the PLO in earnest in a long time. It is questionable whether in the wake of the Lebanon War’s mixed results Israel will have a government both strong enough and sufficiently willing to confront the settlers in order to reach a full-fledged two-way peace agreement with Abbas, knowing that Hamas will not abide by such compromise. Hamas had rejected past agreements with Israel - now it would become irrelevant if it changed course or looked the other way.
Can support from moderates from outside the region make a difference? Now that it had upped the ante by taking sole control in Gaza, Hamas is not likely to accept any limitation on its power by an East Timor type U.N. sponsored trusteeship or transitional administration. An attempt by the Arab League or its moderate members to see the 2002 Beirut Declaration implemented would carry more authority. In the past, Arab states shrank from playing a mediating, let alone interventionist, role in regard to the resolution of the Palestinian issue. The current polarization in the Arab, and even more so the Islamic, world that radiates out of Iraq and Iran has already pushed moderate Arab states to be more assertive. Hamas would find it hard to violently resist an agreement, guaranteed by the Arab League, that ends Israeli occupation on the basis of the two-state solution. And yet, in the near future run such intervention is likely to further deepen the divide within the heart of Palestinian politics.
July 22, 2007
Bitterlemons is an internet newsletter that presents Palestinian and Israeli viewpoints on issues of controversy: www.bitterlemons.org
Khalidi, Rashid, The Iron Cage: The Story of the Palestinian Struggle for Statehood, Boston, Beacon, 2006 is a revisionist perspective of the Palestinian side by a prominent expert and intellectual.
Kydd, Andrew & Barbara F. Walter, "Sabotaging the Peace: The Politics of Extremist Violence," International Organization, Vol.56, No.2. Spring 2002, pp.263-296, offer a theoretical and quantitative study of the impact of extremism.
Report on Israeli Settlement in the Occupied Territories, A Bimonthly Publication of the Foundation for Middle East Peace, http://www.fmep.org provides carefully gathered and updated information.
Robinson, Glenn E., "Israel and the Palestinians: The Bitter Fruits of Hegemonic Peace," Current History, January 15, 2001, pp. 15-20
Roy, Sara, "Why Peace Failed: An Oslo Autopsy," Current History, January 8, 2002, pp. 8-16. Both Robinson and Roy represent the "realist" international relations approach.
Walzer, Michael, Arguing about War, New Haven, Yale University Press, 2004 presents this eminent philosopher's observations on contemporary military conflicts and the ethical issues they raise.
(A version of this article appears in the Fall 2007 issue of Contexts: http://www.contextsmagazine.org/content_vol6-4.php)