Hopes for resuscitating the stalemated Oslo ‘peace process’ were dashed last month after US Middle East envoy Dennis Ross failed during a four-day regional tour to make headway in brokering a resumption of Israeli-Palestinian talks. The atmosphere of pessimism engendered by the failure of Ross’s shuttle diplomacy, however, has underscored the inner contradictions and flawed nature of the entire Middle East ‘peace process.’
Ross’s peripatetic tour was intended to persuade both Israel and the Palestinian National Authority (PNA) to accept a US plan aimed at breaking the lingering deadlock in the Oslo process. Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, which have been stalled since the election of Benjamin Netanyahu as prime minister in 1996, ground to a halt in March 1997 amid Arab fury over Israeli construction work of a Jewish settlement on Jabal Abu Ghneim in East Jerusalem.
The Clinton proposal envisaged an Israeli redeployment from 13.1 per cent of the occupied West Bank as part of a second, long overdue troop withdrawal. Netanyahu has repeatedly refused to carry out the second Israeli redeployment, which was originally scheduled for last September under the 1993 and 1995 Oslo accords, citing the PNA’s failure to fulfill its commitments to ‘combat terrorism.’ The evacuated areas, which would be added to the 27 percent already fully or partially controlled by the PNA, would be placed under Palestinian ‘civilian’ control only, whereas Israeli troops would continue to maintain overall ‘security’ control.
The proposed three-stage redeployment would take place over a three-month period in return for specific Palestinian steps carried out in tandem with Israeli pullbacks. These steps include Palestinian crackdown on Islamic groups opposed to any deal with Israel, an unequivocal abrogation of the Palestinian Covenant calling for the destruction of the zionist State, reduction of Palestinian security forces to the size set out in the interim agreements, and a range of cooperative security undertakings between the PNA and Israel such as sharing intelligence and extraditing ‘suspected terrorists.’
It is only after the last stage of the redeployment has been completed that ‘final status’ negotiations - which will focus on the future of Jerusalem, Jewish settlements, the return of refugees, the sharing of water resources, and the like - would begin.
As such, the American proposal, like the entire Oslo process, suffers from the serious defect of connecting the stages of implementation of a further Israeli pullback to changes in Palestinian behaviour, thus giving Tel Aviv the freedom to halt the pullback at any time under the pretext of PNA’s failure to fulfill its part of the deal. In this context, Netanyahu’s media advisor, David Bar- Illan was quoted by the London-based Financial Times (March 27, 1998) as having said: ‘We could stop the pullback at any time if the Palestinians do not comply with the commitment to fight terrorism.’ This attitude was echoed a few days later by Netanyahu himself when he told a group of West Bank Jewish settlers: ‘We’re no suckers. We don’t give without receiving.’
Clearly, the Clinton package proposal, which reportedly calls for a ‘slow down’ in the construction of Jewish settlements in the occupied territories as well, is closer to the Israeli position of minor concessions than the Palestinian one which demands a pullback from 30 percent of the West Bank.
Shortly before Ross and his deputy, Aaron D Miller (both of zionist-Jewish extraction), headed for the Middle East, the Clinton administration indicated its intention to publicize its proposed plan if it was not accepted by the parties, thus explaining publicly who is holding up the ‘peace process’. Fearing this would put enormous public pressure on his government to accept the American proposal without any modifications, Netanyahu launched what amounted to a two-pronged ‘diplomatic guerrilla war’ to pre-empt Washington going public with its package proposal.
On the one hand, he unleashed several influential American Jewish groups in a pressure campaign aimed at the US government. It did not take much lobbying effort to goad the pro-Israeli Clinton administration into abandoning its intention to publicize the plan. In a March 27 telephone conference, US secretary of State Madeleine Albright, assured leaders of dozens of American Jewish organizations that the United States would not exert pressure on Israel to accept ‘an American plan.’
On the other hand, Netanyahu proposed a number of diversionary plans. Shortly before Ross embarked on his Middle East trip, Netanyahu offered a pullback from about 11 percent of the West Bank, but in such a way that the disconnected and isolated bantustan-like areas placed under Palestinian self- rule would be linked together into a single, contiguous bantustan. Moreover, the Netanyahu plan postponed a third pullback, which was originally scheduled according to a January 1997 agreement guaranteed by
the US to take place no later than the middle of this year, until the ‘final status’ negotiations, thus giving Israel an added stranglehold over Palestinian negotiators during those talks.
Netanyahu has also offered to withdraw from Lebanon. In a cabinet meeting held on March 20, Israel formally accepted United Nations Security Council Resolution 425, which was passed after its March 1978 ‘Litani Operation’ calling for its full and unconditional withdrawal from south Lebanon, if the Lebanese government agrees to guarantee the security of Israel’s northern border. However, this offer, which was rightly characterized as ‘poison chalice’ by Lebanon’s prime minister Rafiq Hariri, was rejected by Lebanon, Syria, and the Arab League.
The failure of the Ross mission prompted several American foreign policy officials to express their anxiety over the future of the US-backed Middle East ‘peace process.’ For instance, in her telephone conference with them, the petulant US secretary of State conveyed to the American Jewish leaders her fear that, due to the current collapse of ‘trust’ in the region, ‘we are nearing the end of the peace process.’ Likewise, State department spokesman James Rubin described the process as being ‘in dire straits.’
Although such statements do not necessarily sound the death knell of the Middle East ‘peace process,’ they highlight its passage into a calcified phase - a phase that it was destined to plunge into due to its fundamentally- flawed character that undermines its ability to serve as a basis for lasting peace settlement in the region.
For one thing, the ‘peace process’ was not designed to produce agreement between parties on par in terms of strength and will, but rather an assortment of suspicious deals whose thrust was the Arab States’ submission to all Israeli terms. America’s pro-Israeli bias in the talks, moreover, tempts Tel Aviv to cloak its aggressive and expansionist policy in the guise of ‘peace accords’ and to stick more determinedly to its goal of transforming the Arab armies into its pacifist frontier-guards.
As for the Palestinian people, the ‘peace process’ has brought them nothing but further misery and suffering; poverty and want; repression, autocracy and restrictions on freedoms; and, as if these were not enough, the spectre of internal violence.
While Arafat and his cabal of capitulationists continue to be locked with the Zionists in disputes over percentage points of land, the condition of the inhabitants of the West Bank and Ghazzah Strip, which effectively remain under Israeli occupation, both veiled and un-veiled, continue to deteriorate. According to recent figures released by the World Bank, per capita incomes in these territories have dropped by at least 20 percent since Israelis and Palestinians agreed their Declaration of Principles in September 1993. During the same period, Palestinian unemployment has risen from 13 percent to about 31 percent. All in all, then, the so-called ‘peace process’ has been nothing short of an unmitigated disaster for the Palestinian people.
Muslimedia: April 16-30, 1998