Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Made to Measure

Sharon and Olmert fit together seamlessly, writes Azmi Bishara

Has Ehud Olmert suddenly been seized with the spirit to negotiate with the Palestinians? Of course not. The disengagement plan, as laid out by Ariel Sharon, contained by way of introduction a "proposal" to the Palestinian leadership to sit down and talk with the purpose of coming to an agreement over a permanent solution, or a long-term interim solution should the Palestinian leadership be unprepared to voice the ideological concessions it had already made in practice. Sharon was, in effect, telling the Palestinian leadership to make up their mind. Either they could find a solution through negotiations or Israel would impose one unilaterally. This carrot and stick technique is as old as the hills. Nor is there anything new in the way the Israelis use it against the Palestinians, which is to force feed them the stick or beat them with the carrot.

Sharon told the Palestinian leadership that if it wanted to negotiate it had to fight terrorism. That was the only way to get the roadmap off the ground preparatory to negotiations over the creation of a Palestinian state. But to Sharon, the difference between a unilateral solution imposed by Israel and a negotiated solution was that under the former Israel could squeeze the Palestinian state into 40 to 50 per cent of the West Bank, whereas through negotiations the Palestinians might succeed in getting 70 per cent of that area. There is no doubt about which solution Sharon preferred. Since 1988, when the disengagement with Jordan took place, Sharon had been pushing to transform the Jordanian solution into the Palestinian solution: Palestinian self-rule -- now called statehood -- on the same densely populated area of the West Bank that would have been handed over to Jordan under the Elon plan, with the remainder of the West Bank annexed by Israel.

Since the collapse of Camp David and the eruption of the second Palestinian Intifada, and even more so following the evacuation from Gaza, Israeli public opinion has increasingly converged on the unilateral imposition of borders. The Centre Party reflects this general mood; though not a majority party none of the other coalition members have produced an alternative.

Olmert favours a unilateral solution for two reasons. First, like Sharon, he does not see a Palestinian leadership willing to accept the maximum Israel is prepared to offer. Second, his party, and to an extent his coalition, supports the unilateral option. So what has changed?

True, Sharon has vanished from the scene. But this has only increased Olmert's commitment to Sharon's scheme. And the Palestinian people have elected a legislative assembly with a huge Hamas majority. Disengagement from Gaza did not produce the predicted results. The refusal of the Israeli leadership to negotiate with the previous Palestinian government ultimately strengthened the hand of those most committed to Palestinian principles or, from the Israeli perspective, the most extremist elements. It is now feared that disengagement from the West Bank will expand and enhance the influence of the new Palestinian government.

The Zionist left, which had supported unilateral disengagement from Gaza, opposes unilateral action in the West Bank. More important, though, is the growing influence of right-wing forces within the Israeli military establishment. Their views were expressed by Giora Eiland in Haaretz of 4 June. If Israel gave up Gaza too quickly to be compensated properly, he said -- though what more compensation it could want beyond Bush's letters of guarantee to Sharon is unclear -- then disengagement from Gaza would be a disaster. Israelis are much more emotionally attached to the settlements in the West Bank than they were to settlements in Gaza and the political cost of dismantling them would be high. In addition, any Palestinian state to emerge on the West Bank under Hamas would be extremely volatile, economically, socially and politically.

Eiland therefore calls for a "comprehensive solution". But don't get him wrong; he's not referring to the Arab peace initiative. Rather, his idea is to bring Jordan and Egypt on board in talks where the possibility of land exchanges in the Sinai and to the east of the Jordan River could be discussed as part of an overall solution involving the Palestinians, together with Egypt and Jordan, though with no mention of Syria, of course. The details of his suggestions are not important. The significance lies in the reflection of how uncomfortable some military circles in Israel are with the haste with which politicians are coming up with political solutions to one of the world's most obdurate problems.

The Palestinian leadership Sharon had instructed to do its part of the roadmap first in order to qualify to negotiate with Israel is now sitting in. At the same time the international community cannot envision the economic blockade of Palestinians lasting forever. But in order to lift it there has to be a Palestinian body to channel funds to, and if that body is regarded as good enough to support financially then certainly it must be good enough to negotiate with.

Israel, at this delicate phase in the US confrontation with Iran, cannot afford to annoy the Europeans. Whether Washington opts for economic sanctions or military action against Tehran, it needs an international coalition, with Europe on board and some level of understanding with Russia and China, so they don't actively obstruct Washington's plans. And Israel knows, without having to be told, that its greatest strategic threat comes from the direction of the Gulf, an area Israel had always wanted the US to place at the top of its priorities even before the occupation of Iraq.

The US relationship with Europe is far too shaky to serve as a foundation for an international coalition against Iran, especially following the exposure of the many lies that led to the war with Iraq. When Condoleezza Rice returned home to her boss, downcast after meeting European prime ministers in Berlin, Bush furnished her with some "positive" suggestions that she could take back to her European counterparts when she met them again in Vienna. One of these ideas was that Washington would negotiate with Iran if Iran halted its uranium enrichment operations. In other words, only by demonstrating that it was willing to talk with Iran could the US obtain a European consensus.

Those same Europeans cannot understand Israel's current boycott of the Palestinian president, or even its current drive to unilateral action. (Nor, for that matter can anyone in Arab governments who openly or tacitly support the American drive against Iran, and Hizbullah, and the conspiracy against the Lebanese resistance).

The Palestinian cause pops up frequently in the context of international coalitions as a public relations ploy. This applies even to Arab countries, which give the West advice on how to make the right gestures in order to win over public opinion, or at least to assuage its anger, until deals can be struck over the real strategic issues. So, a meeting will be held and an agreement will be reached over arrangements to facilitate the influx of money and goods. Moreover, unlike the last meeting between a Palestinian leader and an Israeli head of state, the next one will take place in a convivial atmosphere and the two sides will agree on a mechanism for resuming negotiations -- that is, until the Iranian crisis has passed.

In the meantime, Israel is keeping up its military operations in the West Bank and Gaza. In other words, it is continuing to make an assault here, escalate friction there, in its undeclared "low intensity" war against the Palestinians. Finally, the Israeli army made public (see Haaretz of 30 May) the fact that its forces have been inside Palestinian territory in Gaza for weeks, in the course of which it has waged a systematic campaign of assassination and murder, mass arrests and missile bombardment.

The assassinations in Sidon fall under the heading of the same undeclared war, as does the pre- planned retaliation to the Lebanese resistance's response to these assassinations.

The Lebanese resistance refuses to become accustomed to the covert war being waged against it and by responding is letting people know that Israel is waging such a war. For as long as the war remains undeclared, as long as people grow accustomed to it, then the world can continue to treat Israel as though nothing is out of the ordinary. In Palestine, by contrast, a state of emergency has become the rule, as Walter Benjamin would have put it, to which we might add that Israel wants the people to get used to it.

Israel is continuing to wage its war after having drummed the world into clamping an economic stranglehold on ordinary Palestinians who now have to repent their political choices if they want to breathe again, and all because of the declared positions of their elected government, which will do nothing to alter Israel's determination to press ahead with its own unilateral schemes.

In wartime, governments take actions they would never dare to take in ordinary circumstances. Israel is behaving like other governments do when at war. It has refused entry to Palestinians returning home for the summer holidays. It has taken residence permits away from residents in Jerusalem. It has clamped down the stranglehold so tightly that Palestinians cannot even squirm without their warden's permission. It is raising the stakes it wants the Palestinians to pay. Either it will reap these in political gains or it will create an atmosphere inimical to negotiations and conducive to unilateral actions that will not only be regarded as normal but as progress.

Israel's war is taking place against a backdrop of regional preparations for an attack against, or at least broad based boycott of, Iran if it doesn't halt uranium enrichment. These preparations entail testing the strength of the Lebanese resistance, not just in terms of arms but also in terms of manpower and support inside Lebanon. This, too, is part of a more far reaching plan should the US set its mind on a particular course of action in the region. Such a decision is difficult to take given the situation of US forces in Iraq. It is difficult to take in view of the failure of US plans for Lebanon. But whatever decision Washington takes Israel is front and centre, doing its utmost not to embarrass Washington in front of its allies but also, because of the connections between Iran, Syria and Lebanon, pushing hard in a very specific direction.

Israel is also goading the Palestinians into internal strife. It believes that this is the best way to ensure one of two outcomes: unilateral disengagement as the result of chaos in Palestine or the emergence from the pressure pot of a Palestinian leadership prepared to "not miss yet another historic opportunity" and to accept a state within the borders proposed by Sharon and currently proposed by Olmert, borders narrower than those proposed by Clinton in Camp David.

The Palestinian-Palestinian dialogue may be simply a way to gain time for some. However, for the Palestinians there are very good reasons why it should succeed and why the participants must summon the will to make it succeed. First, Israel has nothing to offer any of the parties participating in the dialogue as long as none of the parties join forces with Israel against the other Palestinian factions. Second, it is in the interests of the Palestinian people to form a government of national unity. Third, Israeli practices need to be confronted on all fronts. The Palestinians must avoid being lured into civil strife at all costs. The last thing the Palestinians need are more innocent victims, greater attrition of their morale and actions that play solely into the hands of the occupying power.