Global Policy Forum

Neglect of the Palestinian Plight Is Risky and Wrong


By Martin Woollacott

March 7, 2003

So anxious are we about the coming war in the Middle East that we sometimes overlook the one that is already going on. It takes an unusually bloody round of killing by Israelis and Palestinians like the one this week to remind outsiders that they are still at each other's throats. Yet the hostilities between the two peoples are clearly as great a source of instability, violence, and terror as anything for which Saddam Hussein is at this moment responsible. Clearly. And yet that is not clear to the Israeli government, nor to the Bush administration in Washington, welded as it is to Ariel Sharon and his purposes. Their blindness is familiar enough, but familiarity does not mean that it is any the less dangerous.

The worst prospect of all is that a project to permanently suppress the Palestinian people could become part of a supposed new order in the region after an an American victory over Saddam. It is not that the evidence for such an outcome is conclusive. It is not. But the mere fact that the question is at all open is in itself outrageous. That the Palestinian cause is being neglected, or shuffled off till a more "convenient" time is deeply unfair and wrong, as well as enormously risky at a time when the US and Britain are contemplating the invasion and occupation of an Arab country. Those risks are obvious everywhere in the region. Even in Iraq itself, however grateful people might immediately be for liberation from Saddam, can it be imagined that they would for long tolerate without protest an intimate connection with a US involved in cheating the Palestinians? Let alone the kind of close relationship with Israel that some in Washington seem to envisage for a new Iraq? The resentment some may feel at the way the Palestinian cause has obscured the plight of the Iraqis and at Yasser Arafat's past associations with Saddam will be a passing thing. The democracy the US wishes to help establish in Iraq would surely make the early expression of pro-Palestinian feelings more rather than less likely.

Neglect and procrastination are bad enough, but what about the worst possibility, a regression to the era of "bye, bye, PLO"? The question of the Palestinian future is open because of tendencies in both Israel and the US, which recent events may have strengthened. The coalition which has taken over in Israel after Sharon's victory in the January elections includes one party whose main support comes from settlers in the territories and another which has openly raised the question of "transfer", a euphemism for ethnic cleansing of the West Bank.

True, Sharon would have preferred a less extreme coalition including the Labour party, but that party's leader, Amram Mitzna, rejected this because he feared that all Sharon wanted was camouflage for his policies of delay and obfuscation on negotiations with the Palestinians. The meretricious Sharon likes to appear to be steering his way down the middle between doves on the one hand and hawks on the other, while in fact he is as hostile to a Palestinian state as his constant calculations of American reactions allow him to be.

The inclusion in the new coalition of the secular Shinui party, relatively moderate on the Palestinian question, shows him continuing this charade in a new form - but charade it is. The other arm of Israel's government, the senior military, is often more direct, as when the chief of staff said recently that Israel has no interest in real negotiations with the Palestinians until they accept that a return to anything like the pre-1967 boundaries is out of the question. The paradox of Israel's democracy is that while Israeli citizens indubitably gave Sharon and his party a victory in the election, he and his government are nevertheless thwarting their will.

As expressed in frequent polls, that will is for both an acceptance of a two-state solution and an acceptance that this means the evacuation of settlements in most of the territories, in other words a real state with real land from which Israelis have fully withdrawn. Sharon, in other words, is resisting the wisest instincts of the majority of Israelis.

The battered Palestinian leadership acts, as it has to, on the basis that Sharon can ultimately be outflanked, while no doubt fearing otherwise. Hence its acceptance of the road map, its recent reforms of the Palestinian Authority's institutions, in response to American and European requirements, its attempts to bring Hamas into a ceasefire, and its passivity as the Israelis have in recent weeks increased their assaults on the recalcitrant Islamists. But that leadership knows full well that the Sharon government regards this battle against Hamas as a sequel to the humbling of Arafat and Fatah and how likely it is to dismiss the efforts of the Palestinian Authority and give nothing in return.

The Bush administration in theory understands the logic and necessity of a true, as opposed to a fraudulent two-state solution. But in practice it betrays a constant willingness to follow the rightwing Israeli version of this solution, which is, to put it simply, that the words and phrases will be retained but real statehood will be denied to the Palestinians. The administration is, for instance, delaying on the so-called "road map" for progress toward a two state solution because of a mass of Israeli objections. These as usual would have the effect of binding the Palestinians completely to their commitments while imposing no, or few, equivalent obligations on the Israelis.

As the administration moves towards war with Iraq in a state of anger over allies and friends who have obstructed its plans, the fear is that there will be less readiness, particularly if the war is quickly and successfully over, to listen to advice from those who see the situation more clearly. Yes, there will be an American push on Palestine after Iraq, but Sharon and his allies in the US will certainly seek to finesse it, and on past evidence might well succeed. It could be a case of the American government being unable to resist this strategy because it does not want to anger important constituencies at home. It could be a case of the inner counsels of the administration being won over by those within it who take the fantastical view that a suppression of Palestinian aspirations is not only sustainable but could actually be a cornerstone of a new kind of American-Israeli primacy in the Middle East.

Or it could be a case, as Tony Blair and other European leaders hope, mainly of a deep distaste, arising from the Clinton experience of the 1990s, for serious involvement in negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians, a distaste which time and events will overcome. Even this last, the most favourable interpretation, is of course worrying. What kind of events, and how much time, and what may happen while we are waiting for the scales to fall from Washington's eyes?




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