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Politics

False Dawn

10 February 2005

False Dawn

By Gwynne Dyer

Peace is at hand! Democracy is spreading like wildfire! Free lunch for everybody! I’d like to believe it, but I’m sorry, I just can’t. No Israeli-Palestinian peace settlement is in sight. Democracy is not sweeping the Arab world. And lunch costs the same as usual.

The mainstream Western media are sometimes pathetically easy to manipulate. President Bush gives a couple of speeches in which he declares yet again that “freedom is on the march” in the Middle East, there are elections (of a sort) in Iraq and Saudi Arabia, Israeli and Palestinian leaders shake hands — and suddenly the talk is all of “windows of opportunity” and “democratic transformation” in the region..

Mr Bush talks like that because it pushes all the right buttons in the only audience he really cares about, the American one, but what real evidence is there for a new dawn of peace and democracy in the Middle East?

That is a misleading question, in a way, because the Middle East has already been at peace for over a decade. Apart from the US invasion of Iraq two years ago and occasional Israeli forays into Lebanon and Syria, no military forces have crossed any international frontier in the region since 1991. When the Western media talk about “peace”, they really mean a permanent peace settlement between Israel and the Palestinians who have lived under Israeli military occupation for the past 38 years.

It is generally accepted that that settlement must involve a “two-state solution” that turns the occupied Palestinian territories into an independent Palestinian state. The three main obstacles to that settlement have always been the same: the desire of millions of Palestinian refugees to return to their former family homes in what is now Israel; the Jewish settlements that have been illegally planted all over the occupied Palestinian territories; and the Palestinian demand that East (Arab) Jerusalem be the capital of their new state.

Few Israelis will accept the Palestinian “right of return”, on the grounds that the influx of so many Palestinians would fatally dilute the Jewish character of the state. A majority of Israelis would accept the abandonment of the settlements as a reasonable price for a lasting peace, but they are much more ambivalent on the question of re-dividing Jerusalem. The Israeli right has consistently been able to play on these fears and doubts to ward off any peace deal that would sacrifice the settlements.

For Palestinians, the boot is on the other foot. A majority are realistic enough to know that Israel will never yield on the “right of return,” and would accept a pace that gave the refugees adequate compensation. They are less willing to let go of Jerusalem as their capital, and they simply will not accept a peace deal that leaves the majority of the Jewish settlements in place. This gives Palestinian “rejectionists” ample scope to condemn any peace settlement that meets Israeli minimum demands as a sell-out.

None of this has changed for years, and it isn’t changing now. Yasser Arafat is dead and his elected successor Mahmoud Abbas wears a suit and tie, but he is still answerable to the same community — and is still dealing with the same Israeli leader, Ariel Sharon, who hasn’t changed his spots either.

After thousands of deaths and years of poverty and misery, most Palestinians are so exhausted that they welcome an end to the intifada, and even the militants will go along with Abbas’s ceasefire for now. They will bide their time, and wait for Palestinian frustration at the lack of real progress on a peace settlement to grow.

Sharon is perhaps even less delighted with the ceasefire, since it makes it harder to go on building his “security fence,” whose unavowed purpose is to impose de facto borders on the West Bank that leave all the main areas of Jewish settlement within Israel. But the noisy and prolonged business of pulling a mere 7,500 Jewish settlers out of the Gaza Strip should give Sharon sufficient cover to finish the fence. (The White House has promised not to ask any other concessions from him until the Gaza pull-out is completed.)

So “peace” is not in the offing, and democracy spreading is not spreading like wildfire through the Arab world either. It might, one of these days — there is nothing in Arab culture or Islamic values that makes it impossible — but it isn’t happening now.

Municipal council elections in Saudi Arabia, with half the council members still appointed by the royal family and no women allowed to vote, may be a great step forward for Saudi garbage and sewage, but it’s not a very big deal for actual Arabian people. The Palestinians voted for Mahmoud Abbas in free elections last month, but then they voted freely for Yasser Arafat years ago; nothing new there.

Iraq’s election was a genuine achievement despite the inevitable Sunni Arab boycott, but the Bush administration can hardly take credit for it. The “Coalition Provisional Authority” tried hard to avoid or postpone an election until Shia pressure (and the implicit threat that Shias might also join the predominantly Sunni revolt against the US occupation) forced it to grant Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani’s insistent demand for free elections. And what will come of them in the end, God only knows.

In other words, things are not worse in the Middle East than they were last year. They might even be slightly better. But peace and democracy are not breaking out all over.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 7. (“Few Israelis…sell-out”)