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Obama’s Fine Words

20 May 2011

Obama’s Fine Words

By Gwynne Dyer

Barack Obama’s speech on the Middle East lasted for forty minutes, but did it say anything new? Not exactly, although it did reinstate an old rule that had been abandoned. Two years after the American president’s much-ballyhooed speech in Cairo promised a new relationship with the Muslim world, not much has changed in American policy – but a great deal has changed in the Arab world.

Obama angered Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu by calling for an Israeli-Palestinian peace settlement consisting of two states “with permanent borders based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps (of territory).” It was a return to what was the long-standing American position until former US president George W. Bush changed it in 2004. Netanyahu’s office immediately issued a furious response.

“Prime Minister Netanyahu expects to hear a reaffirmation from President Obama of US commitments made to Israel in 2004….Among other things, those commitments relate to Israel not having to withdraw to the 1967 lines, which are both indefensible and which would leave major Israeli population centres in Judea and Samaria beyond those lines.”

By “Judea and Samaria” Netanyahu meant the West Bank, i.e. 90 percent of the land that the Palestinians still clung to after the 1948 war. The West Bank has been occupied by the Israeli army since the 1967 war, and Israel has built so many “settlements” on it that almost 20 percent of the population of the West Bank is now Jewish.

Bush said in 2004 that the settlements could stay, even though that made the concept of a Palestinian state completely infeasible. (The settlements control more than a third of the land in the West Bank.) But US policy on the issue is now back to what it was before Bush.

Some settlements might be allowed to stay, but only if the Palestinian state were compensated with land of equivalent value by Israel. (That’s what the “mutually agreed swaps” referred to.) Moreover, the “1967 lines” mean that the United States will not back Israel’s insistence that its army remains in the Jordan valley, along the border between the promised Palestinian state and Jordan.

Netanyahu’s coalition government would instantly collapse if he agreed to any of this, so he wouldn’t agree even if Obama twisted his arm very hard. In any case, there was no hint in the speech that Obama was going to bring serious pressure on Israel to change its position.

So there has been a rhetorical return to long-standing US policy after the Bush aberration, but no evidence that Obama will push the “peace process” forward. As far as the democratic revolutions of the “Arab spring” are concerned, he gave them warm verbal support – but only so long as they don’t damage American interests. There was, for example, not a single mention of Saudi Arabia in his speech.

And for all of Obama’s rhetoric about how wonderful the revolutions are, it was clear that he had little idea how big the transformation in the Middle East actually is. Particularly with regard to the Israeli -Palestinian dispute, the future will not be like the past.

We had a foretaste of that a week ago, when thousands of Palestinian demonstrators commemorating the anniversary of the “nakba” (disaster), the expulsion of their people in 1948 from what is now Israel, surged up against Israel’s borders, and in one place actually breached them. About a dozen of them were killed, although they were mostly non-violent, but this was something new – and we will be seeing a lot more of it.

The issue of the Palestinian “refugees” of 1948 has been on a back burner for a long time, with Israel adamant that the vast majority of them must never return as that would dilute Israel’s Jewishness. Besides, says the Israeli government, they fled voluntarily.

That was always a bad argument. Israeli historians long ago discredited the idea that the flight of the Palestinian population was voluntary, and in any case it doesn’t matter. Under international law, if people flee their homes during a war, they are legally entitled to return to those homes when the fighting ends.

For fifty years, Israel has successfully kept the refugees (and their descendants) out, and by and large the international community has accepted it. But now the Palestinians, emboldened by the non-violent spread of popular rule elsewhere in the Arab world, are not just saying they have the right to return. They are acting on it.

Israel will never consent to this, but if Palestinians go on trying to cross the border, despite the fact that some will get killed each time, then Arab opinion will be firmly on their side. So will the newly democratic governments of the Arab world – and other Arab regimes that are just trying to stay ahead of public anger. Israel will also find itself increasingly isolated in the wider world, especially if it continues to use violence.

This is just one example of how much has changed in the Middle East in the past few months, and American policy has not even begun to take account of it. Obama is trying, but he will have to run much faster to keep up.
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 8, 11 and 12. (“So…speech”; and “The issue…ends”)

Gwynne Dyer’s latest book, “Climate Wars”, is distributed in most of the world by Oneworld.

The Next Arab-Israeli War

24 January 2011

The Next Arab-Israeli War

By Gwynne Dyer

It’s time to think about the nature of the next Arab-Israeli war. The release by the Arab satellite network al-Jazeera of 16,000 leaked Palestinian documents covering the past ten years of peace negotiations has driven a stake through the heart of the already moribund “peace process,” and we hear constant warnings that when the hope of a peace settlement is finally extinguished, the next step is a return to war. So what would that war be like?

Okay, back up a bit. What the leaked documents show is that the Palestinian negotiators were willing to make huge concessions on territory and other issues in return for Israeli recognition of an independent Palestinian state. They were well-meaning people playing a very bad hand as best they could, but the publication of these documents will destroy them politically.

The spirit in which they approached the talks is exemplified in the first document in the trove, a memo on Palestinian negotiating strategy dated September 1999. It urges the negotiators to heed the advice of the Rolling Stones: “You can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometimes you might find that you get what you need.”

According to the documents, in the past three years the Palestinians have offered to accept all of Israel’s illegal settlements around Jerusalem except one (Har Homa) as permanent parts of the Jewish state. Israel annexed all of East Jerusalem after it conquered it in the 1967 war, but international law forbids that and no other country sees the annexation as legal.

The negotiators also offered to restrict the “right of return” of the millions of Palestinians descended from those who were driven from their homes in what is now Israel in 1948 to a mere 100,000 returnees over ten years. They even offered to put the most sacred site in Jerusalem, the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif, under the control of a joint committee. (It is currently administered by an Islamic foundation.)

Even these concessions were not enough to persuade the Israelis to accept a Palestinian state within the pre-1967 borders of the West Bank (including those parts of East Jerusalem still inhabited by Palestinians) and the Gaza Strip. They were enough, however, to make the negotiators reviled in almost every Palestinian home if they were ever revealed – and now they have been.

Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority, chief negotiator Saeb Erekat and his predecessor Ahmed Qureia were just pragmatic men trying to cut the best deal possible in very difficult circumstances. They might even have been able to sell these concessions to the Palestinian people, if they had come as part of a comprehensive settlement leading to the end of the Israeli occupation and an independent Palestinian state.

But in fact they got nothing for their concessions. The Israelis simply pocketed them and demanded more. Now that the details are known – leaked, almost certainly, by frustrated members of the Negotiation Support Unit that provided technical and legal backup for the Palestinian negotiators – Mahmoud Abbas and his colleagues are finished.

Even the Palestinian Authority itself, and the whole concept of an independent state for Palestinians in a fraction of pre-partition Palestine, may not survive this blow. Fatah, the faction that effectively rules the parts of the West Bank not yet taken for Israeli settlements, is well past its sell-by date as a national liberation movement, and may lose control of the area to the Islamist Hamas movement before we are very much older.

Hamas, which already controls the Gaza Strip, rejects negotiations with Israel and the whole notion of a Palestinian state alongside Israel as part of a two-state future. We are continually told by various pundits that these developments can only lead to war, and they are probably right – but what kind of war?

It would certainly not be like the Arab-Israeli wars of 1948, 1956, 1967 and 1973, in which regular armies fought stand-up battles with lots of heavy weapons. Egypt, Syria and Jordan, the countries that fought those wars on behalf of the Arabs, have long since abandoned the goal of matching Israeli military power. They don’t even buy the right kind of weapons, in the right amounts, to stand a chance against Israel on the battlefield.

We will doubtless see more Israeli punishment attacks in which a hundred Palestinians or Lebanese die for every Israeli, like the “wars” against Lebanon in 2006 and in the Gaza Strip in 2008-09. We may well see a “third intifada,” another popular uprising against the Israeli occupation in the West Bank, probably accompanied by terrorist attacks in Israel itself. But we have seen all this before. It’s nothing to get excited about.

In the long run, we may see some Arab states start working on nuclear weapons, to create some balance of forces between the two sides, but probably not for a while yet. In the meantime, the future for the Middle East is not mass destruction, but an unending series of Israeli military strikes that kill in the hundreds or thousands, not in the millions. Plus despair, of course.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 7 and 8. (“Mahmoud…finished”)

Gwynne Dyer’s latest book, “Climate Wars”, is distributed in most of the world by Oneworld.

The Vanishing Two-State Solution

3 January 2011

The Vanishing Two-State Solution

By Gwynne Dyer

What does it mean when the United States, Britain, France and Spain upgrade the diplomatic status of the Palestinian delegations in their capitals, as they all did in the past year? When the number of countries recognising Palestinian statehood now exceeds one hundred?

Binyamin Ben Eliezer, former deputy prime minister of Israel and Minister of Industry, Trade and Labour in the current government, thinks he knows. “I wouldn’t be surprised if within one year the whole world supports a Palestinian state, including the United States,” he warned his cabinet colleagues recently.

Ben Eliezer doesn’t mean a hypothetical Palestinian state at some point in the distant future, after Israelis and Palestinians have miraculously agreed on borders, refugees, etc. He means a real Palestinian state, declared this year and promptly recognised by practically everybody.

It would have a seat at the United Nations and the right in principle to control its own borders, though in practice it would still be under Israeli military occupation. Exactly where its borders are, like a host of other issues, would have to be settled afterwards, by direct negotiation between Israel and Palestine.

At first glance, the immediate creation of an independent Palestinian state sounds like an idea whose time has come. The “peace process,” now seventeen years old, has clearly run out of road, goes the argument, so we might as well try something different. As a rationale for creating a fully-fledged Palestinian state now, that’s not very convincing – but it’s not really why people are talking about this.

Many Arabs and Americans support the idea because they hope that the creation of a legitimate and theoretically independent Palestinian state would give Mahmoud Abbas, the head of the Palestinian Authority, enough credibility to keep the West Bank out of the hands of Hamas a while longer. (Hamas, which rejects any permanent peace with Israel, already controls the Gaza Strip, the other part of occupied Palestine.)

Some Israelis back the idea too, but not many, and none in Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s government. Netanyahu does everything he can to avoid direct peace talks, because any Israeli concessions would break the ruling coalition apart. Foreign Minister Avigdor Liebermann says that even an “intermediate” peace deal could take decades.

So despairing advocates of a peace settlement are now lining up behind the idea of declaring Palestinian statehood even in the United States, where former US ambassador to Israel Martin Indyk recently endorsed the idea. But it is, alas, an idea whose time has not only come but gone.

It has suddenly become popular because a lot of people are finally realising that the “two-state solution,” seen for the past quarter-century as the only possible foundation of a permanent Israeli-Palestinian peace settlement, is dying if not already dead. The proposal to create a real Palestinian state, even without agreed borders, is meant as a last-minute rescue mission, but it probably comes too late.

Popular support in Israel for a land-for-peace deal collapsed years ago, but now the Palestinians are also losing faith in a two-state future. They are concluding that the peace talks have been a charade from the very start, because Israeli politicians, even the best-intentioned ones, will never find the political courage to stop the process of spreading Jewish settlements across the West Bank.

What is the point, Palestinian critics ask, of a truncated Palestinian state that is riddled with Jewish settlements and utterly dominated by Israel? What do Palestinians have to lose if they forget about a state for now and just wait until a higher Palestinian birth rate makes them a majority across all of former colonial Palestine (i.e. Israel and the occupied territories)?

They would have to live through another ten or fifteen years of military occupation and occasional Israeli punishment campaigns like the 2008 operation in Gaza. They would have to accept that there will never be an exclusively Palestinian state. But once they became the majority, they would launch a non-violent civil rights movement demanding one person, one vote in all the lands between the Jordan and the sea.

That demand – One Big State with equal rights for all – is what wise Israelis fear most, because it would put Israel in the same position as apartheid South Africa. All these people, both Arabs and Jews, live on lands that are under your permanent control, the rest of the world would say. Why won’t you let the Arabs in Gaza and the West Bank vote? Israel would survive, but it would become a pariah.

That is why Netanyahu has suddenly demanded that the Palestinians recognise Israel as a specifically JEWISH state: if they agreed to that, they could never credibly demand One Big State. It is also why various non-Israelis have begun to advocate the early creation of a Palestinian state: they are hoping to keep the two-state solution alive. But it is already on life support, and the oxygen is running out.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 3 and 4. (“Ben…Palestine”)

Dead Peace Process

19 December 2010

Dead Peace Process

By Gwynne Dyer

“This parrot is no more,” rants former “Monty Python” member John Cleese in the English-speaking world’s best-loved TV sketch. “It has ceased to be,” he tells fellow Python Michael Palin, playing a pet-shop owner who insists that the obviously dead bird is still alive. “It’s expired and gone to meet its maker. This is a late parrot. It’s a stiff. Bereft of life, it rests in peace. It’s rung down the curtain and joined the choir invisible. This is an ex-parrot.”

Same with the “Middle East peace process,” another old joke that is getting a bit creaky in the joints. The US State Department, like the pet-shop owner, insists that the obviously dead process is still alive. “There, it moved,” as Palin says in the sketch. “No, it didn’t. That was you pushing the cage,” replies the outraged Cleese. But the State Department still gets away with it.

It’s a necessary fiction. Nobody in authority will publicly admit that no Israeli government will take on the Jewish settlers in the West Bank and force through a “land for peace” deal, or that there is no unified government for Israelis to talk to on the Palestinian side anyway – that there is, in fact, no prospect of an Israeli-Palestinian peace settlement in this generation. But that is the reality; the rest is the theatre of the absurd.

“I welcome this American decision. It is good for Israel. It is good for peace,” said Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on December 13th. Yet the US had just abandoned all hope of getting Israel to freeze new building in the Jewish settlements in the occupied territories (which already control 40 percent of the West Bank’s land) long enough to keep direct peace talks with the Palestinians going.

Netanyahu had agreed to a ten-month freeze in new construction as a condition for entering into direct talks with Mahmoud Abbas’s Palestinian Authority, but the ten months expired just after the talks opened, and he refused to extend the freeze. The US even tried bribing him with a multi-billion dollar pledge to give Israel new F-35 fighters, but to no avail.

Why so obdurate? “If someone says that he agrees to ten months of freezing,” said former prime minister Ehud Olmert last month, “and the president of the mightiest nation on Earth and the friendliest nation to Israel comes to you and says ‘Please give me two more months, only two months,’ I would say ‘President, why two? Why not three? Take three’.”

Did Netanyahu refuse to grant Barack Obama the extra time because he was afraid that otherwise the settler lobby, which has powerful backers in his cabinet, would bring his coalition government down? Or just because he has always secretly opposed a land-for-peace deal with the Palestinians anyway. Probably both, but we’ll have to wait on WikiLeaks to know for sure.

As for Mahmoud Abbas, he only controls the West Bank and must guard his flank against the more radical Hamas Organisation, which rules in the Gaza Strip and rejects peace with Israel. Abbas had gone as far as he safely could in agreeing to direct talks while building in the Jewish settlements was frozen.

Netanyahu knew that refusing to extend the freeze would force Abbas to end direct talks, but he was under great pressure from Washington to extend it. To divert that pressure, he introduced a new Israeli precondition for talks. The Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) long ago accepted Israel as a legitimate state; now, if it wanted the freeze to continue, it must recognise Israel specifically as a JEWISH state.

That’s a lot to ask of people whose parents or grand-parents lost their homes and became refugees as a direct result of the creation of Israel, so that ended the risk of returning even to talks about talks. As Yasser Abed Rabbo of the PLO’s executive committee said, “The policy and efforts of the US administration failed because of the blow it received from the Israeli government.”

Meeting in Cairo on 15 December, the foreign ministers of the Arab League declared that “resuming the negotiations will be conditioned on receiving a serious offer that guarantees an end to the Arab-Israeli conflict.” By a “serious offer,” they mean a US-backed proposal for a comprehensive peace settlement.

No US administration would dare make such a proposal: it would be torn to shreds in days by the Israeli lobby in the United States and its allies in Congress. So there really is no peace process. Most Israelis want a peace settlement in principle, but there is just no consensus in Israel on the territorial compromises that would be needed to bring it about.

Increasingly, there is no consensus on the Palestinian side either, with many people losing faith in the very idea of a “two-state solution.” The only reason that a fake “peace process” continues is because the United States needs it to reconcile its huge emotional investment in Israel with its concrete financial and strategic interests in the Arab countries.

Is this an unsustainable situation? Not at all; it has lasted more than a decade already. It could last for several more, with occasional interruptions by further Israeli punishment attacks on south Lebanon and the Gaza Strip. It cannot go on forever, of course, but forever is a long, long time.
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To shorten to 750 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 10. (“Why…three”’ and “That’s…government.”)

Gwynne Dyer’s latest book, “Climate Wars”, is distributed in most of the world by Oneworld.