Ending the Death Dance
Here is the essential point: The Palestinian mainstream learned via Oslo that its cease-fire would not produce a fair solution in the form of sovereign and equal states, and that its real interests had been sacrificed on the altar of geopolitics. In effect, negotiations would be bargains reflecting the realities of power and control rather than either a pathway to some mutually acceptable form of parallel states or what many Palestinians had expected--namely, resolution by reference to international law. It is important to appreciate that on virtually every issue in contention, the Palestinians have international law on their side, including the Israeli duty to withdraw from land taken during a war, the illegality of the settlements under Article 49(6) of the Fourth Geneva Convention, the right of refugees to a safe return to the country that wrongfully expelled them and the generalized support for a Jerusalem that belongs to everyone and no one. In other words, if fairness is understood by reference to international law, the outcome would look nothing like what was offered in the Barak/Clinton proposals. Such a result would come nowhere close to satisfying the right of self-determination as understood by almost all Palestinians, and as achieved long ago by the Israelis. The failure of the US government to uphold Palestinian rights and the inability of the UN to implement its authority was extremely disillusioning for moderate Palestinians, and this tended to shift attention to the ouster of Israel from southern Lebanon through the use of force by Hezbollah.
What is worse, virtually all of the discussion about reviving the peace process, including that of the Palestinian leadership, is a matter of going back to a reconstituted Oslo--that is, negotiations between the parties after a cease-fire has been agreed upon. The Mitchell Commission report moves in this direction, as does the Tenet plan for putting a cease-fire into effective operation. Even these rather flawed initiatives have been stymied primarily by Sharon's hostility to the whole idea of peace negotiations under international auspices that would draw into question the settlements or address the grievances of the refugees and the sovereignty of Jerusalem in any way that would satisfy even the most moderate Palestinian expectations. The Palestinian Authority can also be faulted on the opposite basis, for too readily subscribing to the "honest broker" claim of the United States in relation to the peace process, despite abundant evidence over the years of the degree to which the US government pursues an unabashedly pro-Israeli foreign policy that is underpinned by massive annual foreign assistance, mostly for weapons purchases. At the very least, Palestinian leaders should point to the problem, and possibly seek more neutral auspices for these matters of life and death for their people. If real peace is the goal, we cannot get there from here!
It is this tragedy that continues to be played out in the most reprehensible ways. To say this is not to underestimate the difficulty of a good-faith peace process that meets the needs of both peoples. It would be a mistake to pretend that international law provides all the answers, although it does give guidance as to what is reasonable given the overall controversy. On refugees, for instance, implementing international law would surely doom any agreement, since almost all Israelis would regard an unrestricted Palestinian right of return as tantamount to the destruction of the Jewish state. My conversations with many Palestinians suggest that there would be a great willingness to find a formula that both sides could accept, possibly relying on an Israeli acknowledgment of the wrongfulness of the expulsions, especially in 1948, provisions for compensation for lost property and limited opportunities for return phased in over time. If the Israeli leadership were prepared to work for the establishment of a Palestinian state equal to their own, I would anticipate an outpouring of Palestinian efforts to reassure Israel of its own sovereign identity.
Oddly, despite its record of partiality, only the United States seems to have the current capacity to put the two states on such a genuine peace track, but it is not likely to do so until pushed hard from within and without. An American civic movement of solidarity with the well-being of both peoples is essential, as is a more active independent European and Arab involvement. Both latter possibilities are becoming more plausible with each new atrocity. The belated yet still welcome Saudi initiative, offering normalization of Arab diplomatic relations in exchange for Israeli withdrawal to 1967 borders, is an important contribution. And Europe seems ready to propose a more independent alternative to what Washington has been offering if the White House cannot do better. Bush's call for Israel to withdraw its military forces from Palestinian areas "without delay" was somewhat encouraging, although it was immediately neutralized by Sharon's insistence on "finishing the operation" and by the fact that Bush sent Secretary of State Colin Powell to exert pressure but allowed him to adopt the most nonurgent itinerary, including several intermediate stops in North Africa. Such a diplomatic pattern has been widely criticized as "incoherent" at best, but at least it is a modest improvement over backing Sharon's recent criminal assault on Palestinian cities and towns.
If the United States does do better, then these new forces of engagement could at last begin to draw the line between a process that puts the weaker side in the position of either accepting what is offered or getting blamed for not doing so, and a process that gives both sides what they need: security and sovereignty. Of course, it will be difficult to move forward with the present cast of leaders and mainstream assumptions. But we should at least be clear that Sharon is a much bigger obstacle to real peace than Arafat is or ever was.