Few would deny that September 11 unleashed a fearsome sequence of reactions, and none so far worse than the anguishing fury of this latest cycle of Israeli-Palestinian violence. Surely the United States is not primarily responsible for this horrifying spectacle of bloodshed and suffering, but there is a gathering sense here and overseas that the US government has badly mishandled its crucial role for a long, long time, and especially since the World Trade Center attack. As the situation continues to deteriorate for both peoples, there is a rising chorus of criticism that paradoxically blames the United States both for doing too much on behalf of Israel and not enough to bring about a durable peace. Both lines of criticism seem justified.
There is little doubt that part of the recent escalation can be traced back to President Bush’s overplaying of the antiterrorist card since Day One of the response to Al Qaeda. By overgeneralizing the terrorist threat posed by the September 11 attacks, Bush both greatly widened the scope of needed response and at the same time gave governments around the planet a green light to increase the level of violence directed at their longtime internal adversaries. Several important governments were glad to merge their struggle to stem movements of self-determination with the US war on global terror, and none more than Ariel Sharon’s Israeli government. The Bush Administration has made several costly mistakes. By not limiting the response to the Al Qaeda threat, it has taken on a mission impossible that has no end in sight; even worse, the Administration embraces war in settings where it has no convincing relationship either to US or human security. Related to this broadening of the goal is the regressive narrowing of the concept of terrorism to apply only to violence by nonstate movements and organizations, thereby exempting state violence against civilians from the prohibition on terrorism. Indeed, this statist approach has been extended so far that it calls nonstate attacks on military targets such as soldiers or warships terrorism, while not regarding state violence as terrorism even when indiscriminately directed at civilian society, as seemed the case at times during the Russian response to Chechnya’s drive for independence and with respect to Israel’s approach to occupation. Such a usage is ethically unacceptable, politically manipulative and decidedly unhistorical. It is important to recall that the usage of the word “terrorism” to describe political violence derives from the government excesses that spun out of control during the French Revolution.
The issue here is not one of political semantics but of analysis and prescription. By designating only Palestinian violence as terrorism, Israel’s greater violence not only avoids stigma in the American context but has been officially validated by being treated as part of the struggle against terrorism. The point here is not in any way to excuse Palestinian suicide bombers and other violence against civilians, but to suggest that when a struggle over territory and statehood is being waged it can and should be resolved at the earliest possible point by negotiation and diplomacy, and that the violence on both sides tends toward the morally and legally impermissible. This contrasts with the challenge of Al Qaeda, a prime instance of visionary terrorism that can neither be neutralized by negotiation nor deterred, and must and can be disabled or destroyed in a manner that is respectful of moral and legal limits. To conflate these two distinct realities, as Bush has consistently done, is at the root of the US diplomatic failure to diminish to the extent possible the threats posed by the September 11 attacks and to offer the Palestinians and Israelis constructive guidance.
There is another feature of the situation that infects commentary from virtually every corner of the debate, also reflecting the mindlessness of a statist bias. Everyone from George Mitchell to George Bush seems entrapped in the mantra that it is of course to be expected that every sovereign state must react violently and punitively against any significant act of terror directed against it. Many of these commentaries also take note of the degree to which such counterterror gives rise to worse violence on the other side, revealing the bankruptcy of the approach. It is truly a vicious circle. At the same time, it never sees that the logic of such vengeful violence works reciprocally. If the dominant actor pursues such an approach, what of the weaker side? When the Palestinians strike, their actions are never understood here as reactive and understandable, always provocative. Never has this been truer than with respect to the horrifying Passover bombing at Netanya and the equally horrifying Israeli incursion with tanks and helicopters throughout occupied Palestine. If one is essentially acceptable, and the other condemned, it deforms our understanding.
The same dynamic applies to the endless discussion about Yasir Arafat’s role. It is condemned, to varying degrees, while Sharon’s bloody past is rarely mentioned. He is usually treated with respect or, at most, Palestinian intransigence is given as the reason Israelis chose such an extreme leader in a democratic election.
But the problems of US leadership cannot all be laid at the feet of the Bush presidency. Just as crucial was the insufficiency of the Oslo peace process, and the blame game that has been played ever since the outbreak of the second intifada in late September 2000. It has been endlessly repeated, without any demonstration, that the Israelis under Prime Minister Ehud Barak made a generous offer at Camp David in the summer of 2000. It is then alleged that Arafat rejected an offer he should have accepted, and resumed armed struggle. Further, it has been alleged that Arafat’s rejection was tantamount to saying that the struggle was not about establishing a Palestinian state but about ending the existence of the Jewish state. It was this one-sided assessment, alongside others, that led to Sharon’s election, which meant that Israel would henceforth be represented by a man with a long record of uncompromising brutality toward Palestinians and a disregard of their legitimate claims for self-determination.
But was Arafat to blame for the failure of the Oslo endgame? I think it was a most unfortunate failure of leadership by Arafat not to explain to the Palestinians, Israelis and the world why Barak’s Camp David proposals were unacceptable. It should be remembered that Arafat at one point seemed on the verge of accepting them but backed away only when confronted by the unhappiness of a large proportion of his own people with the sort of Palestinian state that would result. It should also be remembered that the entire negotiation concerned 22 percent of the original British mandated territory of Palestine, about which the Palestinians were expected to strike compromises while leaving the 78 percent that was Israel out of account. Further, the future of the settlements in the occupied territories was to be addressed by Israeli annexation of half of them, including 80 percent or more of the settlers, despite the settlements’ illegality and the degree to which their existence was a daily irritant to Palestinian sensibilities. And on refugees, there were evidently some signs of a compromise in the making at the supplemental negotiations at Taba in January 2001, but nothing was written down, and it was far from clear that Barak could have delivered on what was offered even if re-elected, so strong were Israeli objections to any return by Palestinians to pre-1967 Israel. Beyond this, it was expected that the security of Israel was to be maintained in such a way as to put any emergent Palestine in a permanent position of subordination, thus denying the fundamental message of any genuine peace: insuring equivalence between the two states for the two peoples. The Palestinians would sooner or later challenge such a solution even if their leaders could be induced to sign on the dotted line. Many have forgotten that a widespread fear among Palestinians at the time of Camp David was that Arafat would sell his soul and that of his people (especially the more than 50 percent who were refugees) for the sake of a state, any state, as this was thought to be his sense of personal mission.
Similarly, the widespread contention in American circles that Arafat opted for terrorism is also seriously misleading. Such thinking deforms perceptions of what is reasonable. Arafat was up against more militant forces in the Palestinian movement throughout this period, and was generally viewed as the most moderate voice among the Palestinian leadership, and had even shown an early willingness to incur the wrath of Hamas and Islamic Jihad militias by taking seriously his duty to prevent the territories under the administration of the Palestinian Authority from being used against Israel and Israelis. Beyond this, it was Sharon’s own provocative visit to the Al Aqsa Mosque that started the second intifada. This visit proceeded despite fervent warnings about the explosion likely to happen, given privately to the Barak leadership by the most respected Palestinians, including the late Faisal Husseini, head of Orient House in Jerusalem.
The Palestinian demonstrations that followed were notably nonviolent at the outset. Israel countered from the beginning by using excessive force, killing and seriously wounding demonstrators in large numbers, and by its practice of extrajudicial assassination of a range of Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza. At this point the escalatory spiral was initiated, with Israel acting with ever more force at each stage, ratcheting up the stakes to such a level that the Palestinians were being attacked with among the most sophisticated weapons of warfare, including very modern tanks and helicopter gunships. It was in the course of this process that Palestinian resistance gradually ran out of military options, and suicide bombers appeared as the only means still available by which to inflict sufficient harm on Israel so that the struggle could go on. I was a member of a human rights inquiry appointed by the UN Human Rights Commission a year ago; our report fully supported this line of interpretation in its study of the second intifada, as did the overwhelming majority of the Security Council membership. The basic conclusion of these efforts at impartial understanding was that Israel was mainly responsible for the escalations, and that its tactics of response involved massive violations of international humanitarian law.
There is the closely related matter of continued Israeli effective occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, a reality that has been fully re-enacted in the past few weeks. It poses the question of what sort of right of resistance is enjoyed by an occupied people when the occupying power ignores international law and refuses to withdraw. Such a right of resistance does not permit unrestricted violence, but it certainly would seem to legitimize some armed activities. It puts in a different light the furor raised in January by the intercepted arms shipment that was evidently intended for Palestinian use. Should the opposition, in the context of the sort of struggle that has gone on for decades, have no right to gain the means of self-help while the occupying power can arm itself to the teeth, all the while denying international accountability and refusing UN authority?
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.