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Nouvel article

Tuesday 4 September 2007, by Azmi Bishara

Ahead of this autumn’s projected peace conference, Israeli politicians are stumbling over themselves to set the shrewdest terms for negotiations.

Once it had ascertained that the Palestinians were solidly split right down the middle, Israel reverted to its old ways. It dug into its all too familiar bag of tricks, lies and sleights of hand while sustaining constant prattle about the need to protect its eternal security and to forefend the threat to its democracy, which entails subjecting the lands and welfare of other peoples to its own domestic squabbling, political party rivalries and media sparring. So, once again, the other side, which had agreed to become the other "party", found itself sucked into worrying about Israel’s internal affairs and the call for early elections, the identity conflict between Israeli secularists and religious fanatics, and the national obsession over the soul-wrenching "agony" of having to suppress and subjugate another people. No other oppressed or occupied people in the world have ever been forced into such an unnatural, almost "normalised", concern for the internal concerns of the people who occupied their land and usurped their national rights.

Purely for the sake of some additional food for thought, we add here that the Arab spectator (a term that these days is much more apt in the practical and legal sense than the term "citizen") has recently discovered how rich, diverse and intricate the domestic issues are in Lebanon. This surprise is mixed with wonder at the sheer numbers of Lebanese who have something to say and no small admiration for how eloquently they can go on saying it. But the spectator has simultaneously discovered that, as far as Lebanon is concerned, this diversity and these quantities of speakers and words indicate that the strings controlling Lebanon’s fate are being pulled from abroad. This realisation places delight at discovering the outstanding talents of the Lebanese in another context: Israeli diversity ultimately works to draw outside powers (with the possible exception of the US) into Israel’s internal affairs whereas Lebanese diversity serves to render Lebanon malleable to deals between outside powers. The contrast is striking.

In all events, in the midst of negotiations aiming to hammer together some type of consensus preparatory to the "international peace meeting" this autumn (some kind of declaration of principles, for example, to be followed by Palestinian elections that will be portrayed as a Palestinian stamp of approval on this "internationally" supported declaration of principles), and even as Israelis relentlessly attempt to "persuade" the Palestinian people of the advantages of "moderation", Barak made a sudden appearance in a Yediot Aharonot interview. Without a word of forewarning, he proclaimed that Israel would not withdraw from the West Bank before another five years because it would take at least that long to ensure that precautions are in place to fend off Qassam missiles from the West Bank after withdrawal.

But it is not the substance of this curious intervention that is important — if anyone still believes that Israel will withdraw from the West Bank within the next five years they have only themselves to blame. When Barak called up Rice to assuage her anger at what she took as a deliberate bid to undermine the Olmert-Abbas game, he did not retract his statement, but he did reassure her of his support for the negotiations and for what he termed "the political horizon", which is another word for the "peace process". Both are from that well-known Barakian lexicon that harks back to his heyday in Camp David II. It takes someone who knows the ins and outs of politics in that country to realise that this is not about political horizons but political shenanigans. Barak is furious at Olmert for not trusting him and including him in the decision- making and negotiating processes. It is not just in children’s playgrounds that the ultimatum, "If I can’t play, you can’t play," applies. At the same time, Barak is anticipating Olmert’s resignation (or forced resignation if he resists) following the release of the final Winograd report on the war in Lebanon, which may explicitly ask for the prime minister’s resignation and which would bring the date of elections forward. So Barak is not just lashing out at Olmert; he is also one-upping Netanyahu, his foremost rival in those elections. Fighting with the right, in Israel, calls into play another set of rules to those that apply to rivalries within the Labour Party itself. Also, in preparation for those elections, Barak is eager to rectify the commonly held impression about him as the author of unilateral withdrawal, as applied in Lebanon in 2000 (unconditional withdrawal, in other words, in the face of an obdurate Lebanese resistance and following his failure in negotiations with Syria, which, had they succeeded, would have purportedly given Israel an honourable exit strategy within the framework of a peace agreement). So this is what Barak’s statement about Israel not being able to withdraw from the West Bank for another five years was about.

In reality, the Palestinian negotiator, now "disengaged" from Gaza and Hamas, is pawn to these and other ugly Israeli games. And he hasn’t received anything in return; Israel has him in its grips with no other Arabs to worry about. It is a very patient player: it will wring every last drop of advantage it can from his delight at having been rewarded with this long sought after "partnership", and his eagerness to vaunt and display the sprinklings of Israeli "magnanimity". How else can one interpret Tzipi Livni’s recent announcement ( Haaretz, 15 August) that Israel has linked progress in negotiations with normalisation with the Arab world? Israel has taken Palestinian negotiators hostage and is now blackmailing Arab capitals.

Meanwhile, the eternally young 80-year-old Shimon Peres, who has just embarked on a bright and promising future as president, has not let down people’s hopes and expectations. He has come up with some great ideas. We will hear more of these, from his official residence in Talibiya, that elegant quarter in West Jerusalem occupied in 1948 (will Arab delegations recall this as they pass by the historic Arab homes that now house the Israeli upper class on their way to pay homage at court?). Peres is in favour of returning 100 per cent of the West Bank to the Palestinians, on condition that the Palestinians make up for this by relinquishing all claim to East Jerusalem, its immediate surroundings and outlying settlements, that will be annexed to Israel. This is probably just for starters, but what he’s getting at is a "land exchange" across the length of the Green Line, which is densely populated by Arabs.

As usual, some Arabs have hailed his idea as a historic opportunity that should not be allowed to slip by. I propose a simpler course: to admit the truth. The truth is that the occupied territories are not real estate open to haggling over the square footage and price, and that the question of Jerusalem, above all, is not one that can be resolved through bartering and tradeoffs. The fact is that Israel must accept the 1949 truce lines and withdraw to pre-June 1967 borders, no more, no less. These principles do not need arguments to back them up so much as strong negotiating resolve.

As for the Palestinians inside Israel, many fear that this talk of a land exchange across the Green Line may be specifically designed for them, and they have voiced tentative and vague objections to the Peres plan. In Israel, this position has been interpreted as an indication of the desire of those Arabs to hold on to Israeli citizenship, with those who reached this conclusion betraying no small degree of smugness. After all, why else would those Arabs object to becoming part of a Palestinian state, especially when that transformation comes complete with the transfer of their villages, full Palestinian sovereignty over that land, and Palestinian citizenship rights? So they argue. But it could equally be pointed out that these Palestinians had never had a choice in the matter. Israeli citizenship had been forced upon them. Has the situation suddenly changed? The fact that some Arabs have opposed the Peres suggestion suggests that it has not, and that this stance is, in fact, a protest in favour of individual choice.

But there is more. Those Arab villages were never statelets annexable by this country or that. They were part of a larger stretch of Palestinian land, most of which Israel confiscated and the minimum amount of which it plans to return in exchange for probably yet a larger stretch of land. Still, something else reeks; and it was when Lieberman rejoiced at how easily the idea was accepted in Israeli public opinion that one could identify the stench. Lieberman has long advocated a "package deal" with the Palestinians that would enable Israel to get rid of the largest possible number of Arabs inside Israel. Now there appears to be a virtual unanimity over this type of solution — even the Israeli left had no moral problem with population transfer as long as it included their land.

Clearly, Arabs inside Israel should stick to their position. However, this position needs to be clarified and it needs to be formulated in such a way as not to compromise both national identity and individual citizen rights. I propose the following as a reasonable and workable stance.

First, Israel must make a choice. Either it transfers Jericho and the entire triangle to the Palestinian state in accordance with the boundaries defined in the 1947 Partition Plan or it does not transfer anyone. In other words, it has to choose between holding on to post-June 1967 boundaries and continuing to have to sustain the costs of suppressing resistance against Zionism and the fight for freedom and equality, or accepting pre-1967 borders. Second, the transfer of only a portion of Palestinians and their land serves neither their cause nor the cause of the Palestinians as a whole. Indeed, accepting such an exchange vindicates the logic behind compromise on other major issues, of which Jerusalem is just one. Third, it places a big question mark over the fate of Palestinians remaining inside Israel. As Israel defines itself, they can never be fully equal citizens, even though they will be profiled as citizens who chose Israel over their national identity. At the same time, their loyalty to the state will always be suspect and unless they prove themselves "worthy" they will remain vulnerable to the threat of transfer, or to such "solutions" as granting them one set of civil rights applicable to their place of residence and another set of civil rights, such as the right to vote in Palestine, applicable to their national identity. There is no end to the litany of mad ideas that could arise once the precedent of treating the predicament of Palestinians in Israel piecemeal has been set. Therefore, any notion of parcelling out the fate of this minority that makes up 20 per cent of the population of Israel should be rejected out of hand.

(Al Ahram Weekly - September 05, 2007 - Issue No. 860)

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