Saturday, October 1, 2011

The end of the Oslo years

Whatever will happen in the coming months, one  thing is clear: the status quo of the last two decades  is dead.

The confrontation of Mahmoud Abbas and Binyamin Netanyahu on the United Nations podium took place eighteen years, almost to the day, after an earlier encounter of Israeli and Palestinian leaders.

It was in September 1993 that Itzchak Rabin and Yasser Arafat shook hands on the White House lawn, and hope was in the air, and peace seemed imminent. An interim agreement had been signed, under which a Palestinian Authority with very limited real authority and power was established as a strictly interim measure for a clearly defined period of five years. An explicit time table was set, under which a definite agreement was to be negotiated and signed and a fully independent State of Palestine come into being no later than May 1999.

And Rabin was assassinated, and Arafat died in circumstances which remain controversial, and very many Israelis and an even far greater number of Palestinians and quite a few others died in various horrible ways. And Palestine was not established in May 1999, nor on various later deadlines which were set and not enforced. And settlements in the Occupied Territories expanded to about twice the size which they had on September 1993, and the yoke of occupation weighs upon the Palestinians at least as heavily as it did eighteen years ago. And in Israel's latest opinion poll, more than half those asked said they did not believe peace would ever be achieved.

Should you ask a chance passer by on the streets of Tel Aviv what went wrong, he or she would probably answer – to the best of their knowledge - that Israel had been very generous to the Palestinians and that they have answered by terrorism and the hurling of missiles. Should you put the same question in the streets of Ramallah, you would most likely get a similarly sincere answer that it was the Palestinians who had made enormous concessions and that Israel answered with ever harsher occupation and settlement expansion – not to mention the three-week bombing of Gaza. In essence, both alike would say "we tried to make peace with them, we made every effort, but they only want to kill us and take our land" – differing only with who are "we" and who are "they".

After the elections of 1992, which brought Rabin to power, the ousted Prime Minister Shamir mourned: "We could have continued talking for another ten years and meanwhile extended the settlements". But even though Rabin came to power and for a time the term "peace process" seemed to have a real content, ultimately it was Shamir's vision which won out. Israel has been doing as he said, already for twenty years (and Netanyahu would not mind doing it for another twenty at the least).


In the halcyon years of Oslo, the agreements had raised hope among the majority of Palestinians as among the then flourishing Israeli Peace Camp, while the settlers and their allies opposed them vociferously. I can still remember the time when streets were full of extreme right stickers voicing the strident demand to "Prosecute the Oslo Criminals". It is the irony of history that with the passage of the years attitudes changed greatly, albeit subtly and without an open proclamation. 

The situation which was intended to be temporary and last no more than five years had been extended indefinitely. The Palestinian Authority is limited to isolated enclaves, comprising only 42% of the West Bank. Even there, its security forces are  obliged to maintain "security cooperation" and stand aside when Israeli forces come raiding at any hour of the day or (especially) the night, arresting whoever they want and hauling them off to interrogation with "moderate physical pressure" by the Israeli security services.

The rest of the West Bank is defined as "Area C" which Israeli government and settlers regard as their own – to plant and extend settlements, to grant (rather, refuse to grant) building permits to Palestinians and demolish homes built without such a permit, to dig for water and reserve the lion's share of it to Israeli settlers (and Israeli  citizens in Israel's population centers). Israelis can assert that Palestinians already have their own self governing authority, complete with president and prime minister and cabinet and parliament, even while any 19-year old Israeli corporal at a roadblock on the Ramallah-Nablus Highway has far more concrete power in Palestinian daily life than the Palestinian President and Prime Minister combined.

No wonder that Israeli right wingers, also among the settlers, concede that from their point of view the best practical option for the future would be "just to continue the present situation" – the situation created by Oslo. No wonder that  Palestinians increasingly came to resent to the Palestinian Authority which had once aroused their hopes, to regard it as a hindrance to the achievement of their national aspirations, in effect a body collaborating with the Israeli occupation. No wonder that some Palestinians called explicitly for the Palestinian Authority to be disbanded, and many other would not shed a tear at its passing.

What can President Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) and his Prime Minister Salam Fayyad and their ministers and officials do to dispel such feelings among their constituents and regain their credibility? In essence, only one thing would do: to give concrete proof that the situation created by Oslo is indeed temporary and that it could and would be replaced by an end to the occupation and full Palestinian statehood. 

To be sure, no such reassurance could be given by a new round of negotiations, yet another photo opportunity with the President of the United States ceremoniously spreading his protective wings over handshaking Israeli and Palestinian leaders in a hollow pretense to impartiality. Not after eighteen years when the term "peace process" had become a sad joke among Palestinians and Israelis alike.

And so, there came up the Idea of Palestinians in general – and the Palestinian Authority in particular - ceasing to wait for handouts from a tightfisted Israeli government of from a US on whose internal politics the same Israeli government  maintains a stranglehold. The idea of the Palestinians taking their fate in their own hands, breaking by their own effort out of the decades-long stalemate. Boldly going to the UN to demand recognition of their sovereign statehood – as Israel's sovereign statehood was recognized more than six decades ago, as sovereign statehood was recognized for no less than 193 nations around the world. To voice this demand and basic aspiration, neither asking nor needing anyone's permission and authorization, steadfastly persisting in it also in the teeth of a very manifest and prolonged displeasure from the American superpower.   .

So far, it had been an enormous publicity success, putting for months the Palestinian plight on the global agenda, and forcing everybody – Netanyahu, Obama, the European leaders – to respond to and grapple with a Palestinian initiative. This much they have achieved, even if the statehood bid itself is quashed by an outright American veto or by behind the scenes machinations and pressures on weak nations which happen to hold a crucial Security Council seat. Unflinchingly facing up to the American pressure has – at least for the time being – greatly increased the popularity of Mahmoud Abbas, never a particularly charismatic leader.

For its part the United States – and President Obama in person – pay a high diplomatic price for a right or wrong support to the government of Israel. For a manifestly biased presidential speech at the UN, which flatly contradicted Obama's previous positions and was warmly endorsed by Netanyahu's thuggish Foreign Minister Lieberman. Followed a weak later by the US offering a week lip service condemnation for Netanyahu's construction of a new 1100 "Jewish only" housing units in East Jerusalem, while the Palestinians were very concretely punished for the temerity of seeking statehood with Congress withdrawing US$200 million of already dedicated aid.

Altogether, the United States very thoroughly discredited itself and exhibited, clear for the entire world to see, its unfitness for the role of sole Middle East mediator which was established already by Kissinger in the 1970's. All the more so as the manifestly biased position was taken by none other than President Obama, of whom there had been expectations for something better (from the point of view of the Israeli right wing, for something worse).

French President Nicholas Sarkozy, who took the UN podium after Obama, got considerable international attention when stating that "We must stop believing that a single country, even the largest, or a small group of countries can resolve so complex a problem”. Never in decades was there such a clear call for a more objective mediator to take up the role of arbiter between Israel and the Palestinians. Indeed, Obama himself – whose own diplomatic efforts ended in such dismal failure and who has many other urgent issues on his plate – might not really object to somebody else taking up this hot potato.

Yet, where can an effective and impartial alternative arbiter be found, strong and decisive enough to enforce compliance? Can the Europeans – far from united, and mired in their own deep economic crisis – take up this role? What would happen if the appeal to the UN turns out to have brought the Palestinians no concrete result, no real step towards emancipating themselves of the occupation's suffocating presence?

Abu Mazen's dramatic speech at the UN included a passage which got virtually no attention in any of the Israeli media, completely overlooked by the hordes of commentators and analysts: "“This settlement policy threatens to also undermine the structure of the Palestinian National Authority, and even end its existence.” In an interview to Alquds newspaper, Abbas was more explicit: “I will return to the Palestinian leadership, which will make a decision on whether the time has come for Israel to re-assume its responsibility as an occupying authority.(…) We will not keep the Palestinian Authority as a mere name."

In short, the interim period - which the Oslo Agreement envisaged as lasting five years and which various Israeli governments managed to prolong into eighteen – seems to be drawing to an imminent end. Things will not remain as they were before Abbas made his appeal to the International Community. The Palestinian Authority might be upgraded to a fully sovereign state, or it might disappear, leaving a vacuum and completely unpredictable new situation in its place.