A landscape of despair in Israel-Palestine?

By Harry Hagopian
August 4, 2009

On 4 April 1967, two months before the six-day Arab-Israeli war of 1967, Martin Luther King, Jr stood at the pulpit of Riverside Church in New York City and delivered a compelling sermon entitled Beyond Vietnam! His choice of venue for his clarion call was truly prophetic, since this elegant and uplifting house of worship, barely a stone’s throw from Columbia University, has an unbroken and honourable history of advocacy on political and social issues.

During his sermon, King drummed home the reality that the USA was depleting its resources with this war and segued into the statement that Americans were faced with the fact that tomorrow is today, and there is such a thing as being too late.

Today, sixty-one years after the pan-Arab Nakba of 1948 and forty-two years after the Naksa of 1967, I cannot find more eloquent words to articulate the miserable and stalemated fate of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict than those contained in King’s chastising statement. Indeed, tomorrow is today for those two peoples, and there is such a thing as being too late.

But where is the tomorrow of today, and how late are we in finding a resolution to an intractable conflict that impacts not only upon the national interests of the whole region but well beyond it? These are the questions I would like to focus on.

Let me start by referring you, in emphasis-point headlines, to fifteen recent articles or themes that you can find online and which together paint a distressing picture of the current situation:

• Israel on Trial, by George Bisharat
• Why Israel Won’t Accept a Two-State Solution, by Bernard Chazelle
• Baker’s Ghost in Cairo, by Roger Cohen
• Israeli barrier bites into Palestinian village, by Ivan Karakashian
• Demolition orders reach Convent homes inside the Old City, (on Ekklesia)
• The Forgotten Faithful, by Don Belt
• The Cairo Speech, New York Times editorial
• Mirage of peace fools no one, by David Blair
• Gaza war order was “shoot first”, (Reuters)
• Can the United States put pressure on Israel?, by Prof Stephen Walt
• Obama and the Middle East", by Hussein Agha and Robert Malley
• Israel and US can’t close split on Settlements, by Isabel Kershner
• Jerusalem bishop says churches are key to Middle East peace (on Ekklesia)
• Israel blasts ‘dangerous’ EU call for deadline on Palestinian state, by Barak Ravid & Assaf Uni
• Take the Case, by John Dugard

Even for those only remotely familiar with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the titles alone scream out the painful reality of what is occurring right now in this raddled and depleted biblical land. It is sad that these two peoples have not only locked horns with each other but are also engaged in internecine fights that make a solution - assuming its contours were visible - even more remote. Only recently, this point was driven home to me when I read a short blurb in The Tablet (the British Catholic monthly) about a new psycho-social centre in Gaza to help children traumatised by war.

What a heavy historical and actuarial legacy of competing politics! Yet there are enough men and women of vision, intellectual, pragmatic, honest and courageous, who labour in both camps to change things and who often express themselves on a number of websites and blogs such as bitterlemons. Their views are not necessarily in the minority either: a One Voice poll conducted few weeks ago about a negotiated two-state solution showed that 74 per cent of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, and 78 per cent of Israelis, are willing to accept a two-state solution that has been the fundament for peace negotiations to date. Moreover, 71 per cent of Palestinians and 77 per cent of Israelis felt that negotiations are ‘essential’ or ‘desirable’.

But is it enough to wish for a two-state solution, let alone call for fresh negotiations, for it to happen if the parties themselves cannot evince resilience and flexibility? Is it worthwhile to float lofty ideals and principles but not muster the determination - let alone purpose - to see them through and deliver them to their respective constituencies?

I would like to cast a brief look at where the main players of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are situated in terms of the parameters of the conflict. What about the United States under an Obama administration with its outreaching policies? Or the 27 EU member-states whose chief foreign policy mandarin issues ambitious statements about a Palestinian state? What about the Arab League or its constituent members who have twice re-booted the Arab Initiative of 2002 and are offering Israel full peace in return for land? And finally, what about Israelis and Palestinians, the former ruled by a bellicose right-wing coalition whose idea of a solution is the deletion of Palestinian sovereignty, or the latter who not only squabble dangerously between Gaza and the West Bank but also within their own flanks?

Today is tomorrow, but tomorrow might be too late. If Martin Luther King, Jr, were able to stand up and deliver another sermon at the Riverside Drive Church today, he would surely call it Beyond Occupation! But in the sad absence of true visionaries, let me focus on the parties involved in this conflict - perhaps the lack of answers might engender questions.

1. The United States of America

Over the past eight years there has been a calamitous absence of the former Bush Administration from the Israeli-Palestinian political scene. Where we are today is due, in some part, to President George W. Bush and the laissez-faire manner in which his neo-conservative acolytes managed US policies on the basis of ideological short-termism.

With the advent of the Obama factor, things might have changed a bit - in tone if not necessarily in substance. In his speeches at Ankara and Cairo, or even in Prague, President Obama altered the logic for the quest of a solution to this conflict. He stressed that it is no longer only a matter of ensuring the security of Israel but also that of the United States, adding that peace between Israel and the Palestinians is a priority for the USA and not solely of the USA. His call for a cessation of all forms of Israeli settlements on Palestinian land, including the expansion of existing ones, as re-iterated by members of his administration, is perhaps a concrete step forward toward securing the vital space for peace.

However, in view of the deepening global recession and the myriad other political crises facing the USA, would the Obama administration have the political stamina for the long haul? Would it be able to hold its ground when it is opposed by a majority in Congress, by influential quarters of the media and by lobbying organisations such as the American Israel Public Affiars Committee? (AIPAC) Would he pursue confidently his vision despite the makhsomot or roadblocks ahead, at least long enough to contribute an easing of tensions between the USA and the Muslim and Arab worlds? All this remains to be seen in the weeks, months and possibly years ahead. Given all the pitfalls, it is far too early to conjecture, let alone pass any definitive judgment on the prevailing odds.

2. The European Union

This 27-state political megalith can no longer afford to simply remain the banker of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, as it possesses enough political clout to move forward with its own active facilitation of the peace process.

Recently, the EU foreign policy chief, Javier Solana, asked the UN to set a deadline for the establishment of a Palestinian state even if the parties could not reach an agreement between themselves. Israel objected to this statement, and so did I - albeit for substantively different reasons. The EU should not ask the UN to set a deadline for such a state to come into being. Rather, it should get its own act together and use its strategic influence by becoming a political actor in its own right - and as a result supporting President Obama. After all, the stability and security of the Eastern Mediterranean affect it directly, and the EU enjoys Euro-Mediterranean mechanisms with 43 countries that could be triggered to help it intervene on issues from environment, commerce and transport to security and new technologies.

It is high time for this pan-European body to assume its political responsibilities and stop behaving merely as a delinquent donor body - not least because of its historical responsibility in the current regional conflicts. As one-fourth of the Quartet, its support of the Roadmap that is neither a map nor a road, with a special envoy who exudes self-righteous conviction, is a redundant choice. The European Union has to find at long last its political voice, or else it will lose its political soul.

3. The Arab States

What about the “brotherly” Arab states? With a string of failed ideologies, stultified democracies and political incompetence, it feels at times that many Arab states go out of their way solely to explore ways in which they could checkmate each other. The Arab League, despite the valiant attempts of its Secretary General Amr Moussa, is a politically otiose instrument since it can only execute the decisions of its members. When those members are indolent, the organisation becomes somnolent.

But given the clout that some Arab and Muslim states enjoy with the West - whether as a result of their substantial financial investments and petro-dollars, or the moderating effect of friendships and alliances they have forged with it - is it not telling that they have been unable to form any discernible powerbase and have almost squandered their political efforts by neutralising each other’s influence in the region? Lebanon is a typical example of this deplorable tug-of-war, as is Palestine where ideologies, warfare and interests are tested out and applied at the expense of a dispossessed and neglected people.

Yet, Arab influence could be brought to bear upon Western movers and shakers. I recall an editorial by HRH Prince Turki al Faysal in the Financial Times entitled ‘Saudi Arabia’s patience is running out’ (published on 23 January 2009) which constituted a mild warning to the USA that the Saudi kingdom was losing patience. A few sparse words, but an example of how the USA could be made to heed to such expressions of discontent as it needs Arab support for its withdrawal plans from Iraq or for dealing with Iran.

However, such potential influence pales into insignificance if the Arab world is unwilling or unable to enforce it for reasons that have less to do with the Palestinian national cause and more with their own political incompetence or their obsession to stay in power. Yet, the Arab Initiative 2002 is an appropriate and still timely plan that could unravel the knot and also serve as a big incentive for peacemaking. But not only does Israel pay lip service to it, the US Secretary of State asks Arab states to undertake additional “mutual” steps toward Israel other than just offering the Jewish state this initiative. With a constant upping of the ante, I wonder whether the expectation is for the Arab states to recognise Israel, to keep doling out their political cards, issue vacuous and reality-unfriendly sound-bites of solidarity but still receive nothing in return from Israel.

4. The key actors: Palestinians and Israelis

The USA, the EU and the Arab World could help guide Israelis and Palestinians toward a peaceful, just and secure resolution of this long-standing conflict. However, they cannot slake their thirst without those two key protagonists heading to the watering hole by appropriating the vision for a solution, let alone showing the integrity and boldness to move forward with it.

Ever since 1964, when Yasser Arafat managed to place Palestine on the global political map, later recognising Israel in 1988 and 1993, Palestinians have made some headway in lobbying for their inalienable rights. True, most of the peace initiatives - from Madrid (1991) to Camp David (2000) and Annapolis (2007) - failed to tailor a solution. Yet the empowering glue for a weak Palestinian side was the justice of its cause under international law and the cohesive nature of its leaders as they negotiated for the rights of their people.

I grew up in this atmosphere, worked politically with those indices during the long Oslo years, and witnessed how Palestinians viewed themselves in terms of their progressive norms and values. Their quest was for a democratic and secular independent state that would respect the rights of all its citizens and become a regional democracy. But it all broke down and Palestinians today are a bleak movement, with more holes than a colander where extremism, polarisation, discrimination, nepotism and feudalism have replaced normative relationships with common goals.

Since at least 2006, Palestinian leaders have allowed themselves to slide into divisions that are unforgivable when one looks at the magnitude of their problems. The West Bank and Gaza have become two separate fiefdoms that are vying against each other, both with separate leaderships, institutions and directions, as if the challenges were alien to them. All those negotiating sorties to Egypt by Fateh and Hamas might influence public opinion, keep the Rafah border crossing busy and inject a modicum of hope on some streets, but will they deliver any concrete - and irenic - outcome?

Although some of the problems between the two major wings of the Palestinian national struggle were perhaps created by outside forces, or inherited from colonial history, this is not enough of an excuse to allow them to grow beyond control. This is a craven betrayal of the Palestinian movement and it was exacerbated as Palestinians bickered over those responsible for poisoning Arafat. The accusations that are being traded, the venom with which each side attacks the other and the total loss of confidence, reflect how fraught with dangers and conspiracies the situation has become today.

Palestinians are losing that modest legitimacy achieved over the past two decades as they wrangle over the political reality of Hamas or the integrity of Fateh, resist all confidence building measures and get sucked into homicidal plots whose source and timing remain veritably intriguing if not spurious. And in the midst of such inequity and a tug-of-war between two ideologies, they forfeit the higher objective of an independent Palestine with equal promise for all its inhabitants.

Whilst the Palestinians are shooting themselves in the foot, what about Israel? PM Netanyahu is pursuing his expansionist land-grab policies, consolidating Israeli right-wing plans and in the process, extinguishing the dream of a two-state solution. By using the fig-leaf of negotiations, successive Israeli prime ministers have consistently created ‘facts on the ground’ that are designed to pre-empt and prejudice a final outcome.

To be a real partner for peace, words need to be matched by action and rhetoric by reality, as a genuine commitment to peace entails an equally genuine movement on the ground. Yet all this was singularly absent from PM Netanyahu’s address at Bar Ilan University on 14 June 2009, although the USA and EU praised him for restating the commitment of previous Israeli prime ministers to create a Palestinian state. Seemingly only in this conflict can one Israeli leader adopt the long-standing position of his predecessors and be praised for taking a ‘step forward’!

But what does Israel, as a 42-year-old occupying power, have to do in order to nudge the peace process forward?
A lot has been written about President Obama’s call for Israel to stop all settlement activity. But has anyone assessed the reality of settlers and settlements that have been implanted on Palestinian land?

Over the past four decades, 120 settlements in the West Bank have altered the demographic realities on the ground and the Jewish population has changed from 1000 inhabitants in 1966 to 300,000 today. In Arab East Jerusalem, for instance, it has shifted from 9000 in 1966 to 200,000. This illegal increase in Jewish population has been accompanied by the construction of infrastructure: by-roads, roadblocks, military bases and security zones which are closed to Palestinians. There are now 634 roadblocks separating West Bank towns and villages from each other and a separation wall, 700 kilometres long, separates Israel from Palestine, neighbour from neighbour and Palestinian homes and schools from workshops and stores.

A while back, Meron Benvenisti, an Israeli political pundit, wrote in the Israeli Ha’aretz daily that settlements constitute a real estate commercial enterprise which has used the Zionist rhetoric to realise pecuniary gains. Quite true, but as a recent Institute for Global Communications (IGC) report stipulates, the settlement issue is not only a Zionist secular Israeli project. It is also a national-religious and ultra-orthodox one. Religious settlers have steadily been gaining influence and leverage in the country and are loath to dismantle settlements. Any attempt to remove even ply-board huts leads to stand-offs with the Israeli army. Daniel Seidemann, the founder of Ir Amim (City of Peoples) that was founded to engage in issues impacting on Israeli-Palestinian relations in Jerusalem and on the political future of the city, assessed recently that “the DNA of the settler organisations is informing government decisions” while “government powers are being handed over to the settler organisations.”

But settlements are a good excuse for Israel to refuse peace. As Gershom Gorenberg wrote in The American Prospect, PM Netanyahu and his coalition partners wish the settlement drive to continue so that it debars any Israeli withdrawal from occupied territories or the creation of any Palestinian state. In other words, Israel is dragging its feet because it realises that a peace process would require dismantling those 120 settlements, relocating settlers, swapping pre-1967 land for settlement blocs already in Israeli hands, re-routing the separation barrier, ceding control over 40 per cent of the West Bank, sharing Jerusalem as a capital, letting in 10,000-50,000 Palestinian refugees, giving away vital water rights, engaging Hamas, releasing the 11,000 prisoners who are never mentioned when the fate of the IDF kidnapped soldier Gil’ad Shalit comes up for discussion, facing violent domestic opposition and coming face-to-face with its own controversial history.

The British journalist Ben White writes in his new book Israeli Apartheid: A Beginner’s Guide, that the problems of occupation and violence are deeply rooted in the essence of Zionism and Israeli policies of colonisation in Palestine. Indeed, comparisons with the 'homelands' established during the apartheid era in South Africa spring to mind: barren enclaves, with names like Venda and Bophuthatswana, offered only a cruel fiction of independence. Netanyahu’s idea of a state is not dissimilar, with Palestinians having their own Vendas and Bophuthatswanas, without any control whatsoever over their destinies. When he admits grudgingly to a Palestinian state, only to be extolled for it, he envisages nothing more than incongruent municipal bodies in tightly-controlled enclaves - otherwise, collective entities at best that become a state in name only.

With the continuing absence of any Israeli move toward a two-state solution, it is evident that the contours for a resolution are vanishing quite rapidly despite the acrobatics of some players whose job is to create motion for the sake of perpetuating the myth that they are making headway. Six years ago, the British historian Tony Judt had already surmised that the two-state solution - at the very heart of the Oslo Accords and the Roadmap - is possibly condemned to failure. Besides, how can it be transformed into reality when the best outcome would be disjointed islets without territorial contiguity?

Israel today would allow neither for a two-state solution nor for a bi-national one. For them, this double-negative is in fact a double-jeopardy, leading one to the only logical conclusion that Israel seeks the subjugation of Palestinians by breaking their willpower and then herding them into enclaves for cheap labour. I for one, remain troubled as to how Israeli politicians could inflict such suffering upon others - given the teachings of the Talmud and the harrowing enormity of their own past suffering.

This oppressive political stalemate notwithstanding, Palestinians keep feuding, the EU bankrolls development projects, human rights’ organisations complain about violations, the USA tries to manoeuvre its way out of impasses, and the Arab world laments the fate of Palestinians in high decibels. The true victim here is the vision for real peace, with an increasingly malevolent Israel pitted against an increasingly fragile Palestine. Is this not a recipe for an Israeli-Palestinian landscape of despair? With truth, justice and peace sullied with impunity, all hope is being squelched out of the peacemakers’ animus. Soon, the landscape of despair could well suck in even more parties and create further animosity and havoc in the region.

My final thought is this. Sister Joan D Chittister, the Benedictine nun and public lecturer, commented wryly in The Monastic Way that “vision is not the ability to predict the future, but the foresight to create the future.” Above all, we need to understand this.


© Harry Hagopian is Ecumenical, Legal & Political Consultant to the Armenian Church in the UK. Former Executive Director of the Middle East Council of Churches and a recognised regional expert, Dr Hagopian is a coordinator of the Holy Land Christian Ecumenical Foundation (HCEF) and a lobbyist for recognition of the Armenan genocide. His website is: http://www.epektasis.net/

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