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Perpetual Peace or Perennial Process?: Perspectives on Sharon’s Gaza Plan and Other Recent Developments

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Not only is it prudent politics for Middle East peace organizations to speak out on these other contemporary issues, it is also the right thing to do. As stated by Martin Luther King, "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere."

Matt Weiss

Issue #70, October 2004

Numerous clichés have been bandied about in recent years about the frozen Middle East peace process. "The Israeli-Palestinian conflict resumed after the collapse of American-sponsored peace talks four years ago at Camp David." "The road map is in tatters." "Each side is trapped in a relentless cycle of violence." "The Palestinians have failed to live up to their obligations under the road map, including dismantling terrorist organizations and establishing democratic institutions." "Sharon has confronted his own Likud Party about the necessity of a planned Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip by the end of 2005."

At best, these hackneyed phrases suggest that Israelis and Palestinians are equally responsible for the perpetuation of violent conflict and concomitantly, each side holds the keys to the solution. At worst, they convey a biased view that Israel under Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has brought its rejectionists under control whereas the Palestinians have not even made the feeblest attempt to take decisive action against their own extremists.

Another school of thought is guilty of elevating the process of peace over the substance, as embodied by the "the road map is in tatters" viewpoint. No formula such as that expressed by the Oslo Accords, the Road Map, the Tenet Plan and the Mitchell Plan can substitute for clear-headed and incisive analysis about the root causes of the conflict. The root cause of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict is Israel's thirty-seven year occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Period. One could point to a provocative incident here and there by either side that may have intensified the hostilities, but this would only explain why the conflict was made worse at a particular point in time, not why it started in the first place. A better analysis of the causes of the conflict will lead to a firmer understanding of what kind of actions are required to move towards a resolution. As a corollary of this, it will become evident that the Sharon disengagement plan and other recent proposals will not conduce to a just and durable peace, nor even lead to a temporary subsidence in violence, because they still leave the infrastructure of occupation firmly in place.

The Sharon disengagement plan, which advocates a unilateral withdrawal of Israeli forces and settlers from the Gaza Strip and four Northern West Bank settlements by the end of 2005, will ostensibly lead to a diminution of the Israel presence in Palestinian territories. As such, the Sharon initiative is being hailed by the Bush Administration as proof positive of Bush's earlier assertion that Sharon is a man of peace. However, far from leading to a retrenchment of the occupation, the initiative, if implemented (far from assured), will trade the withdrawal of a minimal Israeli Jewish presence in Gaza for the consolidation of a much more substantial structure of control in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. The planned move in Gaza will affect only 7000 Jewish settlers, or a mere two percent of the overall settler population in the Occupied Territories. The other 98 percent of the settlers will remain in the West Bank, and Israel will expand its real estate by appropriating more land from the Palestinians and building new housing units for the settlers. Of even greater significance is the fact that Israel is on the verge of connecting the Ma'ale Adumim settlement bloc with the fringes of East Jerusalem. This move will allow Israel to create another new "fact on the ground", an enlarged capital, and will in turn, exponentially strengthen her hand in future final status negotiations on the fate of Jerusalem.

Sharon's Gaza move should also be viewed against the backdrop of recent American guarantees and his traditional orientation towards settlements. While the Bush Administration has at times equivocated in its position statements about the construction of new settlements, it has not backtracked on its recent statement that Israel should not be expected to withdraw completely to its pre-1967 borders. Therefore, Bush's declared support for the Gaza initiative appears to be a tacit endorsement of Sharon's desire to trade a small sliver of control in Gaza for a vast fiefdom in the much more arable and strategically important (not to mention, biblically significant) West Bank. Sharon receives added impetus from the fact that the U.S. no longer calls Jewish-only settlements in the Occupied Territories illegal, as was customary during the Carter Administration, but now merely refers them to as "unhelpful" to the peace process.

While the United States claims to be the honest broker between the Israelis and the Palestinians, it is content for now to be Israel's errand boy, a veritable transmission belt for the latest American military hardware to the tune of $3 billion a year. However, the United States must balance its strategically motivated and perhaps inveterate support for Israel vs. its need to placate international opinion and thus demonstrate at least rhetorical concern for Palestinian rights and statehood. The predictable result is tenuous compromise positions. "Israel may maintain existing settlements, but must impose a freeze on new construction, even to accommodate 'natural growth." "Israel can maintain large settlement blocs in a final peace deal, but a Palestinian state must be viable and contiguous." Never mind the fact that those very settlement blocs are the main obstacle to the formation of a Palestinian state characterized by territorial contiguity.

Another critical factor that casts doubt on any claim that Sharon is prepared to make "painful concessions" is Sharon's central role in the settlement enterprise from the outset. In the 1970s and 1980s, Sharon used his position as the head of various Israeli ministries, including the Ministry of Agriculture, to create a dense web of settlements and bypass roads deep into Palestinian territory in the West Bank. He was motivated by the desire to create irreversible "facts on the ground", that is, a formidable superstructure of Israeli territorial control that would be difficult, if not impossible, to parcel out to the Palestinians as discrete concessions in future negotiations. As a result of his unswerving devotion to the thickening of the Jewish presence in the West Bank, Sharon became the darling of Gush Emmunim and the Zionist right, who were confident that Sharon would champion their cause (i.e. the redemption of the biblical land in its entirety) in the halls of Israeli officialdom.

Sharon is not a pure ideologue, though, and has at times, chosen the route of pragmatic politics in order to salvage his future career. For instance, Sharon oversaw the dismantling of settlements in Yamit in Northern Sinai in 1982 in fulfillment of Israel's obligations to Egypt under the Camp David Accords. In addition, Sharon is a secular politician, not a fundamentalist, as his attachment to the West Bank derives from his security views and not obscure biblical injunctions regarding the indivisibility of the Land of Israel. He is also driven by a profound aversion to Palestinian President Yasir Arafat and a deep-seated distrust of Palestinian national aspirations if not Palestinians themselves. At the core, though, even Sharon and Israel's other rightist politicians are chameleons, adjusting and tinkering with their positions in response to the exigencies of the international environment or more specifically, the views of their American patron.

However, despite the responsibility that accompanies his position as Prime Minister and a pragmatic streak that asserts itself every now and then, Sharon is unlikely to turn his back any time soon on the West Bank settlements whose development he heavily underwrote. Many statements that have been made in recent years do not suggest that Sharon the arch-hawk is metamorphisizing into Sharon the great-statesmen. For instance, in order to head off territorial concessions that Sharon feared Israel would be compelled to make as part of the Oslo peace process, he urged settlers in 1998 (prior to his term as Prime Minister) to grab as many hilltops in the West Bank as possible. Even during his tenure as Prime Minister, Sharon has likened Gush Khatif in Occupied Gaza to Tel Aviv, claiming that both are essential to Israel's existence as a secure state. The cumulative evidence suggests that Sharon has not turned his back on his brainchild, the settlements, and that instead the Gaza withdrawal plan is merely a tactical compromise being made to advance the larger goal of the strategic consolidation of Israeli control of the West Bank.

Sharon's Gaza withdrawal plan cannot be viewed in isolation of the developments surrounding the Wall either. In fact, the Gaza withdrawal, with its implicit arrangements for the strengthening of the Jewish presence in the West Bank, is coterminous with the construction of the Wall. Although ostensibly constructed to safeguard Israel against the depredations of would-be Palestinian suicide bombers, the vast network of wall, razor wire, trenches and guard towers is the most ambitious plan developed yet to confiscate large tracts of Palestinian land and place them under effective Israeli control. The humanitarian effects of the wall on the Palestinians are real and severe. At least 400,000 Palestinians live within one kilometer of the route of the wall, many of whom either have been or will be separated from their farmland, family, schools and work sites, to the great detriment of their lives and livelihoods.

Much hype has been made recently about the Israeli Supreme Court's decision ordering that soon-to-be completed sections of the Wall be re-routed to ease the hardships on the Palestinian population affected by the Wall's construction. True, the Supreme Court made a principled decision. However, the impact of the ruling in terms of alleviating the burdens of thousands of Palestinians and forcing Israel's compliance with international law is bound to be minimal. Even after the court ruling, only 15 percent of the remaining sections of the Wall will lie within the Green Line, Israel's internationally recognized border. The vast majority of the Wall will still jut deep into the West Bank, fragmenting Palestinian populated territory and irreversibly atomizing many Palestinian communities into isolated enclaves. Furthermore, the ruling does not apply to segments of the wall that have already been completed. For instance, the Wall will not reverse the fact that the town of Qalqilya is surrounded on three sides. Although a step in the right direction, the ruling does not appreciably arrest the trend towards the increasing ghettoization of large tracts of the Northern West Bank.

In essence, the Wall is fully consonant with Sharon's oft-repeated "vision" for a Palestinian state in a mere 40 percent of the West Bank. It is also comparable with the Apartheid reality of Bantustans, in which the white South African government sought to rid itself of responsibility for the welfare of as large a percentage of the black South African population as possible, while simultaneously maximizing its control of their land. In many respects, Sharon's plan is only a more extreme version of the frameworks espoused in the past by several prominent politicians of the opposition Labor Party, including Allon and former Prime Minister Ehud Barak. What these plans share in common is the aim of reserving the vast majority of the productive land for the Israeli Jews, and relegating the Palestinians to a poor, dependent mini-state in a fraction of its original homeland. However, the Wall arguably poses an even greater threat to a viable Palestinian existence than the settlements due to its sheer size and the breadth and depth of its effects on Palestinian economic fortunes. Coupled with the fact that Sharon has not evinced any interest in renewed negotiations with the Palestinians, the Wall and related developments do not bode well for Palestinian welfare and by extension, Israeli-Palestinian co-existence in the near future.

Given the realities of power politics, it may appear at first blush that there is little that progressive activists can do who envision self-determination and prosperity for both Israelis and Palestinians. Clearly, the occupation will remain in force until the United States as Israel's chief sponsor puts its foot down and stops paying the tab. However, in addition to the heroic efforts of many grassroots organizations, Palestinian, Israeli and international, that employ non-violent direct actions in their struggle against the Occupation, many effective actions can be undertaken within the confines of the American political game. Many pro-peace and justice organizations have come to appreciate the necessity and efficacy of lobbying and pressure politics.

For instance, the U.S. Campaign to End the Occupation has organized intense grassroots lobbying efforts that involve placing members in contact with Congress people and Senators to urge votes against pending resolutions that exhibit overt bias towards Israel by elevating Israel's security needs (often exaggerated) over Palestinian national rights and aspirations. The Campaign has even developed a Congressional scorecard akin to those used by opposition lobbying groups such as AIPAC.

In another example, The Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) has waged an arduous but resolute campaign to educate the Caterpillar Corporation about the numerous violations of human rights and international law caused by its sale of bulldozers to the Israeli military. Israel has employed these modified behemoth bulldozers to destroy thousands of Palestinian homes as a means of collective punishment in numerous military offensives. In order to convey its principled message, JVP coordinated the submission of a resolution with Caterpillar shareholders Sisters of Loretto and the Mercy Investment Program at Caterpillar's Annual Shareholders Meeting in Chicago this year. Via introduction of the resolution and a multi-pronged campaign involving tactics as diverse as demonstrations and press releases, both groups have sought to hold Caterpillar's feet to the fire and induce its compliance with its own Code of Worldwide Business Conduct. Although the JVP-sponsored resolution was not adopted in a subsequent vote, it garnered the support necessary to permit its re-introduction at next year's Caterpillar gathering. JVP's Caterpillar Campaign represents an effective mix of an 'insider' strategy and old-fashioned 'outsider' protest politics.

Effectively lobbying or advocating for a cause requires a determined, sustained effort and the right mix of praise and criticism. When politicians respond favorably or vote wisely, they must be positively reinforced and thanked for their vote, whereas when they vote against the wishes of the advocacy group, they must be criticized constructively. The U.S. Campaign to End the Occupation has been following this very strategy, encouraging members to maintain a constant dialogue with their Congressional representatives, irrespective of their voting record, and promoting cordiality and constructive dialogue above all else. Also, to fend off charges of anti-Semitism (however absurd) by supporters of Israel's right wing government, Middle East peace and justice groups must at least occasionally speak out against injustices committed elsewhere, in the Middle East and beyond, even when their primary mission is peace with justice in Israel/Palestine. Examples of injustices that deserve the loudest and broadest condemnation include the atrocities committed by the Sudanese government-sponsored Janjaweed militia in Darfur province, and the repressive measures that many of Israel's Arab neighbors apply towards Palestinian refugees within their borders.

Not only is it prudent politics for Middle East peace organizations to speak out on these other contemporary issues, it is also the right thing to do. As stated by Martin Luther King, "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere." Justice also involves an unswerving commitment to the truth, even when it means taking on popular peace initiatives and the conventional wisdom of the American media establishment. This means that above all, advocates of a just, durable and comprehensive peace in the Middle East must emphasize that substantial progress on the road to peace can only be made by an end to Israeli occupation, in all of its forms, methods and guises. Half-hearted, partial initiatives such as the unilateral Sharon disengagement plan that elevate rhetoric over action, and process over substance, will simply not suffice.

Matt Weiss is a contributor to Bad Subjects.

Copyright © 2004 by Matt Weiss. All rights reserved.

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