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Aborting Middle East Peace

The recent uprising within Israel and the occupied territories represents an Israeli nightmare coming true. An entire set of political relations that have emerged over the past decade are breaking down.

Joe Lockard and Joel Schalit

Sunday, October 8 2000, 12:42 AM

The recent uprising within Israel and the occupied territories represents an Israeli nightmare coming true. An entire set of political relations that have emerged over the past decade are breaking down.

In the Arab world-at-large, the 'Al-Aksa intifada' is more than just a protest about the inability of the Palestinian people to actualize their recognized national aspirations. It is about what a post-war Middle East will look like. Will an Israeli hegemony dominate the entire region, subjecting its neighbors to the same second-class treatment that it accords its own Arab citizens? The Oslo process appears to many regional neighbors to have become a means of reinforcing the status quo ante, not changing it into terms of equality. And coming behind those who wish to live in peace with Israel but genuinely question the terms of peace are the xenophobes of the Arab world who were never ready for that future to begin with. The fragile web of diplomatic and commercial relations between Israel and its Arab neighbors is straining to near-destruction.

In the occupied territories, the old rage against Israel's imperial power remains. Outraged that the Oslo process has not cleared the West Bank and Gaza of settlements and occupation troops, Palestinians attempt to swarm over that hated colonial presence. Israel, lacking an alternative beyond abandonment of the settlements, sends its forces to protect this national-religious archipelago and its connector roads. Some settlements, like Netzarim in Gaza where resupply has been by airlift for the past week, are no more than heavily fortified military outposts with a few families in underground shelters.

In Israel proper, the consequences of provocation atop stalemate are now as evident as in the territories. When violent demonstrations overwhelmed Umm al-Fahm and Nazareth, the targets for destruction were Israeli public institutions and chain stores. Banks and post offices burned as a measure of Arab alienation from Israel's constitutional polity. Large sections of the country were literally cut off due to violence at road intersections. There has never been such widespread internal violence in Israel since the country was established over fifty years ago. Arab citizens are tired of being consistently denied the same rights, the same opportunities, and the same public sector investment that Jewish citizens have always been accorded. With a population of just over million, Israeli Arabs could bring either a new democratic energy or unleash a profoundly destructive social anger.

Faced with an historic juncture, Israel is led by a Barak government that has over-lived its political life. Knowing that it has probably only weeks before the next no-confidence vote succeeds, the government is in no mood to do immediately what it or another government will do eventually: evacuate most of the settlements. Gush Emunim's misbegotten project to re-conquer the Greater Land of Israel by covering expropriated hills with caravans and new villas remains as an obstacle to peace. Despite Barak's infrequent eviction of settlers from Palestinian lands, his efforts have been weak and unconvincing. With new elections looming, Barak does not wish to be seen as soft and fold against a new Palestinian intifada. Instead of urgently confronting an obvious necessity -- an end to Israel's occupation -- Barak warns instead that there can be no further peace talks until Palestinians cease their demonstrations.

The 1995 Israeli-Palestinian Interim Agreement, which obligates all sides to act to prevent violence, has been left in shreds. There is no real peace process left today. It will have to be reinvented. The prolonged delays in realizing Palestinian national rights have substantially contributed to the destruction of the incipient peace process.

Israeli politics are in the midst of reinvention too. The desperate rear-guard political battle being fought by the Israeli right-wing to vitiate or abort the nascent State of Palestine has recovered from its last electoral setback and has gained new strength. It is incumbent upon progressive Israeli leaders and the government that follows Barak's collapsed One Israel coalition to show the requisite courage to overcome such objections and arrive at an equitable final settlement. A fifth full-scale Arab-Israeli war looms if there is political failure.

With his provocation in visiting the Al-Aksa/Temple Mount compound, Ariel Sharon has added another chapter to his decades-long history of bloodiness, first internationally recognized when he directed Israel's army to invade Lebanon in 1982. Sharon should be answering questions at the dock of a war crimes tribunal at the Hague, not giving interviews piously protesting his patently insincere desire for peace. Sharon is the kind of man who cannot live without war.

The Barak government, knowing full well the outrage and likely violence that would result from Sharon's parade across an Islamic shrine, enabled it with a thousand-man armed escort instead of preventing that political demonstration. Previous governments have acted to prevent similar demonstrative tours. This failure of common sense has cost over seventy lives so far, with the death toll climbing every day. Sharon may have helped save Israel from Egypt's military might in 1973, but twenty-seven years later he finds himself in the reverse position by cultivating its potential for self-destruction.

A rapid polarization has altered both Israeli and Palestinian politics over the past week. Barak forces have made public overtures to the Likud for a national unity government, while Arafat has released Hamas prisoners as a statement of Palestinian solidarity. There is no knowing what will happen in the coming days, but it is safe to say that the history now will be made by uncontrolled street clashes and their bloody consequences, not by leaders meeting in Paris.

The bitter fruits of theo-colonialism have long been obvious within Israeli society and are now manifesting themselves with new violence. A fearful symmetry holds: denial of Palestinian national rights threatens Jewish national rights in Israel. Denial of equal rights to Israeli Arabs threatens the internal fabric of the nation.

As Ami Ayalon, former head of the Israeli domestic security service Shin Bet, observed "We lost the last intifada and we will lose the next one." If the politics of mini-empire fail and settlements of biblical Judea and Samaria are evacuated, then the effect on France of post-Algerian pieds noirs will be minor in comparison to the effect on an embittered and frustrated Gush Emunim. If Israel adopts a politics of counter-intifada reaction and uses its undoubted military power against Palestinian demonstrators, then blood will flow in the streets without saving the settlements and occupation from ultimate dismemberment. Either way, Israel faces only a choice between disasters. Either way, the Palestinian people will realize their equal right to self-determination and statehood.

Joe Lockard and Joel Schalit are Bad Subjects editors.

Copyright © 2000 by Joe Lockard and Joel Schalit. All rights reserved.