Israel & Palestine: A Way Out?

In a 2002 Le Monde Diplomatique article titled “Constructing Catastrophe,” Israeli journalist Amon Kapeliouk challenged one of the central myths about the ongoing conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. To wit: that Palestinian President Yasir Arafat was offered a great deal at the Camp David talks in July 2000, but turned it down and launched Intifada II.

The Camp David Myth

What is so damaging about the Camp David myth is that it perpetuates the fable that the Palestinian side of the peace equation is unreliable. It is at the core of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s argument that Israel has “no partner for peace,” and Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz’s comment that Israel “will have to wait for the next generation [of Palestinian leaders] for a peace agreement.”

The “no partner” myth is the rationale behind the unilateralism the Sharon government has practiced over the past four years on everything from building the wall to withdrawing from Gaza. It will also be at the center of the upcoming Israeli elections in March, which will go a long way toward determining whether there will be a peace agreement or another generation of war and reprisal.

According to Kapeliouk, the Palestinians were wary about Camp David because Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak refused to lay out a pre-talk proposal. But because the Palestinians were also worried that if they refused to sign on, Barak and President Bill Clinton would paint them as obstructionists, they agreed to the negotiations.

Sure enough, when the Palestinians got to Camp David they were handed an offer they could only refuse: Israeli sovereignty over the Haram al Sharif, Islam’s third holiest site; continued Israeli presence in the West Bank; no sharing of Jerusalem; and no plan for the 3.1 million Palestinian refugees. To top it off, Barak insisted nothing be written down.

The Palestinians countered with a proposal to give up 9% of the West Bank, agree to Israeli sovereignty over settlements in East Jerusalem, and to find a solution to the refugee issue that “would not threaten Israeli demographic and security interests.”

The Palestinians also wanted this in document form because they felt that by not insisting on specific language concerning the settlements they had been burned in the 1993 Oslo Accords. At the time, the Palestinians assumed Oslo meant the settlements would be frozen until a final agreement was worked out. Instead, Israel doubled the settler population and built more than 40 new ones.

The U.S.-Israeli response was “take it or leave it.” Arafat said no and for most Israelis and virtually all Americans (Europeans and the rest of the world never thought the Camp David proposals were fair) the Palestinians got tagged as the bad guys.

The No Partner Myth

Sharon and his new Kadima Party will run on this “bad guy/no partner” myth, particularly since Hamas did so well in the last round of Palestinian elections. His only serious opposition—Amir Peretz, the newly elected head of the Labor Party—will have to confront this myth.

If there is anyone who has the credentials to do this, it is Peretz.

He was one of the so-called “Eight,” the members of the Knesset who called for full withdrawal from the territories and a two-state solution back in 1988. He is also a long-time member of Peace Now. He told LaborStart last June, “I see the occupation as an immoral act,” and that the issue is “not a territorial question but one of morality,” adding, “when a nation rules for 38 years over another people, moral norms become twisted.”

However, it appears that Labor will try to avoid getting into a slugging match with Sharon over security by focusing on a platform of “It’s the economy, stupid!”

Yuri Tamir, a Labor Party politician close to Peretz, says the fight with Sharon is “not about policy toward the Palestinians—on which we largely agree—but about economic policy.”

However, with the occupation costing $1.4 billion a year (not counting building the wall) there is simply no way to separate those issues. As former Knesset member Uri Avnery points out, the two are intertwined and Labor must link the growing economic inequities in Israel to the occupation: “Peace equals reducing the gap,” he argues.

So far, Peretz supports Labor’s basic positions on the territories: keep the major settlements in the West Bank, deny Palestinians full sovereignty in economic, diplomatic, and military affairs, and maintain control of a united Jerusalem. He also supports the wall, which is slowing strangling the possibility of a viable Palestinian state.

Unlike Sharon, however, he promises to negotiate with the Palestinians.

Labor’s current proposals will not lead to peace. Support for the wall, for instance, is incompatible with a just settlement. “To talk about replacing direct occupation with a form of life imprisonment is not, after all, to talk about peace,” says University of Haifa professor Ilan Pappe, in the London Review of Books. Pappe is the author of A History of Modern Palestine and The Modern Middle East.

The Settlements and a Political Settlement

The settlements, and the network of roads and tunnels that service them, turn living in the West Bank into a nightmare. Gerald Kaufman, a member of the British Parliament who recently led a Parliamentary delegation to the West Bank , told the Guardian that there are 600 fixed checkpoints, plus hundreds of “flying checkpoints,” which “make free movement almost impossible.” He concluded that the “motivations of this policy is to make the lives of Palestinians so intolerable that they get out.”

A recent European Union (EU) report came to very similar conclusions, drawing special attention to what it called the “annexation” of East Jerusalem in “violation of international law.”

East Jerusalem produces more than three times the GDP per capita as the rest of the West Bank, and is what the EU report calls the “political, commercial, and infrastructural center of Palestinian life.” As chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat says, “Without the economic engine of East Jerusalem as its capital, there can be no viable Palestinian state,” adding, “Without a viable Palestinian state there can be no viable peace.”

A recent poll by Yedioth Ahronoth indicates Israelis are evenly split about giving up parts of Arab East Jerusalem.

Peretz’s election to head Labor has already driven the national dialogue to the left. No other major politician uses the words “occupation” and “morality” in the same sentence. He has also turned a spotlight on the neoliberal economic policies of former Economic Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Even the right-wing Shas Party has started to talk about the “gap,” and has suddenly decided that giving up land for peace is not a bad idea.

As the Labor Party’s first Sephardic leader, Peretz will directly challenge the lock Likud and Shas have had on this population of poor and marginalized Israelis. As the leader of Histadrut , Israel’s trade union organization, he has campaigned for raising the minimum wage, guaranteeing trade union rights, and resisting the wave of privatization that has impoverished a growing number of Israelis. He also initiated a series of meetings with the Histadrut’s counterpart, the Palestinian General Federation of Trade Unions.

Peretz says he wants to address the “strange situation” in Israel, “in which the lower classes and the working class tend to support the parties of the right, and the upper class tends to support the Left.” He says this not only prevents the Left from winning elections, “it has also caused the concept of peace to become an elitist product which is identified with factory owners and not factory workers.”

It has been a long time since Labor has used this kind of language, and it has stirred hope among peace activists. Even a critic like Pappas says, “A cool-headed assessment of Peretz’s politics should not preclude the kind of hope that attended Yitzhak Rabin’s second term as prime minister, when he joined the peace camp, despite his previous brutal policies in the Occupied Territories .”

At the same time, Pappas warns that unless there is a willingness to negotiate seriously with the Palestinians, Israel can expect “strong international pressure, of the kind that was directed against apartheid in South Africa in the form of sanctions, boycotts, and disinvestments.”

Such a campaign is already underway among a number of churches in the United States and Europe, and the EU recently proposed scaling back support for infrastructure work like roads and rail lines in the West Bank. The organization is also contemplating giving legal help to stop the demolition of Palestinian houses and to meet with Palestinian leaders in East Jerusalem rather than Ramallah.

There is much at stake in the upcoming election, for both Israelis and Palestinians. Polls predict a Sharon victory, but he is not in the best of health, and the election is still three months away. According to Avnery, Peretz must seize this opportunity to take the issue of peace head-on. “After so many sacrifices of blood and money,” he argues, “the public may be ripe for this.”

Conn Hallinan is a foreign policy analyst for Foreign Policy In Focus (online at www.fpif.org) and a lecturer in journalism at the University of California, Santa Cruz.