Peace process gone wrong? [Archives:2001/51/Focus]
All hope for the peace process is lost’, stated a liberal Israeli newspaper on 4 December, as Israeli helicopter gunships fired missiles at Palestine Authority targets in the West Bank and Gaza, in retaliation for the Hamas suicide bombings in Jerusalem and Haifa that killed 26 people over the weekend.
With Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon describing the Palestine Authority as an ‘entity that supports terror’ while Israeli helicopters blow up PLO leader Yasser Arafat’s headquarters with Arafat still inside, one British newspaper reckons ‘the peace initiatives are in the past’ and the Middle East is now ‘on the brink of chaos’.
But while the events of this weekend may seem to represent a new blow to the peace process in the Middle East, similar acts have been a recurrent feature of the ‘peace process years’ – and particularly of the past 18 months. On Friday 18 May 2001, Israeli warplanes launched attacks on the West Bank and Gaza in retaliation for a suicide bombing of an Israeli shopping mall. In the week after a ceasefire was declared on 13 June 2001, there were fierce gun battles in Gaza refugee camps, the killing of three Palestinian women by an Israeli tank, and continued attacks by Palestinians on Israeli settlers.
Those who think current events in Israel represent a move into ‘dangerous new territory’ should remember that the peace process in the Middle East has always gone hand in hand with increasing levels of violence.
What we are seeing now is the unravelling of the peace process – exposing the deep-seated problems and contradictions at the heart of the process itself. When it was kickstarted at the end of the 1980s and in the early 1990s, the distinctive feature of the Middle Eastern peace process was that it had very little to do with people on the ground in Israel and Palestine. It was a process implemented and managed by outside powers, in particular the USA.
Like the other US-sponsored peace processes in the early 1990s, the Middle Eastern peace process was a result of a shift in the global political climate. With the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War in the late 1980s, Western powers had a freer hand to intervene in and impose solutions on conflicts around the world. The end of the Soviet Union and the isolation of the left-wing movements internationally put national liberation movements on the defensive. So the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) recognized the state of Israel for the first time in 1988 – an open admission that its struggle was going nowhere fast.
The ‘peace processes’ that resulted from the changing global order were less about resolving conflicts than about stabilizing them – with negotiations and peace deals agreed on the White House’s manicured lawns and in government buildings in Oslo, thousands of miles away from the people affected by the conflict in Israel and the occupied territories. Such cut-and-paste peace deals made in the West were never going to bring peace to war zones like the Middle East.
Rather than resolving the conflict between Israel and Palestine, the peace process has reduced it to its most degraded form. At the same time as the West organized high-level diplomacy meetings in Washington and Oslo, the Palestinian conflict has become increasingly bloody, brutalized and nihilistic. What was once a war of national liberation between the anti-imperialists in the PLO and the US-backed Israelis has been reduced to a tit-for-tat clash where neither side seems to have much politics or principle. Palestinian suicide bombers blow themselves up on crowded buses and in shopping malls, while Israel responds by bulldozing Palestinian homes and blowing up Palestinian police stations.
The new development, following the events of this weekend, is the extent to which both Israeli and Palestinian leaders have attempted to situate their conflict in the context of the West’s war on terrorism.
Israel – which is feeling more isolated and on the defensive than it ever has before – has been selling its retaliatory measures as part of the ‘world’s struggle against terrorism’. In his address to the Israeli nation, Sharon said: ‘Just as the USAhas been acting in its war against world terrorism, using all its might against terror, so we will act.’ Sharon even used dubious mathematics to compare the numbers killed in the suicide bombings in Israel over the weekend with the number of Americans killed on 11 September. As The Times in London reported: ‘The killing of more than 25 Israelis this week, when taken in proportion to the US population, was similar to some 2000 Americans losing their lives, said [Sharon’s] travelling entourage.’ (It should be remembered that, behind the drama of 26 Israelis being killed over the weekend, almost 800 Palestinians have been killed so far this year, compared with about 200 Israelis.)
Some have accused Sharon of cynically namechecking the war on terrorism to justify his assault on Palestinian targets – and no doubt there is an element of that. But it also points to Israel’s inability to justify defending itself on its own terms and in its own interests, instead feeling the need to get some legitimacy by joining the Western powers in their war against terror-in-general.
Yasser Arafat immediately agreed to a ceasefire in the wake of 11 September, has given ‘absolute support’ to the hunt for Osama bin Laden, and even took part in a blood-donating publicity stunt to express his sympathy with the American victims of the terrorist attacks. Following the weekend’s suicide bombings, Arafat has been more than keen to show his commitment to combating terrorism. His immediate response was to declare a state of emergency in Palestinian territories, with his security forces arresting 110 radical Palestinian dissidents – described by the UK Guardian as ‘the first step to satisfying Washington’s demand for a crackdown on militants’.
The events over the weekend and into this week are not the peace process gone wrong. They are a consequence of a peace process imposed by the West that is more about managing the conflict from afar than resolving it from within.