Peace in the Middle East: Changing prospects
The countries experiencing turmoil in this effort may yet face disappointments and delays on their course, but they have set their faces to an assertion of their rights and the distinctiveness of their cultures that will not fail in the end.
Most immediately, though, these events affect the Israeli-Palestinian situation. They are not the only elements, but others may relate closely to them. The reconciliation between Fattah and Hamas, even if there are fragile aspects to it, carries the greatest promise for ending the long occupation and making genuine peace possible between a Palestinian and an Israeli state. The movement to obtain recognition from the United Nations of a Palestinian state, important as it is, will likely be a political disappointment. It could have overwhelming support in the General Assembly but will be opposed by the United States and Israel. American backing of Israel, defying such measures by the world community is along standing practice. But as Michael Sfard, the Palestinians' good Jewish lawyer, points out, the legal consequences could be of great significance, making the new Palestinian state the real arbiter, recognized by the world community, of how international law affects their situation.
The death of Osama Bin Laden opens new insight into the entire Middle Eastern picture. Never accepted by Hamas as representative of anything to do with Palestinians, the demise of its leader reveals Al-Qaeda as no longer very relevant to Palestinian or Arab or Muslim aspirations. We may expect acts of revenge from the remaining followers, but that kind of rejectionism is not now people's real focus, but rather the creation of new freedoms in their societies.
The Israeli government of Netanyahu, Lieberman and Yishai, as hard of heart as was ever Al-Qaeda, continues in its own total rejectionism. The Israeli prime minister gives false advice when he now says Fatah must choose between peace with Israel and peace with Hamas. Their choice with regard to Israel must indeed be peace, but on the basis of ending the occupation. Leadership from both sides of this Palestinian divide, Hamas and Fatah, have now recognized the devastating effect of their needless feud. For lack of any serious help from outside, this task of internal reconciliation becomes imperative. It was encouraging to hear the statement from within the entourage of President Abbas that he would be willing to forego any American financial aid that might be withdrawn if he reconciled with Hamas.
It is time, therefore, for a carefully calculated policy by Palestinians. They must have learned, by now, that efforts at negotiating with the Netanyahu government are a wild goose chase, that there is no good will to be found there. The taxes that Israel collects and deposits in the Palestinian "government" accounts -- those have been cut off. Israel said last week that no more of the Palestinian portions of taxes collected would be paid -- in retaliation for this "fusion" of Fatah and Hamas.
We have had, meanwhile, the unedifying spectacle of Netanyahu and Obama racing one another to put before the American Congress what they feel it safe to propose about Middle East peace. As soon as Obama announced his intention of addressing the subject anew, the congressional Republicans issued their invitation to the Israeli prime minister to address the joint houses of Congress first. What seriousness can be attached to this maneuver? Clearly enough the Republican spoilers want simply to transform Middle East peace into a wedge issue, a political football that they can kick around with impunity and no commitment until next year's November election. It is a sideshow.
Yet some of the sanest voices in Israel say this is the time for Israel to make a just peace with the Palestinians. A significant group of Israelis, former heads of intelligence agencies, and a distinguished group of Israeli intellectuals, including many winners of the prestigious Israel Prize, has now come out with serious peace proposals, in terms very new to them. Their proposals, still hedged with many cautions, contain many elements of the 2002 Arab Peace Plan. Also the peace constituency among the American Jewish community is increasing The recent visit of this group which met with President Abbas under the J Street aegis affirms this. Timid as all these offer are, they should not be ignored.
This group has to win a wider Israeli public to its side, at a time when that public, a people from whom, by reason of their Jewishness, one should always expect generous response to the sufferings of others, has been demagogued into irrational panic by Netanyahu and others of his ilk. The occasion of their public announcement, at a rally in Rabin Square, gave striking evidence of what courage it takes for Israelis to say such things, as they were heckled by strident voices calling them "traitors" and "Jewish Nazis" even as they spoke, but stood witness to their convictions all the same.
Let's hope that the Israelis as a people are not as blind even to their own welfare as their government, and those new thoughts from the responsible heads among them give evidence of that.
We had then just seen the violence level rise alarmingly over previous weeks, both Israeli killing raids into the Gaza Strip and West Bank and the launching of rockets from Gaza into southern Israel, two of those missiles of greater range than the relatively puny Qassam rockets. The killing of a Palestinian is hardly news in Israel or the Western countries but that of an Israeli always has enormous impact. For that reason the bombing at the Jerusalem Central Bus Terminal and the murder of five members of an Israeli family in Itamar were of policy-changing import.
The Palestinians since then have made great efforts to draw back from the brink, offering to renew the cease-fire they have largely kept over the last two years, but Israel's government appears determined to provoke new Palestinian violence, put the Palestinian people in the wrong and give excuse for a new "Cast Lead"-style assault with even deadlier effect. The backing and filling over the Goldstone Report about the last such adventure makes such an attack all the more likely.
The murder in Gaza of Italian peace activist Vittorio Arrigoni embarrassed Hamas, showing its leadership unable to prevent outrage in the territory it controls, but paradoxically it also demonstrated to the Israeli public that such peace activities as Arrigoni's, on behalf of Palestinians, are genuine and admirable, deserving of their sympathy and respect. Such a response from the Israeli public had not been seen since the time of the First Intifada, when the nonviolent but determined activism of young Palestinians, with nothing more than stones, facing bullets and the breaking of their bones won their active sympathy.
Where does that leave the Palestinians? Utterly unable to rely on the word of Israeli government, unable to expect any real help from a sympathetic American government, which is sympathetic but in a state of paralysis that will last at least until its own next election and which disempowers efforts by Europeans to mediate, the Palestinians are left to their own resources. These are considerable, but have not been seriously mobilized. The lack of a united effort by Fatah and Hamas has until now remained massively disabling, as it has been for as long as their needless feud has lasted. That feud served only the interests of their enemies, who of course have worked assiduously to keep it in being.
Hitherto these Arab countries have been under the control of autocratic regimes, shamelessly fostered by American power, which have been content to cooperate with Israel in holding the Palestinians under water. Egypt, of course, is the key power. It isn't entirely clear what the new Egyptian government's foreign policies are as this is an interim government before elections are held. It would be interesting to see in the future how confident Egypt will be in standing up to US on the Palestinian /Israel issue.
It must be noted that it has always been a convenience for those Israelis intent on maintaining the occupation, when Palestinians have persisted in violent actions that discredited them and their cause in the eyes of the world. Responsible heads in Fatah and in Hamas know that now, and it is this that has convinced the old hands in the Israeli intelligence fraternity that the time for occupation is running out. The Palestinians themselves, if they make the most of their power in a united and disciplined campaign of noncooperation with any aspect of the occupation, would be quite irresistible for the Israelis. Who can contain a people determined to be free who know how to use their true power -- that of nonviolent peaceful resistance. Unity among Palestinians would be worth immeasurably much more than anything poured from the American bounty. The reconciliation represents an unambiguous failure of Israel's long-standing policy of "divide and rule."
The US cannot claim to champion the cause of democracy in other parts of the Middle East and look away from the Palestinian claim of statehood. It is morally obliged not only to see that Israel is secure within its borders, but that Palestinians also must have their own state within the borders defined by agreed upon international laws and conventions. Unless the administration comes out unambiguously to spell this out, Prime Minister Netanyahu's meeting with President Barack Obama will only be window dressing in preparation for the forthcoming presidential election next year.
Fr. Raymond G. Helmick, S.J. is instructor in conflict resolution, Department of Theology, Boston College. Dr. Nazir Khaja is a Peace Activist & Chairman of Islamic Information Service, Los Angeles.