American Muslims and Arabs have met the recent initiation of "final status" talks in Middle East peace negotiations with a preponderance of skepticism. At a time when Palestinian and Israeli negotiators and American policymakers are speaking with unabashed confidence that a solution can be reached, members of the American Muslim and Arab communities are much less optimistic that any real progress can be made.
Dr. Edward Said, the pre-eminent Palestinian-American scholar and ardent critic of the current peace process, recently spoke at a Los Angeles area award banquet held in his honor by the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC). He received thunderous applause from the audience of over 600 for his comments that the current negotiations will result in a "zero deal" for Palestinians, and he encouraged American Muslims and Arabs to speak loudly against what he described as the proposed "Bantustanization" of Palestine.
Why are American Muslims and Arabs unwilling to jump onto the "peace train?" There are several reasons, according to leaders of major American Muslim and Arab organizations. Omar Ahmed, President of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), a Washington, D.C.-based Muslim advocacy group, bluntly states, "I do not believe this peace process is real. It is a security arrangement in which the stronger party (Israel), backed by the U.S., is getting the most and the weaker party (Palestinians) are forced to accept whatever is thrown at them." This concern was echoed by Khalid Turaani, Executive Director of the
Washington, D.C.-based American Muslims for Jerusalem (AMJ), who notes that "a very obvious asymmetry of power exists between the two parties." Salam Al-Marayati, Executive Director of the Los Angeles and Washington, D.C.-based Muslim Public Affairs Council, adds that the "current state of affairs on the ground is not conducive to a normalization of relations between Palestinians and Israelis, much like the status of the peace between Egypt and Israel."
On one end of the negotiating table is the militarily, economically, and politically more powerful Israel, with the unflinching support of the United States. On the other end is the weaker Palestinian Authority, led by an increasingly out-of-touch and dictatorial Yasser Arafat, and without unified backing from the Arab world. This disparity between the negotiating parties can only result in a settlement that will fall far short of meeting legitimate Palestinian claims; thus the "zero deal" described by Edward Said. This asymmetry in power was recently demonstrated when Israel submitted to the Palestinians, maps of areas from which it was to withdraw on November 15. The Palestinian negotiators rejected the maps, noting that the areas involved were sparsely populated and not contiguous with other Palestinian areas. Israel, in an unabashed demonstration of the lopsided power balance that exists, insists that the Palestinians have absolutely no say whatsoever in determining which land will be transferred. Hence, the Palestinians are reduced to the status of powerless observers, practically panhandling for crumbs to form their "state."
Another major concern of American Muslims and Arabs revolves around the notion that the Palestinian and Israeli versions of the future Palestinian "entity" (a term favored by Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak) are so different that no amount of compromising could result in something palatable to the Palestinian majority. The proposed Palestinian state, as envisioned by many Palestinians and their supporters, would be free, sovereign and democratic, with defined borders and contiguous territory. Palestinians would have complete control over their own roads, borders, airports, seaports, economy and resources, the most important of which is water. Palestine would be free of illegal Israeli settlements and the unavoidable Israeli troops that must guard them. Jerusalem would be its capital. The estimated 4 to 5 million Palestinian refugees and their descendants would be allowed to return and make their homes in Palestine, or opt for compensation from the Israeli government instead.
The Palestinian "entity," as envisioned by Israel, would consist of scattered pieces of land, isolated from one another by crisscrossing highways and "bypass roads," surrounded by fortress-like Israeli settlements occupying strategic hilltops. Israel would continue to retain jurisdiction over security in these areas. Palestinians would be forced to pass through numerous checkpoints and roadblocks to travel from one part of their "state" to another. Israel would maintain control over natural resources (including water) as well as have ultimate control over who and what can cross the borders, or enter or depart at airports or seaports. The "capital" would be either the West Bank town of Ramallah or a small town on the outskirts of Jerusalem. Palestinian refugees would not be allowed to return to their homeland, nor would they receive monetary compensation for their forceful displacement during the wars of 1948 and 1967.
AMJ's Khalid Turaani summarizes widely held sentiments in the American Muslim community by noting that "after fifty years of struggle, the Palestinian dream has been reduced to a caricature of a state that does not genuinely address the aspirations of the Palestinian people." American Muslims and Arabs have for years striven for a just and lasting resolution to the Palestinian problem. Unfortunately, the current "final status" talks fall far short of meeting the legitimate political, economic and human rights of the Palestinians, both those living within their historic homeland and those exiled around the world. The current process is not a "peace train" deserving of American Muslim support, but rather a steamroller under which these Palestinian aspirations are being trampled. As we approach the dawn of a new millenium, the peace being sought in the land holy to Christians, Jews, and Muslims should be a peace based upon principle, not power.