ISRAEL/PALESTINE: Sharm-el-Sheikh

Issue 

Tanya Reinhart, Tel Aviv

The February 8 Sharm-el-Sheikh summit of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud

Abbas has been hailed in the Western media as the opening of a new era.

This is the climax of a wave of optimism that has been generated since the death of Yasser Arafat. In the last four years, the Israeli leadership singled Arafat out as the main obstacle for peace. Adopting the Israeli perspective, the media world believes that his departure would enable a renewal of the peace process.

Judging from the optimistic language of the media, the new era exists not just at the level of declared plans. The praises for Sharon, the feeling of huge progress, would let one almost believe that things have actually changed on the ground — some settlements evacuated, the occupation almost over, cessation of Israeli violence.

But the bitter reality is that nothing has changed. The new "peace plans" are no more real than the previous ones, and on the ground, the Palestinians are losing more of their land and are being pushed into smaller and smaller prison enclaves, surrounded by the new wall that Sharon's government keeps constructing.

Abbas was elected as president of the Palestinian Authority (PA) on January 9, and had served in the role of prime minister already once before, since April 29, 2003. These were the days of another promising "peace plan" — the Road Map. Just as now, the new era was celebrated, in June 2003, in a summit in Aqaba, Jordan, with US President George Bush, Sharon and Abbas.

If we want to know what awaits Abbas on this round, it would be useful to examine what happened in that previous round.

The Road Map era

The Road Map plan has its roots in a speech of Bush in June 2002, in which he outlined a vague two-state solution and called for the Palestinian leadership to be replaced. On July 15, 2002, the foreign ministers of the Quartet — the United States, the European Union, the United Nations and Russia — met to detail the principles of the Road Map formulated in the US State Department under the direction of William Burns.

In October 2002, the first draft of the document was presented to Sharon, on the eve of his meeting with Bush at the White House. Sharon appointed his chief of staff, Dov Weisglass, to coordinate Israel's comments and corrections to the Road Map. On December 20, 2002, the final version of the plan was completed, but Weisglass's team has submitted about 100 correction proposals since then.

Most Israelis understand that there is no way to end the occupation and the conflict without the Israeli army leaving the territories and the dismantlement of settlements. But these basic concepts are not even hinted at in the document, which only mentions freezing the settlements and dismantling new outposts, already in the first stage.

The proposed first phase repeats the ceasefire plan proposed by then CIA head George Tenet in June 2001. The Palestinians should cease all terror and armed activity, and Israel should pull its forces back to the positions they held before the Palestinian uprising in September 2000. The Road Map specifies the same for the first phase: Israel shall "withdraw from Palestinian areas occupied from Sept 28, 2000... [and restore] the status quo that existed then".

What could be more suitable for a new peace initiative than starting with a period of some calm — quiet for the Israelis without terror, quiet for the Palestinians, without the constant presence of the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) in their midst?

Civil war

This, however is not how the Israeli authorities viewed the matter. Israel clarified that it would not be sufficient to halt terror, but a reliable Palestinian authority should engage in an actual clash with the various armed organisations, with the aim of destroying them.

From the Palestinian perspective, carrying out this Israeli demand means, in essence, civil war. The list of organisations Israel demands dismantling comprises most Palestinian organisations. Israel demands that not only their military wings be dismantled, but also their "infrastructure", which means the political and social organisations that support them.

Furthermore, this long process of dismantling should take place as a precondition to any further progress towards the goals of the Road Map, namely right at the start of the process when the Palestinians have not yet received anything.

One of the achievements of Arafat's leadership, in collaboration with virtually all fragments of the Palestinian society, has been that they managed to avoid deterioration into civil war. The new prime minister, Mahmoud Abbas, was neither able, nor willing, to risk civil war. But he was able to offer cessation of attacks on Israel.

At the beginning of June 2003 a ceremonial summit took place in Aqaba, Jordan, with Bush, Sharon, and Abbas, to mark the beginning of the Road Map era. Towards the occasion, Hamas leaders started to openly declare their willingness to enter a ceasefire (hudna) with Israel, for the first time since the establishment of the movement in 1987.

Sharon was just as open in immediately rejecting this proposal. Two weeks later, on June 10, came the more explicit reply of the Israeli army to Hamas leader Abdel Aziz Rantisi's ceasefire offer. Two helicopter gunships fired seven missiles that set his car ablaze in Gaza City, killing two people and wounding about 20. Rantisi managed to escape this assassination attempt, and survived another year, until he was killed by the Israeli army on April 17, 2004.

Still, none of this seemed to have registered in Western consciousness, and certainly not in Israel. The perception of the events was shaped solely at the level of general and abstract declarations. The Road Map document requires that "at the outset of Phase I... Israeli leadership issues unequivocal statement affirming its commitment to the two-state vision of an independent, viable, sovereign Palestinian state living in peace and security alongside Israel, as expressed by President Bush". This, in fact, is the only clause of the Road Map that the Israeli leadership did comply with.

Sharon turned suddenly into the beloved leader of the Israeli "peace camp". The furious right wing and the celebrating peace camp agreed on the substance of what they perceived had occurred: Sharon's Israel has already taken the fatal historical step and gave up on the occupation.

The diabolic aspect of Sharon's deception, which the US backed, was that from that point on, only the Palestinians would be accused of whatever happens. Since the Aqaba summit, Palestinian resistance to the Israeli army's continued brutality could not be tolerated because in the Israelis' perception, Israel already fulfilled its part of the bargain when Sharon declared that he had had enough of the occupation, and will even evacuate a number of outposts. Now it was the turn of the Palestinian Authority to fulfill its part of the generous agreement and to prove that it is capable of controlling terror, even without any change in the situation on the ground.

History repeating

If we examine the press of just the first week of Mahmoud Abbas's second time as a leader, in January 2005, it is easy to notice that the Road Map pattern repeats itself almost verbatim. Abbas has been working on declaring a ceasefire, and on the day of the elections, on January 9, Hamas announced that it is open to the idea of a ceasefire. But already at the eve of the elections, in a meeting with Jimmy Carter, Sharon clarified that "there will be no progress until ... the terror organisations are eliminated".

Israeli official spokespersons in interviews to international media have repeated the message that Abbas must uproot the organizations, and not just reach a ceasefire. In fact, the same demand was made explicitly in Sharon's speech at the Sharm-el-Sheikh summit: "We must all make a commitment not to agree for a temporary solution ... [but] to dismantle the terrorist infrastructure, to disarm and subdue it once and for all."

Already in his first week in power, security sources were "disappointed" with Abbas: "'We became increasingly concerned by Abbas' apparent decision to use the same counter-terrorism measures he did last time (as PA prime minister), i.e., to persuade the terrorists and reach an agreement with them,' a senior source said", the January 16 Haaretz reported.

During the week of the summit, these disappointment voices were suppressed. They will surface again when Israel has had enough of this enforced ceasefire.

The Palestinian organisations demanded that in return for their ceasefire, Israel too should take commitments such as stopping the targeted killings and house demolitions. But on the ground, as the January 14 Haaretz reported, "the IDF has renewed its incursions into Palestinian Authority territory, following a hiatus it had enforced in view of the elections in the territories. In operations to capture militants since the elections, two armed Hamas men were killed near Ramallah".

Thus, just as in the previous round, the Israeli army plans to continue to provoke the local cells of the Hamas, until the next terror attack would relieve it from this temporary enforced "restraint".

Nevertheless, just as in the days of the Aqaba summit, the majority of Israeli society is euphoric with expectations for change and calm. As always before, there is an absolute lack of collective memory. It is the media's responsibility to remind the readers of recent history, the background to the events, how it started and ended in the previous round of the Road Map. But the cooperative Israeli media does not do that. So when the next explosion comes, the Israelis will be convinced that again, they tried everything, but the Palestinians failed them.

[Tanya Reinhart is a professor of linguistics and media studies at Tel Aviv University. Abridged from the Electronic Intifada website, <http://electronicintifada.net/v2/article3610.shtml11>.]

From Green Left Weekly, March 2, 2005.

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