The incidental fruit of Oslo – Nakba – Al-Ahram



From Al-Ahram Weekly archives: Fifty years of dispossession 1948-1998

Issue 13-19 August 1998

There is a new reality, unwittingly produced by the Oslo Accords — a reality which had escaped the minds of many who watched the “historic” signing in September 1993: today, the requirements of a just and durable peace are very different than they used to be. The Oslo Accords dealt a crippling blow to the foundations of the global consensus which defined the prerequisites for a just and durable peace during the 1970s and 80s– that peace was predicated on the right of the Palestinian people to establish their own independent state alongside Israel. That peace was to occur after Israel completed its withdrawal from the Occupied Territories in accordance with UN Security Council Resolution 242, and after the Palestinians recognised Israel’s existence and sovereignty in the largest part of their own national patrimony.


Almost five years after the “historic handshake”, it has become clear that the pursuit of a negotiated settlement based on two states has run its course. That project was dealt a severe blow by a colossal imbalance of power, by a steady and growing Israelisation of American Middle East policy, by a vigorous drive of settler colonisation, by Arab disarray and failure to respond to the Israeli challenge and to the exigencies of the post-Cold War era. The Oslo process has demonstrated that the so-called partners are not only far apart conceptually but are hopelessly divided over interpretations and what the end results of the process should be.

We have seen one agreement after another — from Oslo I to Oslo II, from Cairo I to Cairo II, from early empowerment to the disempowerment of the Hebron Agreement.


Oslo was a unique agreement that lacked a framework defining the rules of negotiations and the ends of the negotiating process. There is neither an overarching principle — a vision — nor a road map. The Palestinians were invited to discover whether they have rights, but not to claim their internationally-guaranteed rights. They came on the implicit assumption that Israel’s military occupation does not even exist, and therefore, Israel’s claim to the disputed (but not occupied) territories was at least as good as theirs. The Israeli side, however, knows exactly what it wants; the Palestinian side dreams about what it wants. The Israeli side continues to adhere to the letter — their own letter — of the agreement; the Palestinian side continues to invoke the spirit. The letter says that the enterprise is a mere agreement to reach agreement, that Palestinian sovereignty with jurisdiction over land and resources, and at the points of entry and exit is utterly out of the question; that Jerusalem is an Israeli city; that the Palestinian struggle for emancipation — from the status of refugees and that of an occupied people — will be dependent on Israeli goodwill, when and if final status negotiations are held, and after the Palestine Authority complies with ever-expanding requirements, which totally negate all prospects for Palestinian emancipation. The letter of Oslo renders the goal of Palestinian statehood both impractical and obsolete; and yet the Palestinian Oslo dream continues to hinge on the spirit, a tenuous thread of hope devoid of any substance. For not only has this spirit been firmly excluded from the discourse, but the agreement itself, seen largely as farcical, has all but collapsed.


Paradoxically, the Oslo process has led to an inevitable conclusion, which its architects neither envisaged nor pursued. Now the struggle is towards integration not separation, towards a pluralistic existence, not exclusion, towards parity, mutuality, common humanity and a common destiny. This is the new and important reality which the Oslo process has generated. Ironically, this reality may be laying the foundations for a joint Palestinian-Israeli struggle, which would emanate from a realisation that the lives of Palestinians and Israelis are inextricably intertwined. There is a common interest in the economy, employment, water distribution, ecology, human rights, and foreign relations. Even if the Oslo process were to miraculously lead to some kind of a breakthrough, the maximum gain for the Palestinians would be a fractured collection of bantustans or non-contiguous enclaves covering 30-40 per cent of the West Bank and on 65 per cent of Gaza. Moreover, under optimal conditions, with social engineering similar to that designed by Yossi Beilin and Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazin), something called Palestine may emerge, though it will be only nominally independent.


INDEPENDENCE HAS ALREADY been ruled out by the Labour-Likud agreement of 22 January 1997. The “National Agreement Regarding the Negotiations on the Permanent Settlement with the Palestinians” effectively excluded Palestinian sovereignty, removal of the settlements, negotiations on Jerusalem, repatriating the refugees and dismantling the occupation, thereby upholding the status quo though with a great deal of cosmetic surgery. We must keep in mind, however, that Netanyahu’s team of surgeons lacks the skill of Rabin’s and Peres’s, who were more prepared to disguise structural flaws and exaggerate the beauty.


To those who argue that Labour’s classical Zionist doctrine, which espouses separation, would grant the Palestinians separate political existence, I say that the doctrine of separation has already been adapted to Likud’s notion of “population mixture”. That “mixture”, enunciated by Begin and Shamir, and inherent in the autonomy scheme, now translates into cantonisation.


How can one celebrate a process leading only to ghettoism and apartheid on the eve of the 21st century ? How can one applaud the birth of bantustans in the Middle East after their demise in South Africa?


Since Oslo II, Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza have begun to realise that they are residents of enclaves separated from each other and from Israel, but nonetheless part of a “greater Israel”. They are separated from the settlements, from Jerusalem, from each other’s cities and villages and from the Palestinian diaspora. And this fragmentation is now becoming social, economic, physical and of course regional, despite Oslo’s provision for a single-unit Palestinian entity.


In view of all this, if something called a state were to emerge, it would be economically strangled by Israel, financially dominated by the World Bank and the IMF, constrained by the requirements of globalisation, militarily at Israel’s mercy, always anxious to please Washington and the international donors. It will be intolerant of dissent, which has already been classified as terrorism. It will be pressed to seek a confederal relationship with Jordan and some kind of association with Israel in a Middle East version of NAFTA.


QUITE CLEARLY, this is not what the Palestinian people have struggled for. Nor, for reasons already cited, is their struggle for an independent state within the Oslo framework likely to succeed. Which brings us to the new reality that is emerging out of Oslo’s inherent flaws. This includes a new discourse about a broader social-economic struggle for equal rights, equal citizenship and equal legitimacy within a single Israeli-Palestinian entity. It is seen by a growing number of people on both sides as a viable alternative to perpetual conflict. On the Palestinian side for example, Edward Said advanced the idea in an interview in the Christian Science Monitor (27 May, 1997): “The whole idea of trying to produce two states is at an end. The Oslo peace process is really in tatters… The lives of Israelis and Palestinians are hopelessly intertwined. There is no way to separate them. You can have fantasy and denial, or put people in ghettos. But in reality there is a common history. So we have to find a way to live together. It may take 50 years. But… the Israeli experience will gradually turn back towards the world they really live in, the Islamic Arab world. And that can only come through Palestinians.”


Other Palestinian intellectuals, including Nadim Rouhana and Adel Samara have been calling for a single state — in the case of the latter, “The only just and feasible form of bi-national state is the socialist one… It will have to be a state which will dissolve the Zionist regime… cancel the Law of Return, stop importing new settlers, guarantee the Palestinian right of return, equality of land and resources” (News from Within, April, 1997).


On the Israeli side, endorsement of bi-nationalism comes from an unusually divergent group, including liberal politicians, secular leftists and right-wing rabbis. For example, Meron Benvinisti wrote: “The reality in Eretz Israel is a bi-national one. The reality inside the green line is also bi-national… The model which is closest to my heart is that of Belgium. Two peoples, the Flemings and the Walloons; two regional governments, and one central government… The direction I would prefer is cantonisation, the division of Eretz Israel West of the Jordan River, into Jewish and Arab cantons…”


Haim Baram, a secular leftist, who is known to Western audiences through his regular columns in Middle East International, has also adopted the idea of bi-nationalism in order to avert an apartheid regime. On the religious right, Rabbi Menachem Fruman supports the idea of bi-nationalism on the grounds that it would guarantee the “wholeness of the land of Israel”.


“I prefer loyalty to the land over loyalty to the state. I see the whole Israel movement as a post-Zionist movement which represents an advance for Zionism…” Fruman, however, expresses no apologies for advocating two legal standards in the single state — one for Jews and one for Arabs.


Obviously it is difficult to propose a blueprint for bi-nationalism or to even debate at this juncture the democratic secular state versus the bi-national state; suffice it to say that the two people have been connected and are therefore being challenged to explore the basis fora common existence, the proper modalities, the redress of grievances, and paths to a common vision.


FOR THE PALESTINIANS, this path of political development will not be entirely new since it constituted their first programme of liberation after the 1967 occupation. That program, however, which was linked to armed struggle, was summarily dismissed before it had even been debated, in order to accommodate the Arab states’ agenda of a diplomatic struggle. In fact neither the PLO, nor its programme, were deeply rooted among Palestinians. There were institutions and there was rhetoric, but the money came from Arab states. The renunciation of the unitary state idea came as a quid pro quo: the PLO would scale down its ambitions, while the Arab states would provide diplomatic and material help for a mini independent Palestinian state alongside Israel. On the surface, diplomacy was declared to have succeeded, particularly as Israel was isolated in a world that came to endorse Palestinian self-determination. In reality however, it was a Phyrric victory, as the endorsed Palestinian state was never actually established.


By contrast, the South Africans, who had also declared armed struggle, continued to cling to a unitary state and refuse all attempts to consider armed struggle as a form of terrorism. A separate independent existence was not high on their diplomatic agenda. In the case of Palestine, the UN focused on the human rights of the people under military occupation and on their right to a separate existence. But in spite of international recognition of their right to independence, they were never able to experience true emancipation. They continued to endure the refugee status of an occupied people, an ethnic minority in a country in which during the life time of many they had constituted a majority of the population.


When the Palestinian struggle finally shifted during the Intifada, the goal of a separate independent existence remained intact. It was however, a struggle suited more towards empowerment and social and economic progress than towards coexistence in a single state. Its principal goal was to make the end of occupation not only desirable, but also manageable.


Now that the pursuit of independence has been impeded by the structural arrangements inherent in Oslo, Palestinians are challenged more than ever to resurrect the political struggle of the Intifada: building mass organisations and alternative institutions that would enable them to cater to social, economic and political needs of the populace. The on-going and ever-increasing land grab will not be halted by diplomatic action, but will only be slowed down by mobilization and mass action. Undoubtedly, the task is daunting, for it challenges not only Israel’s occupation, but the PA’s authority. Any form of struggle would be considered seditious and hence subject to repression under the guise of fighting terrorism, guarding Israel’s security and meeting the requirements of “reciprocity” à la Netanyahu.


There are no short cuts to genuine emancipation. The privations and hardships associated with the status of refugees, or of second class citizens, will continue to retard Palestinian political development despite all the trappings of statehood — a president without executive power, a council without legislative powers, courts with insignificant jurisdiction, an overblown civilian bureaucracy prone to corruption, and a pervasive military apparatus focused on suppressing dissent.


ANY ALTERNATIVE TO OSLO must ensure the removal of the legal, social and economic discrimination faced by Palestinians. No degree of independence or liberation is meaningful without their eradication, which requires a systematic and protracted struggle together with those Israeli Jews who wish to be neither masters of another people, privileged in an apartheid system, or colonial settlers denying the existence of the indigenous population.


The goal of the struggle would have to be equal protection under the law — as in the 14th amendment to the US Constitution. Equality for every single human being in Palestine/Israel would be the motto of the new struggle. That, of course, is bound to collide with the interests of the major players — in Washington, Tel Aviv and in Ramallah. It would signal that the US domination of Middle East diplomacy had failed. It would serve as an indictment of Zionism — the classical version of Rabin, Peres, and Barak as well as the revisionist brand of Jabotinsky, Begin, and Netanyahu. It would serve, too, as an indictment of the narrow brand of Palestinian nationalism, which seems either unwilling or incapable of re-examining the past with all its errors, pitfalls and misconceptions.


Call this kind of struggle unrealistic and the goal idealistic or utopian,but it certainly has more prospects for success than the present open-ended formula, whose explanation continues to be pursued more energetically than its application, and whose future is doomed by a grotesque disparity in power, divisions within the respective camps, and the reluctance of the self-styled peace-maker to devote any more energy to an issue that is no longer vital to the US’s national interest.


Negotiations between Israel and the PA are like encounters between the elephant and the fly. The current stalemate will continue to be fueled by divisions inside Israel, which now centre not on whether Oslo will end the occupation and restore a measure of normality to Israelis and Palestinians, but on the most efficient and least disruptive approach to preserving the status-quo under a more benign label. The method of repackaging the occupation is what really divided Rabin from Netanyahu, a fact that has not been lost on a sizable sector of the Palestinian community, inside and outside Palestine. While some comprehend it well, others feel it instinctively, irrespective of Arafat’s constant expressions of nostalgia for and repeated devotion to Rabin’s legacy.


Arafat has placed himself in the untenable position of being unable to deliver to either Israel and the US or to his own constituents, who were ready to scale down their aspirations but not surrender their rights. His denunciations of terror and vows to eradicate violence, repeatedly urged by the US and Israel, are seen in the Palestinian street as an ominous attack on civil liberties. Moreover, his assumption of responsibility for Israel’s security is becoming increasingly incontrovertible when that security keeps on assuming dimensions which negate Palestinian rights — water security, settlements security and demographic security, which negates the rights of refugees.


All of these factors confirm and prolong the stalemate. Oslo was not designed as a normal traditional agreement. It has now become a guarantor of disagreement and the legitimiser of the status quo. The Palestinians have no other choice but to struggle for equal rights and equal dignity. Not only had Oslo foreclosed on their option of a separate and sovereign existence; it has also denied them the right to struggle for that existence, inasmuch as most variants of the struggle are bound to be classified as either terrorism, lack of reciprocity, failure to abide by commitments or acting against peace.


OPPOSITION POLITICS in the West Bank and Gaza will be considered as a security issue. Oslo, whether managed by Labour or Likud will remain as part of Israel’s negotiating strategy calculated to put the onus on Arafat to prove his ability as an effective gendarme for Israel, while the latter is released from the pressure of finding a solution to its continuing occupation. As long as suicide bombings go on, Arafat’s obligation to Israeli security will continue to dominate the diplomatic agenda and to overshadow the national rights of the Palestinian people.


It is for this reason that the Israeli supplied framework of Oslo and its various corollaries, which in themselves are part of Israel’s negotiating strategy, have placed Palestinian leaders in a “no win” situation. Arafat’s deal with Israel is predicated on an impossible equation. for what Israel wants, Arafat cannot deliver without becoming Israel’s puppet.


The process which began in Oslo will reach nowhere because the nature of the Israeli state precludes genuine coexistence with the Palestinian people on equal basis. As long as the Zionist ideology of acquiring the land without the people prevails, a negotiated settlement based on the right of the two people to dignity and self-determination will continue to be elusive.


Binyamin Netanyahu did not repudiate Rabin’s strategy; he only rejected his tactics. We should recall that when Rabin diverted the negotiating venue from Washington to Oslo in 1993, he was making an important shift from the stalling tactics of his Likud predecessor, Shamir, while creating his own gridlock that had the appearance of diplomatic progress. In a subtle contrast to Shamir, Rabin opted for an agreement with built in conflict over meaning and objectives. It is because of that gridlock and the built in conflict that the Oslo process was born in a stalemate and continues to be stalled.


Segmenting the Palestine question into issues, population, regions, towns, villages, and stages of negotiations has constituted one of the biggest obstacles to peace. Had the issue of land and settlement not been deferred, the question of settlement security would not have become a barrier for redeployment. Had the issue of Hebron not been singled out and also deferred, the question of “further” redeployment would not have arisen. Had the issues of Jerusalem and sovereigntynot been put off the violence associated with the closure, the tunnel, Ras Al-Amoud and Abu Ghneim would not have loomed on the agenda of the “honest broker”. Had a pattern of deferral not been set, matters relating to self-governance, further redeployment, easing the closure, releasing tax funds, and even resuming negotiations would not have been treated as probationary. Could such a self-defeating process have ever been intended for implementation?


ANY FORWARD MOVEMENT beyond the present no peace/no war situation would require a debate of Zionist ideology and history, in which difficult questions, suppressed since the establishment of Israel, would surface. At the heart of the debate would be the main Zionist narrative and its negative portrayal of Arabs, distortion of history and the requirements of peace. Already, we are told, a post-Zionist debate is taking place inside Israel. The question is how extensively has it been followed by the general public. Political Scientist Ilan Pappe has written a series of studies on this post-Zionist critique and its manifestations in various Israeli cultural products, including films, plays, music, novels and short stories as well as in scholarly discourse. Pappe’s writings reveal how intertwined the lives of Israelis and Palestinians have become. There is an implication in his work that Israel cannot prosper as an isolated Western outpost in the region:


A democratic pluralist Israel as a part of the Mediterranean is also an Israel with many historical narratives. Such an Israel has a chance of a common future. The question of whether Zionism is a movement of national plundering or a movement of a persecuted people acting according to a human ethic, seeking compromise and peace is being increasingly raised by Israeli intellectuals. The historian Benny Morris framed the question in terms of the accuracy of the “Zionist ethos claims that we came to this land not to exploit the natives and expel them, and not to occupy them by force.”


Only when this kind of critique is broadened to include the mainstream and penetrate the consciousness of the average Israeli will the so-called peace process begin to assume some hopefuldimensions. Only when the Palestinians decide to rediscover their democratic secular state framework and begin to adapt it to the present realities will hopes for real peace be rekindled. Call it a bi-national solution, a federal system or a cantonal system on the Swiss model, the common denominators will have to be equal rights, equal citizenship, plurality, coexistence and common humanity. That requires a de-Zionised Israel and a normal polity which exists for its own citizens, devoid of any privileges based on religion, ethnicity, race or gender.

The writer is member of the Palestine National Council and chancellor professor of political science, University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth.

* This article was first published in Al-Ahram Weekly’s special pages commemorating 50 years of Al-Nakba, the Palestinian catastrophe when Israel was created on 15 May 1948. These pages, published in 1998, were part of a year-long series of articles documenting the history and nature of the Arab-Israeli struggle, as well as that of Palestinian dispossession and exile.

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