Posted on June 29, 1998 in Washington Watch
It is difficult not to feel some degree of despair over the current demise of the Middle East peace process and its impact on the broader region.
I’ve just returned to the United States from a five-nation visit to the Arab world. In discussions with government and business leaders and opinion makers throughout the area there is a decidedly negative mood. The near consensus of optimism that existed a few short years ago has been steadily unraveling. Today the predominant mood is one of frustration and anxiety. There are also signs of raw anger.
If Benjamin Netanyahu’s goal was to end the movement toward a new regional order and reinstate an Arab-Israeli cold war, then he can claim that his first two years in office have been a success.
The Israeli-Palestinian track is not frozen, it is in clear regression. While there are hints of movement on the Syrian and Lebanese tracks, they are only hints from a government that has made an art form of hinting–creating the illusion of movement to compensate for no real movement. At the same time, all efforts at multilateral problem solving have ended.
It is difficult to see the fruits of this five-year-old peace. Yes, the Palestinian Authority is in Palestine and several Palestinian cities are free of visible signs of Israeli control. There is an Israeli-Jordanian agreement and movement across that border. But Palestinians are today, less free to move, poorer, less hopeful and more fractured than they were five years ago. And Jordanians, too, are tense, experiencing an economic pinch and feeling somewhat adrift.
Expectations of peace, prosperity, and normalcy that were raised to dizzying heights with the signing of agreements a few years back, have now been dashed. The optimism of that period has been transformed to its opposite. More significantly, no one speaks with any confidence in the future. There is a paralysis, a loss of control and a sense of drift–the despondency of dependency. Unrealistic hypotheticals are offered as political prognoses: i.e. “unless the Israelis make a real commitment to a just peace,” or “unless the United States applies firm pressure to force Israeli movement toward peace,” or “unless the Arabs resolve to take matters into their own hands and convene a unified and decisive summit”–nothing will change for the better. And since there is little hope that any of these will occur, the mood is bleak. Even the word “peace,” itself, has become an epitaph.
The Palestinian situation is quite desperate. Not satisfied with merely stalling forward movement in the process and redefining signing the terms of Oslo, the Israeli government has continued to dramatically alter the physical situation in Palestine.
It is likely that after months of maneuvering, Netanyahu might ultimately accept the U.S. proposal to yield another 13 percent of land to the Palestinians, but he appears to be laying the groundwork to transform the 13 percent from a prize into a trap–and with a crushing caveat that will create a step forward and more than two steps back.
Netanyahu displayed this same approach in Hebron. First, he shaped an agreement that left Hebron only slightly less occupied, with the heart of the city cut out in order to provide security for a small handful of fanatic settlers who continue to wreak havoc on the city. He then proceeded to suck whatever life had been breathed back into the peace process by immediately beginning construction at Jabal Abu Ghneim.
In the past year and a half, with attention focused on Jabal Abu Ghneim, the Israelis have proceeded to implement a sophisticated plan for the rest of the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Ignoring oblique U.S. calls for a “time out” in “unilateral actions,” the Israelis have pursued an extensive building program of settlements and roads that have changed the face of the West Bank. While some U.S. officials attempt to diminish the impact of these efforts using a Nixon-era expression “there has been a decrease in the percentage of increase” of new settlement construction. During the past five years construction in the West Bank and Jerusalem has, in fact, doubled. And coupled with this has been the rampant use of house demolitions that have created great fear among many Palestinians.
The settlement and road construction in the West Bank and Jerusalem must be seen to be understood and believed. Settlements are now huge and sprawling cities that have surrounded and engulfed East Jerusalem. Having lost their surrounding lands and with new Jewish construction right up to their doorsteps–the tiny Palestinian villages in the environs of the city have been swallowed whole by stone behemoths that will house tens of thousands of new settlers.
Where hills are not being razed for new housing construction, they are being cut through for massive superhighways. These new roads with their tunnels and overpasses accomplish two objectives. Most settlers can now take a new superhighway direct from their settlement to Jerusalem or Tel Aviv without ever crossing through an Arab village. The roads also cut the West Bank into ribbons so that the Arab areas are severed from one another.
While Ariel Sharon proposes that other roads may be built in the future to connect the Arab areas, creating a bizarre spider-like grid of separate highway systems, the simple intent of these road schemes is clear–Israel is literally laying plans for the permanency of the settlements, expanding their population and size as rapidly as possible.
The notion of a super municipality for an expanded Jerusalem, recently floated by Netanyahu merely gave expression to what is already being done. It appears to preview his “crushing caveat” to any future movement on the peace process. When the unilateral announcement was initially met with hostility, Netanyahu dissembled. The plan was not, he said, an effort to expand Jerusalem both west and east, although that is precisely what he had initially stated. He now says that it will only expand to the west. To the east, he proposed that he will extend only municipal services and zoning and establish links by roads including a ring road far out into the West Bank. The fact that most of this is practically already in place has been unreported. Netanyahu was not unveiling a new proposal, but a reality that, for all intents and purposes, exists.
Travelling northward from Nablus to Jericho to survey what is to be the Palestinian 13 percent, what is not visible from the road are the Israeli settlements just beyond the hills to the east and west. To give the Palestinians a ribbon of land is, at best, a cruel joke. This is not peace through negotiations; it is peace by fiat, with Palestinian dependency insured.
Netanyahu is not a bungler. There is a clear design to his machinations. He has set out to redefine Oslo and arrest its forward movement. Despite pressures from his right and left, he has held together a fractured coalition, stood up to the United States and made only minimal concessions, and only when necessary.
This much the Arab world expected. What is most disturbing, however, is the failure of the United States to mount a challenge adequate to Netanyahu’s obstructionism.
U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright recently noted that the United States has its own interests at stake in protecting the integrity of the peace process. Why, then, Arab leaders throughout the region asked, has the United States not moved more decisively to protect those interests?
This is the question of the day in a region experiencing a loss of control, where hopes of change have been dashed and replaced by fears of a new, but still undefined, explosion.
There are, for those who have eyes to see, danger signs everywhere. The real danger is, of course, that they are too often dismissed. One U.S. official recently met with a group of visiting Americans who expressed their fears of negative Arab reactions to the failing peace. His disturbing response was “Chicken Little is alive and well in the Middle East” (referring to the children’s nursery rhyme of the chicken who perpetually overreacted to every little event by crying “the sky is falling”). He went on to add, “no matter what we do, the Arabs will come back to us, because they need us.”
The reality, of course, is that the sky may not fall, but there are clear signs of a souring Arab mood and negative pressures for change everywhere.
To those who deny this, one need only point out: the fact of extremist movements and violence, the emergence of widespread and worrisome anti-American sentiment; an erosion of reform sentiment in response and these pressures, and resistance by some of the United States’ closest allies to cooperate with U.S.-led initiatives in the region.
Leaders throughout the region caution that these warning signs must not be ignored. Palestinian President Yasir Arafat, who feels the pressure must directly, notes that among his constituency “patience has its limits” and should an explosion occur, “no one knows where it will go or how it will end.”
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