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Facts on the ground

October 01, 2012


WHEN Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney declared that the Palestinians were not interested in peace, and the US should just “kick the problem into the long grass”, he was only repeating US establishment thinking.

The fact is that ever since Bill Clinton tried to broker an agreement in the dying days of his presidency 12 years ago the peace process has been moribund. And in this period, Israel has continued its settlement expansion in the occupied West Bank at a feverish pace.

Ever since Israel captured the West Bank in the 1967 war, it has followed a policy of creating “facts on the ground” while paying lip service to the concept of a Palestinian state. Apart from a few honourable exceptions, Israeli leaders have colluded to ensure that by their expansion, they will completely end the possibility of a viable Palestinian state from ever emerging.

But we should all be careful of what we wish for. Having created numerous illegal settlements where over half a million settlers now live, Israel is faced with a quandary: what does it do now? Given the fact that a Palestinian state is no longer an option, what happens to the nearly four million people living in the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem? In addition, there is a similar number of Palestinians living as refugees in the diaspora.

A couple of months ago, the UK weekly New Statesman published a cover story about Palestine. In one article (“When the facts change…”), Ali Abunimah wrote:

“… since it occupied the West Bank and the Gaza Strip in 1967… Israel has devoted its energies to making the occupation irreversible by confining and displacing Palestinian communities, replacing them with sprawling Jewish-only colonies…“In contrast [to Gaza], Israel redoubled its settlements in the West Bank, to the point where well over half a million settlers live a privileged existence there, controlling 42 per cent of the land, while more than two million Palestinians eke out an increasingly precarious existence in the spaces between, surrounded by walls, checkpoints and the Israeli army. In the past three years alone, Israel’s settler population has grown by 18 per cent…”

The author’s conclusion is that since a Palestinian state is now out of reach, we should focus on winning the Palestinians equal rights in a single state where the two people live as equals. Jonathan Freedland, writing in the same issue of the New Statesman, disagrees:

“It [the one-state solution] is the lose-lose scenario, in which two people who have long yearned for self-determination are both denied. It gives no one, neither Palestinians nor Jews, what they want… It suggests that two nations that could not negotiate a divorce should get married instead….

“The very last people who should want it are those who claim to be pro-Palestinian. Surely it should be obvious who will be the weaker partner in this binational equation: economically and by every other measure, Israeli Jews will be the stronger party. Little wonder that the voices agitating loudest for one state these days are on the aggressive Israeli right.”

The hard reality is that the relentless pace of Israeli settlement building leaves little room for such well-intentioned theoretical arguments. In fact, Israel has long pursued the very successful policy of dragging out talks and stonewalling, while encouraging more settlers to move to the West Bank through cheap house-building loans and virtually free land. Now Israel argues that in the event of a breakthrough in some future peace talks, it will be impossible to move all its settlers back from their illegal colonies. So if they want their own state, the Palestinians will have to accept other land in exchange.

To push Palestinian farmers off their land, settlers regularly attack their villages, uproot their olive trees, and generally make life as hard for them as they can. They are helped in their activities by the Israeli state that regularly expropriates farms, and make it difficult for farmers to get their produce to markets. Often, crops rot due to the delays in getting approvals to move them.

I think it was Ariel Sharon who once said that the only language Arabs understood was force. Sadly, this is the lingua franca of much of the world. Today, Israel’s military power, underwritten by American hardware and cash, enables it to throw its weight around in the region. But it remains an insecure state due to the anger it has caused across the Middle East and beyond.

Soon after his election, Barack Obama made a major address to the Muslim world from Cairo. The centrepiece of his eloquent speech was the promise to use American influence to re-start the peace process. He also called on Israel to halt settlement activity to give the peace process a chance. He was immediately snubbed by Netanyahu who refused to budge. Since then, despite the usual visits by US officials to Tel Aviv, there has been no movement towards a Palestinian state.

Obama’s capitulation was evident when, in the recent Democratic convention, he was forced to insert the acceptance of Jerusalem as the “perpetual capital of Israel” in the party platform. And at every opportunity on the campaign trail, he has claimed that no US president has done as much for Israeli security as he has.

Despite decades of disappointment with the open-ended American support for Israel, Palestinians are aware that if they are ever to achieve statehood, only the United States can force its ally into making some meaningful concessions.

Currently, the Iranian nuclear programme has allowed Netanyahu to sidestep any Western pressure to get the peace process moving again. By claiming that Israel is threatened by a possible Iranian nuclear arsenal, it has dragged the US into a game of bluff over a pre-emptive attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities.

Once again, the tail is moving the dog: by threatening to bomb Iran, Israel knows that the US will be pulled into the conflict because Iranian retaliation would include American targets. So once again, the question of a Palestinian state remains in limbo. And all the while, Israel continues to create new facts on the ground.