Early in May, on his visit to Israel and the Occupied Territories, Colin Powell met with Mahmoud Abbas, the new Palestinian Prime Minister, and separately with a small group of civil society activists, including Hanan Ashrawi and Mostapha Barghuti. According to Barghuti, Powell expressed surprise and mild consternation at the computerised maps of the settlements, the eight-metre-high wall, and the dozens of Israeli Army checkpoints that have made life so difficult and the future so bleak for Palestinians. Powell’s view of Palestinian reality is, to say the least, defective, despite his august position, but he did ask for materials to take away with him and, more important, he reassured the Palestinians that the same effort put in by Bush on Iraq was now going into implementing the ‘road map’. Much the same point was made in the last days of May by Bush himself in the course of interviews he gave to the Arab media, although as usual, he stressed generalities rather than anything specific. He met the Palestinian and Israeli leaders in Jordan, after seeing the major Arab rulers, excluding Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, of course. All this is part of what now looks like a major American push forward. That Ariel Sharon has accepted the road map (although with enough reservations to undercut this acceptance) seems to augur well for a viable Palestinian state.
Bush’s vision (the word strikes a weird dreamy note in what is meant to be a hard-headed, definitive peace plan) is supposed to be realised by the restructuring of the Palestinian Authority, the elimination of all violence and incitement against Israelis, and the installation of a government that meets the requirements of Israel and the so-called Quartet (the US, UN, EU and Russia) responsible for the plan. Israel for its part undertakes to improve the humanitarian situation, by easing restrictions and lifting curfews, though where and when are not specified. Phase One is also supposed to see the dismantling of 60 hilltop settlements (the so-called ‘illegal outpost settlements’ established since Sharon came to power in March 2001), though nothing is said about removing the others, which account for about 200,000 settlers on the West Bank and Gaza, to say nothing of the 200,000 more in annexed East Jerusalem. Phase Two, described as a transition, is focused rather oddly on the ‘option of creating an independent Palestinian state with provisional borders and attributes of sovereignty’ – none is specified – and is to culminate in an international conference to approve and then ‘create’ a Palestinian state, once again with ‘provisional borders’. Phase Three is to end the conflict completely, also by way of an international conference whose job will be to settle the thorniest issues of all: refugees, settlements, Jerusalem, borders. Israel’s role in all this is to co-operate: the real onus is placed on the Palestinians, who must keep coming up with the goods while the military occupation remains more or less in place, though eased in the main areas invaded during the spring of 2002. No monitoring element is envisioned, and the misleading symmetry of the plan’s structure leaves Israel very much in charge of what – if anything – will happen next. As for Palestinian human rights, at present not so much ignored as suppressed, no specific rectification is written into the plan: apparently it is up to Israel whether to continue as before or not.
For once, all the usual commentators say, Bush is offering real hope for a Middle East settlement. Calculated leaks from the White House suggested a list of possible sanctions against Israel if Sharon is too intransigent, but this was quickly denied and soon stopped being mentioned. An emerging media consensus presents the document’s contents – many of them familiar from earlier peace plans – as the result of Bush’s new-found confidence after his triumph in Iraq. As with most discussions of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, manipulated clichés and far-fetched suppositions, rather than the realities of power and lived history, shape the flow of discourse. Sceptics and critics are brushed aside as anti-American, while a sizeable portion of the organised Jewish leadership has denounced the road map as requiring far too many Israeli concessions. But the establishment press keeps reminding us that Sharon has spoken of an ‘occupation’, which he has never conceded until now, and has actually announced his intention to end Israeli rule over 3.5 million Palestinians. But is he even aware of what he proposes to end? The Haaretz commentator Gideon Levy wrote on 1 June that, in common with most Israelis, Sharon knows nothing
about life under curfew in communities that have been under siege for years. What does he know about the humiliation of checkpoints, or about people being forced to travel on gravel and mud roads, at risk to their lives, in order to get a woman in labour to a hospital? About life on the brink of starvation? About a demolished home? About children who see their parents beaten and humiliated in the middle of the night?
Another chilling omission from the road map is the gigantic ‘separation wall’ now being built in the West Bank by Israel: 347 kilometres of concrete running north to south, of which 120 have already been erected. It is eight metres high and two metres thick; its cost is put at $1.6 million per kilometre. The wall does not simply divide Israel from a putative Palestinian state on the basis of the 1967 borders: it actually takes in new tracts of Palestinian land, sometimes five or six kilometres at a stretch. It is surrounded by trenches, electric wire and moats; there are watchtowers at regular intervals. Almost a decade after the end of South African apartheid, this ghastly racist wall is going up with scarcely a peep from the majority of Israelis, or from their American allies who, whether they like it or not, are going to pay for most of it. The 40,000 Palestinian inhabitants of the town of Qalqilya live on one side of the wall, the land they farm and actually live off is on the other. It is estimated that when the wall is finished – presumably as the US, Israel and the Palestinians argue about procedure for months on end – almost 300,000 Palestinians will be separated from their land. The road map is silent about this, as it is about Sharon’s recent approval of a wall on the eastern side of the West Bank, which will, if built, reduce the amount of Palestinian territory available for Bush’s dream state to roughly 40 per cent of the area. That’s what Sharon has had in mind all along.
An unstated premise underlies Israel’s heavily modified acceptance of the plan and the US’s evident commitment to it: the relative success of Palestinian resistance. This is true whether or not one deplores some of its methods, its exorbitant cost, and the heavy toll it has taken on yet another generation of Palestinians who refused to give up in the face of the overwhelming superiority of Israeli-US power. All sorts of reasons have been given for the appearance of the road map: that 56 per cent of Israelis back it, that Sharon has finally bowed to international reality, that Bush needs Arab-Israeli cover for his military adventures elsewhere, that the Palestinians have finally come to their senses and brought forth Abu Mazen (Abbas’s much more familiar nom de guerre, as it were), and so on. Some of this is true, but I still contend that were it not for the Palestinians’ stubborn refusal to accept that they are ‘a defeated people’, as the Israeli Chief of Staff recently described them, there would be no peace plan. Yet anyone who believes that the road map offers anything resembling a settlement, or that it tackles the basic issues, is wrong. Like so much of the prevailing peace discourse, it places the need for restraint and renunciation and sacrifice squarely on Palestinian shoulders, thus denying the density and sheer gravity of Palestinian history. To read the road map is to confront an unsituated document, oblivious of its time and place.
The road map, in fact, is not a plan for peace so much as a plan for pacification: it is about putting an end to Palestine as a problem. Hence the repetition of the term ‘performance’ in the document’s wooden prose – in other words, the way Palestinians are expected to behave. No violence, no protest, more democracy, better leaders and institutions – all this based on the notion that the underlying problem has been the ferocity of Palestinian resistance, rather than the occupation that has given rise to it. Nothing comparable is expected of Israel except that the small settlements I spoke of earlier, known as ‘illegal outposts’ (an entirely new classification which suggests that some Israeli implantations on Palestinian land are legal), must be given up and, yes, the major settlements ‘frozen’, but certainly not removed or dismantled. Not a word is said about what, since 1948, and then again since 1967, Palestinians have endured at the hands of Israel and the US. Nothing about the de-development of the Palestinian economy. The house demolitions, the uprooting of trees, the prisoners (at least 5000 of them), the policy of targeted assassinations, the closures since 1993, the wholesale ruin of the infrastructure, the incredible number of deaths and maimings – all that and more passes without a word.
The truculent aggression and stiff-necked unilateralism of the American and Israeli teams are already well known. The Palestinian team inspires scarcely any confidence, made up as it is of recycled and ageing Arafat cohorts. Indeed, the road map seems to have given Yasir Arafat another lease of life, for all the studied efforts by Powell and his assistants to avoid visiting him. Despite the stupid Israeli policy of trying to humble him by shutting him up in a badly bombed compound, he is still in control of things. He remains Palestine’s elected President, he has the Palestinian purse strings in his hands (the purse is far from bulging), and as for his status, none of the present ‘reform’ team can match the old man for charisma and power.
Take Abu Mazen. I first met him in March 1977 at my first National Council meeting in Cairo. He gave by far the longest speech, in the didactic manner he must have perfected as a secondary school teacher in Qatar, and explained to the assembled Palestinian parliamentarians the differences between Zionism and Zionist dissidents. It was a noteworthy intervention, since most Palestinians in those days had no real notion that Israel was made up not only of fundamentalist Zionists who were anathema to every Arab, but of various kinds of peacenik and activist as well. In retrospect, Abu Mazen’s speech launched the PLO’s campaign of meetings, most of them secret, between Palestinians and Israelis: these long dialogues in Europe about peace had considerable effect in their respective societies on shaping the constituencies that made Oslo possible.
Nevertheless, no one doubted that Arafat had authorised Abu Mazen’s speech and the subsequent campaign, which cost brave men like Issam Sartawi and Said Hammami their lives. And while the Palestinian participants emerged from the centre of Palestinian politics (i.e. Fatah), the Israelis came from a small marginalised group of reviled peace supporters, whose courage was commendable for that very reason. During the PLO’s Beirut years between 1971 and 1982, Abu Mazen was stationed in Damascus, but then joined the exiled Arafat and his staff in Tunis for the next decade or so. I saw him there several times and was struck by his well-organised office, his quiet bureaucratic manner and his evident interest in Europe and the United States as arenas where Palestinians could do useful work promoting peace. After the Madrid conference in 1991, he was said to have brought together PLO employees and independent intellectuals in Europe and formed them into teams, to prepare negotiating files on subjects such as water, refugees, demography and boundaries in advance of what were to become the secret Oslo meetings, although to the best of my knowledge, none of the files was used, none of the Palestinian experts was directly involved in the talks, and none of the results of this research influenced the final documents that emerged.
In Oslo, the Israelis fielded an array of experts supported by maps, documents, statistics and at least 17 prior drafts of what the Palestinians would end by signing, while the Palestinians unfortunately restricted their negotiators to three PLO men, not one of whom knew English or had a background in international (or any other kind of) law. Arafat’s idea seems to have been that he was fielding a team mainly to keep himself in the process, especially after his exit from Beirut and his disastrous decision to side with Iraq during the 1991 Gulf War. If he had other objectives in mind, then he didn’t prepare for them effectively, as has always been his style. In Abu Mazen’s memoir, Through Secret Channels: The Road to Oslo (1995), and in other anecdotal accounts of the Oslo discussions, Arafat’s subordinate is credited as the ‘architect’ of the Accords, though he never left Tunis; Abu Mazen goes so far as to say that it took him a year after the Washington ceremonies (where he appeared alongside Arafat, Rabin, Peres and Clinton) to convince Arafat that he hadn’t got a state out of Oslo. Yet most accounts of the peace talks stress the fact that Arafat was pulling all the strings. No wonder then that the Oslo negotiations made the overall situation of the Palestinians a good deal worse. (The American team led by Dennis Ross, a former Israeli-lobby employee – a job to which he has now returned – routinely supported the Israeli position which, after a full decade of negotiation, consisted in handing back 18 per cent of the Occupied Territories to the Palestinians on highly unfavourable terms, with the IDF left in charge of security, borders and water. Naturally enough, the number of settlements has more than doubled since then.)
Since the PLO’s return to the Occupied Territories in 1994, Abu Mazen has remained a second-rank figure, known universally for his ‘flexibility’ towards Israel, his subservience to Arafat, and his lack of an organised political base, although he is one of Fatah’s founders and a longstanding member and secretary general of its Central Committee. So far as I know, he has never been elected to anything, and certainly not to the Palestinian Legislative Council. The PLO and the Palestine Authority under Arafat are anything but transparent. Little is known about the way decisions have been made, or how money gets spent, where it is, and who besides Arafat has any say in the matter. Everyone agrees, however, that Arafat, a fiendish micro-manager and control freak, remains the central figure in every significant way. That is why Abu Mazen’s elevation to the status of reforming Prime Minister, which so pleases the Americans and Israelis, is thought of by most Palestinians as, well, a kind of joke, the old man’s way of holding onto power by inventing a new gimmick. Abu Mazen is thought of generally as colourless, moderately corrupt, and without any clear ideas of his own, except that he wants to please the white man.
Like Arafat, Abu Mazen has never lived anywhere except the Gulf, Syria and Lebanon, Tunisia, and now occupied Palestine; he knows no languages other than Arabic, and isn’t much of an orator or public presence. By contrast, Mohammed Dahlan – the other much heralded figure in whom the Israelis and Americans place great hope – is younger, cleverer and quite ruthless. During the eight years that he ran one of Arafat’s 14 or 15 security organisations, Gaza was known as Dahlanistan. He resigned last year, only to be re-recruited for the job of ‘unified security chief’ by the Europeans, Americans and Israelis, even though he, too, has always been one of Arafat’s men. Now he is expected to crack down on Hamas and Islamic Jihad: one of the reiterated Israeli demands behind which lies the hope that there will be something resembling a Palestinian civil war, a gleam in the eyes of the Israeli military.
In any event, it seems clear to me that, no matter how assiduously and flexibly Abu Mazen ‘performs’, he is going to be limited by three factors. One of course is Arafat himself, who still controls Fatah. Another is Sharon (who will presumably have the US behind him all the way). In a list of 14 ‘remarks’ about the road map published in Haaretz on 27 May, Sharon signalled the very narrow limits to anything that might be construed as flexibility on Israel’s part. The third is Bush and his entourage; to judge by their handling of postwar Afghanistan and Iraq, they have neither the stomach nor the competence for nation-building. Already Bush’s right-wing Christian base in the South has remonstrated noisily against putting pressure on Israel, and already the high-powered American pro-Israel lobby, with its docile adjunct, the US Congress, has swung into action against any hint of coercion against Israel, even though it will be crucial now that a final phase has begun.
It may seem quixotic for me to say that even if the immediate prospects are grim from a Palestinian perspective, they are not all dark. I return to the stubbornness I mentioned, and the fact that Palestinian society – devastated, nearly ruined, desolate in so many ways – is, like Hardy’s thrush in its blast-beruffled plume, still capable of flinging its soul upon the growing gloom. No other Arab society is as rambunctious and healthily unruly, and none is fuller of civic and social initiatives and functioning institutions (including a miraculously vital musical conservatory). Even though they are mostly unorganised and in some cases lead miserable lives of exile and statelessness, diaspora Palestinians are still energetically engaged by the problems of their collective destiny, and all those I know are always trying somehow to advance the cause. Only a minuscule fraction of this energy has ever found its way into the Palestinian Authority, which except for the highly ambivalent figure of Arafat has remained strangely marginal to the common fate. According to recent polls, Fatah and Hamas between them have the support of roughly 45 per cent of the Palestinian electorate, with the remaining 55 per cent evolving quite different, much more hopeful-looking political formations.
One in particular has struck me as significant (and I have attached myself to it) inasmuch as it now provides the only genuine grassroots formation that steers clear both of the religious parties and their fundamentally sectarian politics, and of the traditional nationalism offered up by Arafat’s old (rather than young) Fatah activists. It’s called the National Political Initiative (NPI) and its leading figure is Mostapha Barghuti, a Moscow-trained doctor, whose main work has been as director of the impressive Village Medical Relief Committee, which has brought healthcare to more than 100,000 rural Palestinians. A former Communist Party stalwart, Barghuti is a quietly spoken organiser who has overcome the hundreds of physical obstacles impeding Palestinian movement or travel abroad to rally nearly every independent individual and organisation of note behind a political programme that promises social reform as well as liberation across doctrinal lines. Barghuti has built an enviably well-run solidarity movement that practises the pluralism and coexistence it preaches. NPI doesn’t throw up its hands at the directionless militarisation of the intifada. It offers training programmes for the unemployed and social services for the destitute on the grounds that these answer to present circumstances and Israeli pressure. Above all, NPI, which is about to become a recognised political party, seeks to mobilise Palestinian society at home and in exile for free elections – authentic elections which will represent Palestinian, rather than Israeli or US, interests. This sense of authenticity is what seems so lacking in the path cut out for Abu Mazen.
The vision here isn’t a manufactured provisional state on 40 per cent of the land, with the refugees abandoned and Jerusalem kept by Israel, but a sovereign territory liberated from military occupation by mass action involving Arabs and Jews wherever possible. Because NPI is an authentic Palestinian movement, reform and democracy have become part of its everyday practice. Organisational meetings have already been held, with many more planned abroad and in Palestine, despite the terrible travel restrictions. It is some solace to think that, while formal negotiations and discussions go on, a host of informal, unco-opted alternatives exist, of which NPI and a growing international solidarity campaign are now the main components.