The Illusion of Middle East Peace

Against the Current, No. 48, January/February 1994

Nabeel Abraham

OUR SUPPORT FOR the Palestinian cause shouldn’t blind us to the new realities created by the Oslo Agreement or its implications for the future. Nor should we succumb to the triumphalism of the PLO (Palestine Liberation Organization) leadership or to the blandishments of the news media. Instead, honesty dictates that we take a sober look at the Arafat-Rabin agreement.

No one doubts that the Oslo agreement and the subsequent mutual recognition between Israel and the PLO represent an “historic breakthrough” in the Israel-Palestinian conflict Or, that it will result in some immediate and tangible benefits to the population in the Occupied Territories. The doubts are more concerned with the substance of the breakthrough and their implications for the future.

These doubts can be summed up by a number of questions. What is the likelihood that the agreement will result in a Palestinian state, as Yasir Arafat predicts and his nemesis Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli right-wing leader, fears? Has Israel “finally accepted the national reality and rights of the Palestinian? as PLO official Nabil Shaath and other defenders of the agreement contend?

Does the agreement represent the first, tentative, “rollback of the 20th century’s Zionist-Israeli domination of Palestine,” as Rami Khouri, a Palestinian-American who once served as editor of the Jordan Times, claimed in the New York Times (Sept 3)? And how many are willing to bet that even if a state comes about it will be truly democratic?

Khouri, for one, is not oblivious to the agreement’s many faults—including the fact that it was negotiated secretly behind the backs of the PLO’s Arab partners, or that it was crafted’ by the “autocratic” Arafat and a handful of advisors. He also recognizes that “Many Palestinians and other Arabs fear that the Gaza-Jericho formula institutionalizes Palestinian political weaknesses, fragmenting the integrity of the Israeli-occupied territories and holding out little or no hope of further significant Palestinian gains.”

Yet, like so many Palestinians, he remains cautiously hopeful, even though the grounds for such optimism are virtually nil.

It is no secret that the Oslo agreement was negotiated when the PLO was at its weakest, and at a time when the organization was on the verge of disintegrating. Indeed, Nabil Shaath, Arafat’s closest advisor, confirmed recently that “most of the work” in the secret negotiations “was actually done in the last month, between July 21 and August 19” (Journal of Palestine Studies, Autumn 1993), at precisely the moment when Israel launched a massive air, land and sea aggression against Lebanon.

Further confirmation that Arafat and his circle caved in at about this time (August) comes from Israeli leader Yitzhak Rabin, who observed: “On four or five major issues, they agreed to what I had doubted they would agree to” (Interview, Jerusalem Post, International Edition, Oct 16). Namely, that Jerusalem and the Israeli settlements would remain under Israeli control during the interim period; that Israel would retain responsibility for the overall security of the Occupied Territories; and that all options (including annexation) would remain open during negotiations on a permanent settlement.

An Organization in Crisis

The PLO’s capitulation followed a series of major reversals beginning with the abrupt collapse of the Soviet bloc, upon which the PLO like so many in the Third World had come to depend as a counterweight to the United States. This was followed by an even greater setback during the Gulf War, with the uprooting of the once-prosperous Palestinian community in Kuwait, estimated at 400,000, and the loss of funds from Saudi Arabia and the Gulf countries.

The organization’s financial crisis only highlighted the corruption, sycophancy and opportunism that had taken root over many years. In the Occupied Territories, the PLO’s financial crisis compounded the dire economic difficulties caused by Rabin’s closure of the areas, which amounted to a virtual economic stranglehold on the population.

Yet in the midst of this crisis, what most disturbed the suffering population was the brazen manner in which many PLO loyalists in the territories continued to prosper as their salaries and stipends from Tunis flowed largely uninterrupted. Stories of rampant corruption within the PLO ranks in the territories further demoralized the population, which had sacrificed immensely during the five-year-long intifada.

The PLO’s corruption, coupled with the failure of the formal peace talks begun in Madrid (October 1991), sent many into the arms of the Islamic movement Hamas, while the PLO’s following and among the people dwindled appreciably.

In light of this background, it should not come as a surprise that the Oslo Accord is, as the Israeli human rights campaigner Prof. Israel Shahak has observed, “purposely vague on issues of Palestinian rights while precise on issue of what power Israel will retain.”

Sell-Rule or More Colonialism?

An honest reading of the agreement reveals just the opposite of what its Palestinian defenders claim. Instead of allowing the building of a state infrastructure free from Israeli interference, the accord gives Israel a direct say in every vital area of Palestinian life—water, land, security, refugees, etc.

On the issue of readmitting Palestinians displaced by the June 1967 Arab-Israeli War to their former villages and towns in the West Bank and Gaza, the agreement is quite explicit on Israel’s role in the decision-making process. PLO officials have repeatedly suggested that many of the 1967 war refugees, who together with their descendants number about 800,000, will be allowed to return. Rabin’s response was emphatic: “Their return has to be agreed on. If they expect tens of thousands, they live in a dream, an illusion” (Jerusalem Post, Oct. 16).

In the critical area of water resources, the agreement calls for joint management of the water resources of only one side—the Palestinian side. Nothing in the agreement says Palestinians—heaven forbid—will have a say overthrow Israel manages its usage of this precious resource. In fact, Israeli overexploitation of the common underwater aquifer has already led to a lowering of the water table and its increased salination.

Equally significant is that these arrangements go well beyond the interim period. In one stroke, Israel has nailed down its control over the extremely valuable water resources of the West Bank and Gaza.

The impetus behind Israel’s move is not difficult to discern: Israel is dependent on West Bank aquifers for up to a third of its water needs.

“Despite record rains last winter, Israel is running out of water” the Wall Street Journal reports. “Nearly all renewable water resources are already being used, and experts estimate that the country will need an additional 7.9 billion gallons a year just to keep pace with increased demand due to population growth.” “Israel is already using 80% of the reserves in the mountain aquifer that straddles the West Bank and Israel…” (Amy Dockser Marcus, “Israeli Scientists Search for a Solution to Water Crisis, Pivotal in Peace Talks,” WSJ, Nov. 16, 1992, A7).

According to the Oslo Agreement, the areas where the Palestinian authority will have no say are: “external security, settlements, Israelis, foreign relations, and other mutually agreed matters” (Main text; Annex II, Paragraph 3b). Furthermore, in the minutes clarifying the main body of the agreement, we learn that “Israeli military forces and civilians may continue to use roads freely within the Gaza Strip and the Jericho area (Annex II of the “Agreed Minutes to the Declaration of Principles. .; Part B).

The implications of these exceptions are rather straightforward: the Palestinian authority will have no sovereignty over the land; its powers are limited to internal population control, and in workingas an appendage to Israeli’s economy.

Already there is talk of turning Gaza into a Mexican-style maquiladora—with Israeli-owned factories exploiting cheap Arab labor. In this respect, as in so many others covered by the Oslo Accords, the future is already here in the form of Israeli-owned hothouses employing Gazan labor.

Policing the Population

On a crucial level the Oslo Accords reflect the existing balance of power on the ground, and therefore it is unrealistic for Palestinians to expect much more than they received from the vastly stronger Israelis.

But my objection to the accords is not that they offer a poor deal for the Palestinians, or even that the PLO should have negotiated a better deal. Rather, my objection is that the PLO entered into a collaborationist arrangement with the Occupation—most evident in the articles calling for the establishment of a “strong police force” in the Oslo Accords.

Arafat’s letter to Rabin commits the PLO to “assume responsibility” over PLO militants “to assure their compliance, prevent violations and discipline violators.” Arafat’s pledge effectively turns a badly negotiated deal, which to a large extent reflects the PLO’s political weakness, into a collaborationist arrangement with the Israeli occupation.

It is precisely this aspect—more than anything else—that is most objectionable to principled Palestinian dissidents. And it is the prospect of enlisting the PLO, with its hard-won nationalist credentials, as policeman of the occupation that undoubtedly enticed Mr. Rabin and his circle to recognize the PLO, rather than any sentiments about peace in the Middle East.

Thus Rabin’s hopes and expectations in this regard are not surprising:

“I prefer the Palestinians to cope with the problem of enforcing order in the Gaza Strip. The Palestinians will be better at it than we were, because they will allow no appeals to the Supreme Court and will prevent the [Israeli] Association for Civil Rights from criticizing the conditions there by denying it access to the area. They will rule there by their own methods, freeing—and this is most important—the Israeli army soldiers from having to do what they will do” (Yehudit Yehezkeli, Yediot Ahronot, Sept 7; all translations from the Hebrew by Israel Shahak).

Another Israeli news story indicated that the Palestinian police force will be “expected to frequently descend upon the mosques affiliated with Hamas in order to detain on the spot and interrogate everyone wearing a beard.” (Islamic fundamentalists favor beards.) In this regard, the PLO police will emulate the much feared Israeli Border Guards (R. Shaked and A. Sha’afi, Yediot Ahronot, Sept 10).

Rabin’s revealing statement did not make it into the New York Times or other major media in the United States. Nor did the following Israeli news story about secret PLO-Israeli intelligence contacts, going back to October 1992, in which “The PLO delegation emphasized to the Israelis that they needed a strong police force in order to intimidate their people from the earliest possible moment” (Oded Lifshitz, Al Hamishmar, Sept. 14).

Lifshitz added that according to the French weekly Le Journal de Dimanche, “Israeli and PLO intelligence services had agreed to cooperate for the sake of protecting the PLO leadership.” Secret clauses to the Oslo agreement suggest that PLO and Israeli intelligence agencies are working together to thwart attempts at undermining their agreement (Compare T. Friedman’s dishonest reporting, ‘Quietly, Israeli and PLO intelligence services will then have to begin cooperating in protecting Mr. Arafat and containing the militants who oppose the settlement,” New York Times, Sept. 15, Al).

Now that Arafat’s PLO has entered into a collaborationist deal with the Israeli occupation, the pressure will be on to ensure that Arafat carries out his policeman’s role. Already reliable sources report that Arafat’s loyalists have provided the Israeli secret police (Shabak) with information that led to the arrest of several armed Palestinian militants loyal to Arafat’s Fatah Hawks. And now, two months after the historic handshake at the White House, Arafat and his lieutenant Faisal Husseini have both publicly condemned the murder of an Israeli Jewish settler allegedly by members of the Fatah Hawks.

It is not very difficult to imagine the next step: Arafat’s “strong police force” punishing Palestinian militants who continue to resist the occupation and related human rights violations, all in the name of maintaining the “peace process.”

Whereas the PLO is treaty-bound to discipline elements who violate Arafat’s pledge, the far more lethal Israeli settlers and security agencies are free to continue to rely on force, violence and terrorism. Nothing in the agreement or the letters of mutual recognition calls on Israel to renounce the use of torture and arbitrary arrest and detention of Palestinians, or to stop bombing civilian targets in Lebanon or anywhere else.

Confronted with such grim prospects, is it any wonder that some Palestinians have chosen to mourn rather than celebrate the “new era of peace” in the Middle East? To be sure, many in the occupied territories are hoping that the Oslo agreement will bring about an easing of the Israeli occupation. But it may only be a matter of time before the illusions of the new peace give way to its grim realities.

January-February 1994, ATC 48