The Poisoned Fruits of Oslo (II)

Against the Current, No. 65, November/December 1996

The Editors

“THE HOPE FOR a new Palestinian upsurge from below,” we wrote in our July/August editorial (“ATC 63), “must not be lost. The very fact that such a revival is so difficult to undertake, or even imagine, in the present moment must be considered among the poisoned fruits of an Oslo `peace process’ that once seemed to offer at least some limited progress.”

The figleaf of Oslo has been removed by the Netanyahu government’s deliberate provocation in opening the second entrance to a tunnel close by the Al-Aksa mosque, a central symbol for all Palestinians of the Arab city of East Jerusalem, which is under an ever-escalating political, cultural and physical assault by the Israeli occupation.  This act lit the fuse to a barrel of social dynamite-and, perhaps, to a new phase of resistance.

Professor Israel Shahak, one of the most important Israeli human rights critics, laid out the elements of the situation in a recent “Special Commentary:”

We should begin with two basic facts.  First, the Palestinians are an oppressed nation.  They were driven from most of their land, (which) was officially declared to be `only for the benefit of the Jews.’ This continues to be the status of about 70 percent of the land of the West Bank, as enshrined in Oslo II.

Second, the Oslo process, fraudulently represented as improving the Palestinian position, was actually intended to perpetuate the subjection of the Palestinians.  The fact that the actual situation of the majority of the Palestinians has actually worsened in the past three years is not denied, not even by the New York Times.

The Western media, however, persists in attributing this undeniable fact to external factors instead of seeing the naked truth: The Oslo process was designed to facilitate the permanent oppression of the Palestinians by bringing Arafat, together with his secret police and soldiers, into partnership with Israel under the ultimate control of the United States.  This strategy could not but make the Palestinian position more desperate than it already was under the occupation solely of the Israelis.”Netanyahu’s Opening of the Tunnel Produced a Confrontation Within Israel and an Impasse with the United States,” by Israel Shahak, September 30, 1996; attachment to the October 1996 issue of Shahak’s monthly translations “From the Hebrew Press,” Middle East Data Center, PO Box 337, Woodbridge VA 22194-0337.)

Within this context, the tunnel affair demonstrated the only real difference between the “peace” line of the former Rabin- Peres Labor government and the “hard-line” Netanyahu.  While warmly embracing Yasir Arafat as their junior partner, Rabin- Peres no less than Netanyahu were about the business of constructing a Jewish-supremacist apartheid-style system under the symbolism of a peace process.

Under Labor, the population of Jewish settlements had grown by 50%, prompting Netanyahu’s joking remark that he could hardly due less; the creation of bantustan-type zones for Palestinian “autonomy” was presented by Rabin as a “separation between the peoples.”

Incorporating Arafat into this arrangement and calling it a peace process corresponded particularly to Peres’ vision of a New Middle East Order, in which Israel (to the delight of the United States) would become the region’s central economic as well as military power.  In contrast, Netanyahu, responding less to U.S. wishes and more to the right wing of his electoral coalition, seeks opportunities to overtly show the Palestinian leadership its place by means of constant public humiliation.

The Tunnel As Symbol

Hence under Netanyahu have come such highly symbolic acts as destroying a Palestinian handicapped center in East Jerusalem, simply to stomp on the implied promise that the city would ultimately be the capital of a Palestinian state, and the rush to complete settlements and tunnel roads with the overt aim to cut off East Jerusalem from the West Bank.

When the entrance to the archaeological tunnel opened, Israeli Ministry of Tourism officials offered sugar-coated lies to the international media to the effect that this was purely a recreational attraction devoid of the slightest political meaning.  But Mayor Ehud Olmert was more to the point when he declared, shortly beforehand: We will show the Palestinians who runs the show in Jerusalem.

Netanyahu himself was equally direct when he addressed himself to a rapturous audience of his most loyal supporters, a group of all-American evangelical Christians tourists in love with the Zionist state, where they wish all Jews would go to live, for a mixture of racist-imperialist and Armageddon-messianic reasons.  (These elements have long recognized their kindred spirits among the most virulent nationalist and theocratic elements in Israel.) The tunnel is open, it will always be open, Bibi thundered.

In the horrifying scenes that followed, the only hopeful sign was the depth of the rage shown by the Palestinians.  Let’s be clear: The only possibility for a genuine peace between peoples, in place of the present sham, begins with the oppressed demonstrating their willingness to defy deadly repression.

The Clinton White House-an administration so cynical that during Shimon Peres’ election-campaign assault on southern Lebanon, it refused to make even the usual meaningless gesture of “deploring violence on both sides”-was sufficiently alarmed to convene a Netanyahu-Arafat summit in Washington.

Clinton himself claimed credit for the great breakthrough of getting Netanyahu and Arafat to sit down to lunch together.  Atmospherics aside, the whole affair produced nothing (except, we suspect, secret U.S. commitments to ask the European Community, which hadn’t been invited, to donate money to “development”-mainly Arafat’s security services.  .  .  ).  Only Israeli security was on the agenda for substantive action; everything else, an Arab official lamented to the “Financial Times”, was relegated to meaningless promises of future discussion.

The summit charade was organized to deflect the wave of popular rage that had put everyone on notice.  For two days, some of the Palestinian police force, created in order to do the dirty work of enforcing Arafat’s petty and vicious dictatorship, actually defended the population they were assigned to repress when Israeli soldiers fired on the demonstrators.

This development shocked the Israeli elite and the Arafat apparatus alike.  Once Israeli intelligence understood that Arafat was losing control, Israel Shahak notes, its forces worked closely with the Palestinian Authority’s secret police chiefs to help Arafat restore discipline.

Shooting back caused the popularity of Arafat and his police among the Palestinians to rise dramatically, if temporarily.  Unable to win concessions of any substance, Arafat is desperately dependent on maintaining the imagery of past struggles, the illusion of progress in negotiations, and the effusive official praise he receives from Western governments.  “Principally,” writes Israel Shahak, “(Arafat) has survived because his real role as a minor partner of Israel in perpetuating the oppression of his people is still not perceived by the Palestinian public.”

Indeed, much of the political tension between the U.S. and Israeli governments reflects a difference over how important it is to preserve Arafat as a political asset.

Arafat, for his part, presides over the arbitrary detention of oppositionists, the arrest and torture of dissident journalists, and, for good measure, censorship and suppression of criticism, including banning the works of Edward Said. Among the innovations of his police is the practive of shaving off the beards and eyebrows of suspects, and parading them in public.

Problems of “Pax Americana-Israel”

The tunnel opening and the explosion that followed have the potential to undermine U.S. regional strategy.  On the one hand, of course, the Oslo agreements represent a tremendous strategic victory for both the United States and its Israeli junior partner.  They are rightly called by critical analysts a “Pax Americana- Israel” throughout the region.

But there is a contradiction: The spectacular political collapse and defeat of the Peres government, and Netanyahu’s stonewalling of the Rabin-Peres commitments to withdraw from Hebron and other promises, demonstrate to Arab governments and to Europe that the United States no longer has the capacity to deliver Israeli cooperation, when it has promised to do so. (Not that any Arab state cares, or intends to do, very much about it.)

U.S. difficulty in controlling Israel’s behavior is in part the result of the success of “peace.”  The Israeli economy has vastly grown (an expansion in which the Palestinians, of course, haven’t shared), to the point where its per capita production has surpassed much of southern Europe and is approaching that of Britain.

Israeli capitalism has also made huge gains, for example, in reaching Asian markets as well as in exports to Europe.  Israel now has the material means to resist U.S. pressure, on top of the political cushion afforded by its vast lobby in American politics.

It remains to be seen whether this new Israeli economic power, in turn, will be undermined by an angry European response to its government’s arrogance and its atrocities.  (European sanctions, admittedly a highly remote possibility, would greatly damage sectors of the Israeli export economy.)

At the same time, Israel’s long-time American patron is suffering, at the least, a loss of face and political credibility in the Arab world—at a time when the unilateral U.S. bombing of Iraq had already exposed it to the danger of political isolation.  But let’s be clear: Regardless of appearances, the United States will unconditionally support the Israeli position that its “security” overrides all other considerations.

Despite the catastrophic consequences, then, the Israeli monopoly of power over the future of Jerusalem; its continuing confiscation of land; even the “security” of fanatical and heavily armed Israeli settlers in the middle of Arab cities of Hebron and Nablus—none of these are subject to serious challenge at the elite level.  Only a sustained popular Palestinian resistance, echoed by a grassroots international solidarity, can alter the Oslo agenda.

ATC 65, November-December 1996