The Second Intifada: An End and a Beginning

Against the Current, No. 93, July/August 2001

Naseer Aruri

BY EARLY 2000, almost seven years after the Rabin-Arafat “historic handshake,” the pursuit of a negotiated settlement based on two states seemed to have run its course.  That project was dealt a severe blow by a colossal imbalance of power between Israel and the Palestinians, by a steady and growing Israelization of American Middle East policy, by a vigorous drive of settler colonization, by Arab disarray, and by Palestinian Authority (PA) complicity and failure to respond to the Israeli intent to utilize military might to create Eretz Israel in the whole of Palestine.

The Oslo process demonstrated that the so-called peace partners were hopelessly divided over interpretations and what the end results of the process should be. We saw one agreement after another—from Oslo I to Oslo II, from Cairo I to Cairo II, from Early Empowerment to the disempowerment of the Hebron Agreement, to the 1998 Wye River memorandum and then the Sharm al-Shaykh agreement—until it became obvious, in Camp David II last July, that the most the Palestinians could get was a truncated state without sovereignty, without borders, without territorial contiguity without return for the refugees, and without Jerusalem.

Any hope that United Nations resolutions, which constitute a sort of jurisprudence for the Palestine question, would be applied were clearly dashed.

Now, many speakers throughout the day have spoken about the failures of Oslo, and asked why has Oslo failed.  But no one has spoken about any successes that Oslo might have produced.  Well, Oslo was not really meant for implementation, so perhaps the question of why it failed should have been preceded by why was it launched in the first place, and what were the short-term and long-term goals of Oslo?

Yet despite all the failures cited throughout the day, on the flippant side, I do find some successes.  Paradoxically, the Oslo process has led to an inevitable conclusion, which its own architects had neither envisaged, contemplated nor pursued—that the future struggle is towards integration, not separation; towards a pluralistic existence, not exclusion; towards parity, mutuality, common humanity and a common destiny.

This remains the new and important reality, which the Oslo process has unwittingly generated.  Ironically, this reality might lay the foundations for a joint Palestinian-Israeli struggle, emanating from a realization that the lives of Palestinians and Israelis are inextricably intertwined.  There was and remains a common interest in the economy, employment, water distribution, ecology, human rights and foreign relations.

Even if the Oslo process had miraculously led to some kind of a breakthrough, the maximum gain for the Palestinians that seemed possible would be a fractured collection of bantustans, non-contiguous enclaves, on about 40-50 percent of the West Bank, and 65 percent of Gaza. Under optimal conditions, something called the state of Palestine would likely emerge, but would be only nominally independent.

It should be noted that genuine independence had already been ruled out by the agreement between the major political blocs in Israel, Labor and Likud, in January 1997.  Entitled “National Agreement Regarding the Negotiations On the Permanent Settlement With The Palestinians,” it rejected Palestinian sovereignty, removal of the Israeli settlements, negotiating the status of Jerusalem, repatriating the refugees, and dismantling the occupation.

Ehud Barak reiterated all that since he became Prime Minister in the summer of 1999.  The difference between Likud and Labor is that the latter is better able to disguise the structural flaws and asymmetrical nature of the enterprise.

Since Oslo II (1995) the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza began to realize that they are residents of enclaves “separated” from each other and from Israel, but functionally indeed part of a “greater Israel.” They were separated from the settlements, from Jerusalem, and from each other: cut off from other Palestinian cities and even villages, as well as from the Palestinian diaspora.

By 2000, this fragmentation was becoming social, economic, physical and of course regional, despite Oslo’s call for a contiguous Palestinian entity.  On his way to the Camp David summit on July 11, 2000, Prime Minister Ehud Barak reaffirmed the concept of separation (the equivalent of apartheid in the Afrikaans’ language): “Separation—we here and they there” (Yediot Ahronot, July 11, 2000).

In view of all that, the “state of Palestine” that would have emerged from that process would have been economically strangled by Israel, dominated by the United States and the world financial institutions, and constrained by regional interests and global requirements.  It would continue to be intolerant and repressive toward dissent, now reclassified as “terrorism.” It would likely be pressed to seek a confederative relationship with Jordan and some kind of association with Israel, in which a Middle East version of NAFTA, with maquiladora-style tax-free and low-wage industry, would substitute for development.

A truncated Palestinian state is not what the Palestinian people have struggled for most of the past century.  And, for all the reasons cited, the early 21st century—struggle for an independent state within the Oslo framework is not likely to succeed either—which brings us to the new reality that could emerge out of Oslo’s inherent flaws.

A new discourse is already in process about a broader social-economic struggle for equal rights, equal citizenship and equal legitimacy within a single Israeli-Palestinian polity.  Different versions, either a democratic secular state or a bi-national state, are being viewed by a growing number of people on both sides as a viable alternative to perpetual conflict.  Granted, most of the people involved in it are intellectuals and activists, mostly outside the center in both Israel and Palestine.  But the important thing is that the discussion is attracting more and more people and is ongoing.

To my mind, there seems to be no alternative to a single state in the long range, due to the conditions on the ground in both spheres.  For the Palestinians, the post-Oslo path of the single state was not a new form of political development, having surfaced as their first program of liberation after the 1967 occupation in the call for a democratic secular state.

That program, however, which was linked to armed struggle, was summarily dismissed before it had even been debated, in order to accommodate the Arab states agenda of a diplomatic struggle.  After 1972 a deal was, in effect, forged between the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and the Arab states in which the renunciation of the unitary state idea by the PLO came as a tradeoff: The PLO would scale down its national ambitions and accept a two-state approach, while the Arab states would provide diplomatic and material help for an independent Palestinian “mini”-state alongside Israel.

On the surface, diplomacy was declared a great success, particularly as Israel was isolated in much of the world that came to endorse Palestinian self-determination.  In reality however, it was a pyrrhic victory, as the widely endorsed Palestinian state was never actually established, and the world that really mattered seemed to have been the United States—Israel’s unwavering ally, and the master of the Arab world.

Consequently, as we discuss alternatives to Oslo, we must keep in mind that any realistic alternative to Oslo must guarantee the removal of disabilities inflicted on the Palestinians in the three spheres (those living in the Palestinian territories of the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem, those inside Israel, and those in exile).  No degree of independence or liberation could be meaningful without removing these legal, social and economic disabilities, which set the Palestinians apart and divide them based on the three existing categories.

That would require a determined systematic and protracted struggle, combining the three segments of the Palestinian people jointly with Israeli Jews who wish to be neither master of another people, nor privileged in an apartheid system, nor colonial settlers denying the existence of the indigenous natives of the land, nor wishing their disappearance.

The goal of the struggle would have to be equal protection of the law in any such unified state—as in the 14th amendment to the U.S. Constitution: There can be no illegal classification in the law, no group segregation.  Equality for every single human being in Palestine/Israel would be the motto of the new struggle.

That, of course, is bound to collide with the interests of the major players—in Washington, Tel-Aviv, and Ramallah.  For it would signal that U.S. domination of Middle East diplomacy had failed.  It would serve as an indictment of Zionism—the classical Labor version of Rabin, Peres and Barak, as well as the revisionist (right-wing) brand of Jabotinsky, Begin and Netanyahu.  In fact, the distinctions are meaningless because all of them subscribe to Jabotinsky’s Iron Wall. That also serves as an indictment of the narrow brand of Palestinian nationalism.

[The “Iron Wall” reference comes from a statement of Vladimir Jabotinsky, leader of the right wing of the 1930s Zionist movement and the mentor of the future leader of the movement and founder of Likud, Menahem Begin.  Jabotinsky recognized and openly argued that the Jewish state in Palestine would be created only at the expense of the Arab majority in the land, and would be based on superior military power (the “Iron Wall”) on which all trends in the Zionist enterprise would be dependent—ed.]

So it would certainly be an uphill struggle, and yet for the Palestinians, the status quo is absolutely intolerable.  Arafat has placed himself in the untenable position of being unable to deliver—to Israel and its U.S. patron on the one hand, and on the other to his own constituents, who were ready to scale down their aspirations but not to surrender their rights in order to legitimize what the South Africans and the world had renounced, bantustans and apartheid.

Arafat’s own denunciations of terror and his vows to eradicate violence, at the repeated urging of the United States and Israel, were seen in the Palestinian street as an ominous attack on civil liberties and the right of dissent.  Moreover, his assumption of responsibility for Israel’s national and Israelis’ personal security was becoming increasingly indefensible when that security assumed an accelerated dimension which negated Palestinian rights—including Israel’s demands for water security, settlement security, demographic security (which negated again the rights of refugees).

The whole thing ended up in explosion last September when the Palestinians realized that Israel has been able to buy time, to acquire land, to ethnically cleanse them in and around Jerusalem, to acquire more of their resources—land and water, all of this under presumed peace conditions, and under the cover of pseudo-diplomacy—a brilliant strategy indeed.  Oslo was in fact nothing but an important component of Israel’s strategy, aimed at further conquests and further atomization and dispossession of Palestinian society in the West Bank and Gaza.

In that respect, consider the following settlement statistics released by the Israeli organization Peace Now, which appeared in The Nation magazine (12/25/2000): Construction of Israeli settlements has increased by 52 percent since Oslo, including 17 percent between June and December 2000 during a portion of the Barak period.  Consequently, the settler population has expanded by 72 percent, from 155,000 in 1993 to 200,000 by the end of 2000.  In addition, 180,000 settlers reside in occupied East Jerusalem, making an overall settler population of 380,000.

Since settlement construction is expected to accelerate under Sharon’s leadership, the future can only signal either more ethnic cleansing for the Palestinians or co-existence on the same land. For the latter to become a realistic possibility in the future, a common Arab-Jewish struggle would be necessary to save what is left of the land and expose the subtle and ongoing “transfer” as “grave violations” which amount to war crimes.

Thus Oslo, whether managed by Labor or Likud, would remain as Israel’s mechanism to achieve its master plan of making all of Palestine “Eretz Israel,” the land of Israel according to the program of Jabotinsky, Ben Gurion and Sharon.  Israel’s Oslo strategy was calculated to put the onus on Arafat to prove his ability as an effective gendarme for Israel, while the latter is released from the pressure of finding a solution to its continuing occupation, or to having to grant citizenship to the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza.

The Israeli-crafted Oslo framework meant that Arafat’s deal with Israel was predicated on an impossible equation.  What Israel wanted, Arafat could not deliver without becoming Israel’s puppet and quisling.  And in the end, he had to say NO to Clinton and Barak.  He left himself wide open without an effective counter proposal, leaving Israel and the United States to reap the diplomatic benefit.  “Here is Israel’s most generous and magnanimous offer, but Arafat was going back to his old ways—a terrorist, period.” The message was disseminated widely in the mainstream media, and people believe it.

Well, could that process of Oslo have gone somewhere?  The answer is simply no, unless that “somewhere” was the desired stalemate and gridlock built into Oslo to enable Israel to buy more time, as it has been trying to do since its very inception.  That is precisely why Oslo has never recognized Israel as an occupying power within the meaning of international law.

Moreover, Oslo as well as all Israel’s previous plans for “peace” have been grounded in the fundamental nature of the Israeli state, which precludes genuine coexistence with the Palestinian people on any equal basis.  As long as the Zionist ideology of acquiring Palestinian land while excluding the Palestinian people prevails, a negotiated settlement based on the right of the two people to dignity and self-determination would remain elusive.

Any serious forward movement beyond the past seven years of no peace, no war situation would require a veritable debate over Zionist ideology and history, in which the difficult questions, suppressed since the establishment of Israel, would surface.  At the heart of the debate would be the main Zionist narrative and its negative portrayal of Arabs, distortion of history and the requirements of peace.

That debate has been going on in Israel but only on the periphery and not in the center.  Let us not forget, however, that worthwhile projects usually begin small and originate in the periphery, since the center tends to be fuzzy, flimsy and morally deficient.  And yet that critique needs to be broadened in order to include the mainstream and penetrate the consciousness of the average Jewish Israeli.

By the same token, only when the Palestinians decide to rediscover and reconstruct their democratic secular state framework, and transform it from a propagandistic slogan to a viable program that can be adapted to the present realities, might hopes for real peace be rekindled.

No matter by what name we refer to this phenomenon—a binational state, a federal system, a cantonal arrangement on the Swiss model—the common denominators would still be equal rights, equal citizenship, plurality and coexistence.  It would manifest a common humanity in which the very identity of the citizens would have to be re-examined, taking into consideration psychological and ideological, and not only ethnic, religious and nationalistic factors.

Professor Naseer Aruri delivered this address at the “Freedom and Justice for Palestine” conference at Columbia University Law School, March 31, 2001.  His recent book, The Obstruction of Peace was published by Common Courage Press (1995).

from ATC 93 (July/August 2001)