When it was clear that the Mubarak government was on its last legs, and the Egyptian revolt was succeeding, I estimated that Sadat’s peace treaty with Israel would last only two or three years. I was wrong. It will probably be abrogated even more quickly. The consequences will prove a disaster for Israel, Palestine, the Middle East and the world.The scenario that is unfolding is a direct result of Israel’s unwillingness to take the measures necessary to achieve a tenable resolution of its conflict with the Palestinians.
Egyptians might not like the Israeli state. However, they were willing to abide by a cold peace so long as Israel accommodated the Palestinians. Perhaps in time, some Egyptians reasoned in support of the 1978-1979 peace treaties, Israeli culture would eventually adapt itself to the Arab world through this peace. A different Israel, one able to live more harmoniously with its neighbors, would finally emerge alongside a new Palestinian state.
The opposite has occurred. Successive Israeli governments expanded settlements, entrenched the occupation, and employed peace process negotiations in order to push away territorial compromise. Yitzhak Shamir boasted after the 1991 Madrid conference that given a few years of negotiations he could have buried a Palestinian state. Even Yitzhak Rabin’s signature on the Oslo Accords came bundled with settlement growth and explicit statements that the major West Bank settlement blocs would remain within new Israeli borders. The 2003 Road Map agreements were supposed to freeze settlements but have proved a road to continued settlement growth. Only in Gaza, which proved untenable due to the few Israelis who wanted to live in its fortified villages and the extraordinary amounts of blood and money spent their defense, did the occupation succumb.
Now well into its fourth decade, the ‘peace process’ must be understood as a settlement process. Egypt has watched angrily. A new generation of Egyptians identifies with Palestinians and their struggle for self-determination and nationhood, not with the peace treaty that their parents and grandparents never endorsed through a functioning democracy. Yet if after treaty abrogation Egyptian armored units cross into the Sinai, or anti-aircraft units stationed across the border from the Ramon Airbase effectively close it down, then the risks of conflict are enormous. Nonetheless, the entire thrust of Egyptian political rhetoric is headed towards unilateral disavowal of the treaty. All sides – Hamas, Egypt, and Israel – realize that events in Gaza can easily serve as a trigger. Political forces in Gaza and Egypt will not rest until the treaty has been discarded. Military confrontation serves their purposes.
Lines of consequences continually trace back to the theo-colonial settlement project of the West Bank. The trap created by that project gave birth to the Netanyahu government, one that cannot do anything more than defend crumbling lines of political defense. The deterioration of Israel’s relations with Egypt, Jordan, Turkey and internationally derives from Netanyahu’s political instinct towards his unvaried synthesis of stasis and – to use the most appropriate vocabulary – bullshit about change. Netanyahu determines Israel’s future in accord with his own political future. Stasis does not exist in human societies, but it does in Netanyahu’s desire for an eternal coalition where he remains prime minister for life. Netanyahu is not so much a Gush Emunim camp follower as he is a prisoner of its holy struggle for eretz Yisrael ha’shlema (‘Greater Israel’).
The Palestinian diplomatic campaign for statehood is another natural consequence of Netanyahu’s statecraft. Palestinian public opinion understands that while settlements continue to grow, Netanyahu’s tactic is to talk forever about conditions for renewed negotiations. There is little tactical difference between Netanyahu in 2011 and Shamir in 1991. On its side, the Palestinian Authority faces a complete loss of credibility and collapse if it allows Netanyahu to continue the game. It too has made grave errors – the Al-Aqsa Intifada leads the list – that have undercut peace negotiations as much as the cupidity of any Israeli leader. Without achieving statehood, the Palestinian Authority loses its reason for existence; with statehood, it loses the same. Unlike Netanyahu, however, Abbas realizes that the status quo means the end to his political career.
So we have reached a crossroads, one where the fruitlessness of talking without accomplishment has become apparent. Agreements, treaties, road maps – these all go nowhere. As vehement as they have been in their protests against such agreements, the theo-colonial forces of Israeli politics and theo-fascist forces of Palestinian politics have been their beneficiaries. These are the truest allies of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Each can be counted upon to endorse similar positions from opposite standpoints. The ideological purists, those committed to complete possession of the entire land, have framed the terms of struggle and absence of negotiation. Avigdor Leiberman and Ismail Haniyeh are blood brothers: their extremes define and drive the middle. These are the politics that already have created a civil war in Palestinian society – and which will create another in Israeli society.
Again and again, the lines of consequence trace back to the occupation of Palestinian territories and the Palestinian anti-colonial revolt. One neo-imperial error continually plays out in Western discussion of this conflict. The United States and European countries may affect the conflict, but they cannot control it. Those living in Washington and London too often function under the delusion that what they say matters. It does not, no matter how much funding pours into Israeli and Palestinian government accounts. There are other discourses that matter more, ones that do not take place in official negotiating rooms and expensive hotel suites. These happen in Palestinian village committees and the kollels of Israeli settlements on the West Bank; these happen among Palestinians and Israelis who are pleased if Americans or Europeans agree with them, but who do not care at all if otherwise. Nationalism at the margins is impervious to international opinion. Mainstream nationalisms are far less influenced than cosmopolitan Euro-American political opinion generally recognizes.
Americans are particularly obtuse in their failure to recognize the limits of their global influence. Walking across Sproul Plaza in Berkeley as a graduate student, I used to be annoyed by partisans of all sides protesting and tabling about the Middle East. Supporters of Israel did not care about Palestinian rights, freedom and self-determination; Palestine’s supporters did not care that the Jewish people have a right to their historic homeland in Israel. I stopped being annoyed when I realized that very few in Israel or Palestine knew where Berkeley was, and that no one there cared what people in far-distant California thought. Those who believe that listening to Netanyahu give a speech before a cheering US Congress represents decisive influence in the Middle East are similarly deluded. US politics – left, center, or right – will not decide Middle Eastern history in the long term.
Revolts in Tunisia, Bahrain, Syria, Egypt and Palestine have voiced a rejection of neo-colonial perspectives, ones that assume a ‘Western’ worldview as normative. Governments that were suitable in the eyes of Westerners due to their stability were not suitable in the eyes of their subjects. The pseudo-stability of a non-existent Israeli-Palestinian peace process will collapse and bring down all its paper architecture, whatever the protest of Western governments. This is not a political environment conducive to old ways of doing business. However, that is exactly what the Netanyahu government has been pursuing. Many Egyptians can see the applicability of their demand for democracy to the Palestinian cause. The current Israeli government cannot see further than its own internal politics.
Photograph by Joel Schalit