View from the sidelines
An "historical" and "promising moment". . . now where have you heard that before ? Well, you've just heard it again: Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and President Mahmoud Abbas have announced a ceasefire aimed at bringing the violence of the Al-Aqsa intifada to an end. So where is it going to go from here . . ?
The sagaciously jaundiced view: a return to Oslo-itis for Israel, interminable negotiations deferring ever-shifting minutiae, red-lining the moment when Israel will face up to dealing with the grievances that provoked the intifada in the first place. It will be raids and incursions-as-usual in weeks rather than months and much sooner than the current affairs news' spin will acknowledge.
The resignedly optimistic view: Washington pressure will finally push the Israelis into dealing with their obligations under international law. The military to be restricted to established settlements only, construction of the separation barrier halted. The Road Map will incorporate further settler withdrawal initiatives.
On which of those two would you bet your inheritance ? Nothing in the optimistic view - which might provide a positive inducement for Palestinian resistance to terminate the intifada - is written into the detail of the present ceasefire. So what exactly is the impetus behind the need to negotiate ?
Banging heads together and flashing the cash has been US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, without whose coaching of the hawks in the Israeli government, the tentative, ground-preparing truce for agreement would not have survived to date. Curiously, the US has decided not to attend the launching ceremony at Sharm esh-Sheikh, a puzzling decision if the intention is supposed to be to bolster Abbas' policy stance with 'honest broker' support.
"The continuation of the construction of the separation walls will be considered by the people to be a violation of the cease-fire," one East Jerusalem journalist predicted last night.
"There should be no doubt about the commitment of the United States to this process at this time. No doubt about the commitment of the President, no doubt about my personal commitment." declares Ms Rice - and that's categorical . . . "at this time". What's so special about this moment ? Israel and the USA had invested much political capital in holding the late President Arafat responsible for freezing negotiations with Palestinians. Now they need to show justification by producing positive results: the quicker the fix, the greater the extent of Arafat's responsibility for violence and deadlock. Hence the uncharacteristic pressure brought to bear on Ariel Sharon to quit banging on about the 'terrorist infrastructure' and make symbolic concessions.
'All military activity' ???
And symbolic they are. The prisoners nominated to be released are those convicted of criminal and immigration offences under Israeli law - few political prisoners. The army will withdraw to the perimeters of five cities (and no assurances for Nablus nor Jenin), places where it operates as a rule by nocturnal incursions anyway. Movement restrictions will be eased . . .
On the ground, however, the daily grind of annexation continues. In the days preceding the Sharm esh-Sheikh summit, new checkpoints had been set up throughout the West Bank and controls at established ones tightened. Through this preliminary truce period, curfews, shootings and arrests by the military have carried on. Confiscation of land for the construction of by-pass roads and the separation wall continues, most recently Sharon pushing for another deep detour into the southern West Bank around the Gush Etzion settlement bloc.
Whether a de facto ceasefire will actually ever materialise is yet to be seen.
'Difficult issues remain to be addressed'
More seriously for hopes of eventual peace is what the (Israeli) security-focus of the truce does not acknowledge. Why should the settler movement now cease its confiscations and illegal enclosures of Palestinian land, often executed with a protective military presence ? The truce does not address this grievance, and while the resistance is committed to a ceasefire, the perfect opportunity arises for agents provocateurs to sabotage any future settlement evacuation initiatives by intensifying land seizures. Under the military regime applicable to the occupied territories, settlers are not answerable to Palestinian law makers nor law enforcement agencies and the Israeli legislature does little to uphold Palestinian property rights. Who is going to enforce the law, such as it is, in the occupied territories in this regard ?
"If Abu Mazen and the committee agree on 900 prisoners who will go free soon, and some are just Palestinians who were caught working illegally in Israel, we'll throw shoes at him," said a Palestinian in an interview yesterday on a Gulf state news show.
The intifada is nowhere near over yet . . . uprisings end for the oppressed either in liberation or in liquidation. Abbas is an optimistic opportunist rather than tactician in this regard, and driven by a realistic awareness of the cost of armed struggle rather than a naÔve belief in Israeli good faith. But it remains difficult to see how his approach will succeed in ending the troubles. For this, the Israeli government needs to concede the rationality of Palestinian armed resistance, a unilateral move that each administration has denied for at least the last twenty years.
So the motor of the peace process defers once again to the USA. Will Ms Rice risk her political cachet by deeper involvement with this long-running foreign policy caisse-tÍte ? Or will the portfolio be handed down the departmental hierarchy until failure of another transparent ceasefire gives the Americans their pretext once again to claim that 'there is no Palestinian partner for peace' ? That would be useful for restoring with honour the status quo ante. The Americans' historical record on confronting tyranny in the Middle East is in the public domain - and it ain't promisin'.