SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Socialism Today issue 75

Roadblock to peace

AFTER UNLEASHING a whirlwind of death and destruction in Iraq, George W Bush promised to bring peace to the Middle East. To end the conflict between Israel and the Palestinian people, he opened out the ‘road map’ which was drawn up last year by representatives of the US, European Union, Russia and the UN.

Israel’s prime minister, Ariel Sharon, said he accepted the plan ‘in principle’, the precondition being that the Palestinian Authority (PA) change its political leadership. Mahmoud Abbas (often known as Abu Mazen) was appointed PA prime minister in March. Abbas, co-founder of Fatah with Yasser Arafat, is the secretary-general of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO), and led the negotiations at the Oslo talks in 1993, which resulted in the setting up of the PA. The US applied intense pressure to secure his appointment, along with others seen as more compliant than the sidelined Arafat, such as Muhammad Dahlan, who became minister for security and policing.

‘Phase 1’ of the road map stipulates an end to Palestinian violence, Israeli withdrawal from areas it has occupied since September 2000 (when the second intifada started), the dismantling of military outposts, and a freeze on settlement growth. Both sides would recognise the other’s right to exist. ‘Phase 2’ is a negotiated peace between Israel and Syria and Lebanon, and agreement on the borders of a Palestinian state. ‘Phase 3’ would see a ‘final status’ deal on settlements, the division of Jerusalem, the four million Palestinian refugees, and the end of the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. In 2005 there would be an independent Palestinian state.

The process, however, has stalled before getting underway. As soon as it was raised again – when the Iraqi regime crumbled – Sharon sent a list of objections to the White House, sabotaging the plan by demanding Palestinian action before Israel took any steps. Israeli officials issued a public rebuttal of US Secretary of State, Colin Powell, just as he was about to fly to the Middle East.

Sharon demanded that Palestinians renounce the right of refugees to return to areas they fled after Israeli independence in 1948. His contemptuous attitude is clear in relation to the Jewish settlements. In an interview, Sharon "noted that no American administration had ever supported settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, which Israel occupied in the Six-Day War, but that every Israeli government built them anyway". Saeb Erekat, the Palestinians’ chief negotiator, said: "It’s either settlements or peace. Both cannot go together. It’s the main issue for us in the road map, and Sharon’s statement just reflects that he does not accept the road map". (International Herald Tribune, 14 May)

For the first time since Israel seized control of Jerusalem in 1967, a settlement has been built in a Palestinian area of the city. Not only does this complicate any future deal in Jerusalem, it contravenes the Camp David accords, which provide for access to Muslim sites in the city without having to pass through Israeli territory.

The so-called ‘security fence’ is being extended, annexing Jewish settlements into Israel, and incorporating whole swaths of Palestinian territory, including towns and villages. Around 250,000 Palestinians will be completely surrounded and fear being driven out of their homes.

Moves to ease travel restrictions for Palestinians only lasted a day before being reinstated even more harshly than before – Gaza’s borders closed to everyone except diplomats and aid workers. Israel’s gesture of releasing 180 of the more than 5,000 Palestinian prisoners held in Israeli jails was also hollow. Most of those released were labourers arrested in Israel because they did not have work permits. Many of them were within days of their release dates.

The closure of the borders has had a devastating effect on the Palestinian economy: before September 2000, up to 150,000 Palestinians commuted daily from the West Bank and Gaza to work in Israel. The vast majority of Palestinian people live in extreme poverty. Infrastructure and utilities have been destroyed by the Israeli Defence Force (IDF), which kills and maims with impunity.

After the Gulf war of 1990-91, George Bush Snr used the broad coalition of countries (including Arab and Muslim states), which collaborated in driving Saddam Hussein’s forces out of Kuwait, to pressure the PLO and Israel into a deal. This culminated in the Oslo accords. Arafat was in a weakened position: the PLO had backed Saddam in the war, Palestinian society was exhausted by the first intifada (which started in December 1987), and the collapse of the Soviet Union had taken away an important source of material and political support. The US leant on Israel, itself rocked by the mass uprising of the Palestinian people, to participate in the deal which, in reality, offered only minor concessions to the Palestinians.

Today’s president Bush faces a very different situation. He commands a military machine even more awesome than his father’s, but was unable to secure the full support of the Arab regimes. He incurred the rhetorical wrath of many European powers, Russia, and other states, and mobilised millions of people worldwide in the biggest anti-war movement ever. Only Britain came on board in any meaningful way militarily, with walk-on parts by Australia and Poland. Moreover, the immediate aftermath of the invasion has been marked by acute instability in the region, including social upheaval in Iraq and suicide bombings against US targets in Saudi Arabia.

Peace in the Middle East is a big political prize. But, even if it were attainable, it would not guarantee presidential re-election in 2004, Bush’s main focus of attention. The deepening economic crisis recalls his father’s failure to win a second term in 1992. And Gilles Kepel, chair of Middle East Studies at the Institut d’Etudes Politiques, Paris, raises another factor in the US regime’s soft approach to Israel: "[A] common wisdom in Republican circles maintains that Bush Snr, in spite of the 1991 military triumph, lost re-election because he had alienated the pro-Israel American lobby by forcing too many concessions on Tel Aviv for the sake of the peace process". (Independent on Sunday, 4 May)

It is not simply a case of the numbers of Jewish votes: "But more important is what [Nahum] Barnea [from the Israeli daily, Yediot Ahronot] calls the ‘iron triangle’ within the Republican Party. It consists of Jewish donors, ideological neo-cons and, critically, the Christian right. It is this group – which stands to the right of the American Jewish community – which Bush will be reluctant to offend… Since the ‘invisible election’ – the fundraising campaign – begins as early as this June, and with Republicans keen to make inroads into the traditionally Democratic Jewish donor base, the ‘window’ for Middle East activity may be open for no more than a few weeks". (Jonathan Freedland, The Guardian, 16 April)

That window has closed and the situation in the Middle East is deadlocked once again. The Bush regime has dropped the road map and any meaningful demands on Israel. The PA is losing its legitimacy in the eyes of many Palestinians, as it has not been able to defend them or move self-determination forward. The Israeli state is pursuing a brutal policy of oppression and occupation.

The national question cannot be solved by the capitalist system. And nothing illustrates that so graphically and tragically than the plight of the Palestinian people. Mass action by the Palestinian working class and poor in the reoccupied territories, and within Israel, linked to a class appeal to the Israeli Jewish workers – including those in the army – could bridge the national divide. It could break the hold of leaders who rule in the interests of the capitalist class. The recent public-sector general strike by Israeli workers shows the depth of class division in Israeli society.

In the absence of a mass, socialist and internationalist movement, Palestinians will be forced behind such groups as Hamas and Islamic Jihad, which have between 20-25% support at present. They have, at least, provided help to impoverished people and are seen to be resolutely fighting the IDF. Their methods, however, reinforce the fear of Israeli Jewish people, driving them behind right-wing leaders such as Sharon. Unless and until a socialist alternative is seen as viable by significant sections of the working class and oppressed, the Israeli government will be able to continue its bloody-minded policies. The columnist, Thomas L Friedman, sums it up: "Alas, Sharon is following one of the iron rules of Middle East politics: When I am weak, how can I compromise? When I am strong, why should I compromise?" (International Herald Tribune, 12 May)

Manny Thain

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