With peace talks between Israeli and Palestinian officials beginning again, many analysts have given their reasons for being either cautiously hopeful or sceptical. Yet what is incredible is that, twenty years on from the Oslo Accords, many people still have not asked more fundamental questions about the paradigm of the official peace process itself.
Of all the various reasons to doubt whether this resumption of talks will produce an agreement, a crucial one is that Israel’s maximal position – the most on offer within the political mainstream – is untenable from the point of view of the Palestinian people’s struggle for liberation and return.
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Even assuming that major West Bank settlements were removed, that would still leave Jerusalem as Israel’s unilaterally-defined “united capital”, with expelled refugees denied the right of return, and Israel’s definition as a Jewish state affirmed. That latter element is bad news for Palestinian citizens of Israel – who tomorrow, on August 1, will hold a “Day of Rage” against the planned expulsion of tens of thousands of Bedouin in the Negev (the so-called Prawer plan).
Given all of that, it might be said that the bigger risk is not that these current negotiations may fail but that, on their current terms, they might succeed. As Edward Said wrote in 1998:
“Most important, a state declared on the autonomous territories would definitively divide the Palestinian population and its cause more or less forever. Residents of Jerusalem, now annexed by Israel, can play no part, nor be, in the state. An equally undeserving fate awaits Palestinian citizens of Israel, who would also be excluded, as would Palestinians in the Diaspora, whose theoretical right of return would practically be annulled.”
Thus both those who are guardedly optimistic as well as those dismissive about the latest venture are missing a trick. The US-led, official peace process – including its associated two-state solution framework – serves to shield Israel from what it sees as two of its most significant threats: accountability and democratisation.
The peace process thwarts accountability because it seeks to supplant international law and international forums as the means of solving the conflict. The UN has its flaws, but internationalisation of the Palestine question would be better than a set-up shaped by Israel’s strongest ally (and even led by a former professional Israel lobbyist). As Israel’s chief negotiator Tzipi Livni argued in 2011, “restarting negotiations would stop the snowball rolling towards us at the UN and in general”.
Note that when the Palestinian Authority has advanced recognition campaigns in the international arena such as at the UN and associated bodies, Israeli and US officials have pushed back with accusations of “harm” to the peace process. Thus unsurprisingly, the PA agreed to abandon any potential efforts in the likes of the International Court of Justice for the duration of these negotiations.
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The peace process, Israel hopes, can also thwart – or weaken – another accountability risk: that of the growing global boycott campaign. Note that on Monday, with the parties convening in Washington DC, Shimon Peres used the opportunity to tell the EU to back off from its even modest efforts at targeting settlements and occupation profiteers. As one Israeli columnist put it, these talks – even if they fail – are “preferable over the current anti-Israel incitement campaign being conducted in supermarkets across Europe”.
Secondly, the peace process protects Israel from genuine democratisation, or decolonisation. The two state solution as conceived here is designed to preserve Israel as an ethnocratic Jewish state in the majority of historic Palestine. Establish a hollow authority in Ramallah to save a pretend democracy in Haifa.
This is explicitly expressed by a number of parties, including Livni, who in June said that “the only way to preserve Israel” – meaning as a Jewish state – “is through the political process”. This is why over 120 significant US Jewish figures recently wrote to Netanyahu urging him to pursue a negotiated two-state solution in order to neutralise – in the words of the Israeli PM himself – the threat of “a bi-national state”.
Some have claimed that any talks are better than none, since both sides will eventually have to sit down and work out a solution. But this is both a simplistic truism – obviously there will be some kind of talks at some point – as well as betraying a poor understanding of the power relations involved.
There is no good reason to cheer negotiations so heavily skewed in favour of one party, which regardless of outcome shield Israel from accountability for ongoing, apartheid policies. Nor are they the only option for moving forward. The sooner that is taken on board, then the sooner a colonial framework based on the “compromises” of the powerful can be replaced by a peace process worthy of the name.
Ben White is a freelance journalist, writer and activist, specialising in Palestine/Israel. He is a graduate of Cambridge University.
Follow him on Twitter: @benabyad