Did Obama navigate Israeli-Palestinian negotiations without a map?

 
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By Khaled Diab

The Obama administration was reportedly unaware of the true extent of Israeli settlement activity. This reveals either a monumental level of ignorance or a post-facto attempt to justify the failure of the Kerry peace initiative.

Friday 20 July 2018

It reads almost like a political thriller. An intrepid State Department official pages through a (possibly dusty) file and discovers, in 2015, a map that would change his life forever and radically alter his outlook on the world (well, at least on the Israeli-Palestinian part of it).

The official in question was Frank Lowenstein, Barack Obama’s special envoy on Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. The map he found, which helped him see “the forest for the trees”, showed not only the actual Israeli settlements in the West Bank, but also all the land that was controlled by Israel and off limits to Palestinians, according to a report in the New Yorker.

Lowenstein and his team then reportedly “did the math”, drew up a series of larger maps and calculated that Israel had gobbled up 60% of the West Bank, territory that had been earmarked for a future Palestinian state, and that the areas Israel controlled cut off Palestinian population centres from one another. The revelation apparently shocked Obama and John Kerry, then secretary of state and peace envoy.

The New Yorker article shocked me too – albeit for very different reasons. It shocked me because I could scarcely comprehend or credit that the Obama administration was unaware of what, to anyone with knowledge of the topic or who had spent some time on the ground, was very familiar terrain.

In light of his career path and his then recent recruitment as special envoy, it is conceivable that Lowenstein was unaware of these facts, although the so-called Area C of the West Bank, which is under complete Israeli control and represents 60% of the West Bank, is one of the most basic of basics of the conflict.

But the idea that the rest of the team, especially John Kerry, who had been shuttling back and forth trying to broker a deal since 2013, found any of this to be news was almost unfathomable. This is especially the case in light of the fact that the Palestinian negotiating team resigned, in November 2013, because they argued that Israel’s ongoing and accelerating settlement activity had rendered it impossible to establish a viable and contiguous Palestinian state.

Had I known back then that the Obama administration was so reportedly clueless of the extent of the Israeli settlement enterprise, I would have applied for the position of Middle East adviser. That is not because I am especially qualified, but because the Obama administration was so self-admittedly ignorant.

For example, I could have directed Lowenstein and his team not just to the single map he came across but an entire atlas and databases, produced by the UN, mapping out pretty much every conceivable aspect of the Israeli occupation and settlements project in East Jerusalem and the West Bank, including settlements, restrictions and closures, access to water and land, as well as demolitions and communities at risk.

Palestinian, international and Israeli NGOs, not to mention academics and think tanks, also carry out extensive research on these issues, making the Israeli-Palestinian conflict one of the most researched in the world. For instance, Israeli NGO B’Tselem has published information on settlements for years that would have made for painful reading for Lowenstein and the rest of the team.

Statistics and reports, no matter how good, cannot capture reality quite like seeing the reality on the ground for oneself. If I had access to the Obama team, I would have simply invited them round to the apartment we used to rent in East Jerusalem.

Located on the Mount of Olives, our front terrace overlooked the breathtaking beauty of the Jordan Valley, all the way down to the Dead Sea and beyond, into Jordan. Underneath the magnificence of the natural landscape one could also trace many of the topographical features of the occupation, including settlements and outposts, the Israeli wall, the gleaming modern highways snaking between the settlements, the meandering, ill-maintained roads reserved for West Bank Palestinians, the densely populated Palestinian towns unable to access and grow into the surrounding Area C, defined variously by Israel as restricted military areas, state land or nature reserves, anything to keep them out of the reach of the Palestinians.

I would point to the nearby Palestinian town of Ezeriya, only a couple of kilometres away as the crow flies and home to what is believed to be the tomb of Lazarus, where Jesus is said to have wept before resurrecting his dead follower.

In the past, the tomb and the surrounding town were a short and pleasant hike from our apartment. However, when I lived there, owing to the wall and various movement restrictions, it required a 20km or so detour to reach it.

In fact, driving is one of the simplest ways to navigate the reality of the occupation and clearly witness just how much the road to two states has been bulldozed and obliterated, and how the so-called road map to peace leads to nowhere. In fact, even satellite navigation cannot decipher the complexity of the rapidly changing political reality on the ground, as attested to by the number of times my GPS sent me to a shuttered gate or road block, or a restricted military area.

On the road, I would have driven Lowenstein and his team to view and contrast the settlements, with Palestinian villages and towns, taken them to visit vulnerable and threatened communities in Area C, such as the recently evicted Bedouin village of Khan al-Ahmar, or to the temporary camps set up by activists protesting the attempts to join settlements in a continuous seam.

And even if the Obama team did not have time to undertake such time-consuming field work, all they needed to do was listen to Israel’s ultranationalist, rightwing government, which made no secret of its support of the settlement enterprise and its determination to render the prospect of a Palestinian state an impossibility.

Some time before Lowenstein’s Eureka moment, Likud and Jewish Home members of the Knesset tried to push a bill through to annex Israeli settlements, thereby rendering much of Area C permanently beyond Palestinian reach. Many on the right believe the entire West Bank is and should be Israel’s. Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely is a vocal member of this camp: not only does she oppose Palestinian statehood, she also urged Israeli diplomats to tell the world “this country is all ours. We didn’t come here to apologize for that.

Binyamin Netanyahu, who has been ideologically opposed to the creation of a Palestinian state for decades, vociferously opposed and vilified Yitzhak Rabin for forging the Oslo accords, which were also violently opposed by Hamas and Islamic Jihad suicide bombers, and actively worked to destroy it when he was first elected prime minister in 1996. During his re-election campaign in 2015, he promised the electorate that there would be no Palestinian state on his watch.

If the Obama administration was ignorant of this staggering body of publicly available evidence, it suggests a monumental level of incompetence. However, I suspect there is another explanation which makes more sense: Obama and Kerry did not possess the imagination, courage and political capital to adopt new and more effective approaches to the conflict, and, like previous administrations, they did not have the guts to admit publicly from the beginning what has been clear since the mid-1990s: that the Oslo blueprint for peace was dead in the water almost as soon as it was floated.

After all, it is easier to plead ignorance than admit to spinelessness.

—-

This article was first published by The New Arab on 11 July 2018.

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RIP, Oslo

 
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By Khaled Diab

The “peace of the brave” has given way to the peace of the grave. It’s time to abandon Oslo in favour of a civil rights struggle for equality.

The hoped-for "peace of the brave" has morphed into the peace of the grave. Image: White House

The hoped-for “peace of the brave” has morphed into the peace of the grave.
Image: White House

Tuesday 13 October 2015

It was meant to be the handshake to end all hostilities. When Yasser Arafat shook hands with Yitzhak Rabin on the back lawn of the White House, on 13 September 1993, it seemed that the world had finally taken heed of Arafat’s call, two decades earlier at the United Nations, not to let the “olive branch fall from my hand”.

“The peace of the brave is within our reach,” then US President Bill Clinton said on the momentous occasion of the signing of the so-called Oslo Accords, reflecting the relatively more optimistic mood of the time. “We know a difficult road lies ahead. Every peace has its enemies.”

Yet two decades later, this hoped-for “peace of the brave” has morphed into the peace of the grave. Even the life-support system to which the United States had hooked up the Oslo process also gave up the ghost when Secretary of State John Kerry’s 13th-hour shuttle diplomacy came to nothing.

“As long as Israel refuses to commit to the agreements signed with us, which render us an authority without real powers,” a crestfallen and defeated Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said at the United Nations last week. “We, therefore, declare that we cannot continue to be bound by these agreements.”

So what went wrong over the past 22 years?

One major problem was the flawed nature of the Oslo Accords themselves, which set out clear and present demands of the Palestinians but left Israel with vague future commitments. And as the adage informs us, tomorrow has a tendency never to come.

However, these flaws were possibly surmountable with the right leadership – and this shaky framework agreement could have been shored up and redesigned, with sufficient supplies of goodwill and vision.

But just as the two former warriors and adversaries, Rabin and Arafat, were warming to their themes, tragedy struck. Rabin, who had started the first intifada with a “break their bones” attitude, became more committed to peace when he realised it was in Israel’s own economic and social interest.

Sadly, Rabin’s life was cut tragically short, 20 years ago next month, by an Israeli extremist before he could fulfil his newfound potential as a peacemaker. Poignantly, this occurred at one of the largest peace rallies in Israeli history.

Palestinian extremists, including Islamic Jihad and Hamas, also played their part in derailing the tentative process through a concerted, high-profile wave of suicide bombings. This pincer movement helped propel Binyamin Netanyahu to the premier’s office in 1996.

It was around this time that Hamas and the Israeli right began their longstanding anti-peace “partnership”, for want of a better word. Though they rejected compromise and had a maximalist view of the conflict, which was the main aim of their violence, both Netanyahu and Hamas’s Sheikh Ahmed Yassin couched their bloody and vengeful sabotage in terms of retaliation for past grievances.

This led to a situation in which, rather than shoring up the many failings of the Oslo process and sticking to its five-year deadline, extremists were able to exploit the faults to bury any prospects of a resolution.

The supposedly temporary Oslo Accords became an enduring reality which enabled Israel to wash its hands of responsibility for the Palestinians living under its occupation. The status quo also facilitated the unprecedented expansion of Israeli settlements, which housed about a quarter of a million settlers in the early 1990s to some three-quarters of a million today.

For the Palestinians, the Oslo charade entrenched the temporary Palestinian Authority (PA) as the de facto government that was unable to govern. Just as Arafat had wanted the trappings of statehood even without a state, many in the PA elite had vested interests in maintaining the status quo, while Hamas preferred the status quo of perpetual conflict over compromise, as well as to undermine its Palestinian enemies.

Whether unwittingly or not, the billions the international community has sunk into upholding the myth of the peace process has helped let Israel off the hook. One European diplomat I know described the situation as: “It’s a frozen conflict and we pay for the freezer,” reflecting the widespread disillusionment in aid and diplomatic circles.

Mandy Turner, the director of the Kenyon Institute in Jerusalem, has been researching how aid to the Palestinians functions as a “counterinsurgency” tool, seeking to prevent “the emergence of a Palestinian political movement with widespread support that is opposed to the Oslo process, and/or extreme poverty and political instability”.

This might explain why Mahmoud Abbas demanded at the UN that “Israel must assume all of its responsibilities as an occupying power”, bowing rhetorically to widespread Palestinian perceptions that Israel has outsourced chunks of the occupation to the PA, while Western donors pick up the tab.

“What is required is to mobilise international efforts to oversee an end to the occupation,” Abbas urged, clinging helplessly on to the old paradigm.

Instead, what is required is for Abbas to abandon Oslo and to persuade the public and the other factions to unleash the most powerful weapon in the Palestinian arsenal – its people.

The true “bombshell” would be to abandon the two-state illusion and replace it with a non-violent, popular civil rights struggle for equality and equal rights.

____

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared on Al Jazeera on 4 October 2015.

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Gunship diplomacy, rockets and Gaza’s forgotten tragedy

 
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By Khaled Diab

The other tragedies make it is easy to forget Gaza. But with a humanitarian crisis and rising tensions, it’s time to end the Israeli-Egyptian blockade.

Saturday 15 March 2014

Image courtesy of UNRWA

Image courtesy of UNRWA

These days it seems that Gaza only makes it on to the mainstream Western media’s radar when it involves rocket attacks or just simply rockets.

This was amply demonstrated this week, when the media took a brief break from Syria and the Ukraine to train their lens on the besieged Palestinian enclave.

On Wednesday, Gazan militants fired a barrage of rockets into southern Israel, causing no casualties. Islamic Jihad, which claimed responsibility for the attack, said it was in retaliation for an Israeli airstrike which killed three of its members a day earlier.

On Monday, Israel displayed an arms shipment it had intercepted which it said was Iranian and destined for Gaza.

Though this is not beyond the bounds of possibility, given Iran’s history of supporting Hamas, I find the claim unlikely, and that the arms were probably heading elsewhere. Firstly, relations between Iran and Hamas suffered a serious rift two years ago when Gaza’s leadership opposed Bashar al-Assad’s violent suppression of the popular uprising against his regime, and efforts to mend fences have yet to deliver substantial results.

Tehran’s subsequent withdrawal of its financial support to the embattled Hamas government has caused enormous economic hardship for the Gazan population, over and above what it endures due to the Israeli-Egyptian blockade. This is reflected in the 75% budget deficit Hamas announced for 2014, the regular 16-hour blackouts and the severe shortages Gazans must suffer.

Of course, it is possible that the arms were destined for one of Hamas’s more radical rivals, namely Islamic Jihad. However, the Israeli claim regarding the arms shipment also makes very little logistical sense.

The ship was intercepted in the Red Sea and IDF officials say that the arms were to be routed to Gaza overland via Sudan. This is a very risky and foolhardy proposition, and would almost certainly have guaranteed that the shipment was intercepted before it reached its final destination.

Port Sudan is over 1,300km away from Gaza and the huge expanse of mainland Egypt, which is hostile to Hamas, lies in-between. Any arms smuggler worth his or her salt would have docked somewhere in the increasingly lawless Sinai, where Islamist militants holed up there could’ve provided logistical support to get the weapons into Gaza – if that, indeed, was where they were bound.

Moreover, if Iran’s aim was to strike Israel, why bother with Gaza, whose border with Egypt has become more and more tightly sealed in recent months in the new regime’s bid to suffocate Hamas?

Israel identified the weapons onboard the seized vessel as being Syrian. Surely, it would have been much easier for Tehran to ask its ally in Damascus to fire these weapons into Israel across the Syrian border. If the attack was then blamed on Jihadist fighters, Iran would be able both to attack Israel by proxy while aiding its ally, Bashar al-Assad, in discrediting his enemies.

All this makes the Israeli claim that the shipment was destined for Gaza seem outlandish. So what is behind Israel’s insistence?

Part of the reason might relate to the atmosphere of public fear surrounding Iran in Israel, which does not invite a rational consideration of the evidence and facts.

For Israel’s leaders, political expediency seems to be a major factor. In his speech in Eilat, where the arms cache was presented to the international media, Binyamin Netanyahu sought to kill two birds with one stone.

First, he strove to stymie the growing rapprochement between Tehran and the West. “Just as Iran tried to camouflage this deadly weapons shipment, Iran camouflages its military nuclear programme,” the Israeli premier said, blasting Western leaders for their “hypocrisy” when “smilingly shaking hands” with Iranian leaders.

Second, the Israeli establishment used the arms shipment as an opportunity to fan the flames of distrust towards Hamas in Gaza, and the Palestinians in general, partly to enrage and frighten a fearful domestic audience. “Each one of these rockets poses a threat to the safety of the citizens of Israel, each bullet and each rocket that was discovered had an Israeli address,” Lieutenant General Benny Gantz has been quoted as saying.

This reflects Netanyahu’s own discourse on and attitude towards peace talks, which US Secretary of State John Kerry has been pushing actively through continuous shuttle diplomacy. If Israel signs a deal with the Palestinians “that peace will most certainly come under attack – constant attack by Hizbullah, Hamas, al-Qaeda and others,” the prime minister told the recent AIPAC annual conference.

And it isn’t just Kerry’s peace overtures that Netanyahu is resisting. Despite Washington’s own lethargy towards the humanitarian disaster zone that is Gaza, there is mounting international pressure to ease, or even lift, the blockade on the territory. Even the European Union is losing patience.

In a report released this week, the EU’s heads of mission called for a “strategy for a political endgame resulting in Gaza’s return to normality”, naming Israel as “the primary duty bearer” due to its role as the occupying power, while urging Hamas to instate a “categorical renunciation of violence”.

But this is likely to fall on deaf ears in Israel, where public anger is simmering, blinding people to the true causes behind this dire situation.

It has long been my view that both principle and pragmatism demand an end to the Israeli-Egyptian siege of Gaza. It is the principled thing to do because collectively and severely punishing 1.7 million civilians is inhumane.

Pragmatic because such punishment is counterproductive. Although Gaza’stroubles pale in comparison with Syria’s, the humanitarian consequences of the Israeli-Egyptian blockade have been building up over the years and continue to exact a heavy toll. Moreover, this has aroused little public protest in Israel, while the Egyptian public has gone from anger at the Mubarak regime’s complicity in the siege to cheering Egypt’s de facto leader Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi as he raises the few drawbridges providing relief to this hostage population.

In Gaza, official unemployment runs at about a third of the population, with the actual figure probably significantly higher, and almost a million of the Strip’s 1.7 million residents are expected to require food aid this year. Gaza also endures severe fuel shortages, endless blackouts, while raw sewage and seawater contaminate the water supply.

Although Israel has the right and duty to ensure the security of its citizens, Israel’s policy has failed to achieve any of its stated aims, and may even be radicalising a new generation of young Gazans who have seen nothing of Israel except its heavy boot. Egypt’s complicity in hurting a population only recently regarded as “Arab brothers” makes even less sense.

Besides, if it is a ceasefire that Israel is after, Hamas has respected the one brokered following the conflict of 2012.

This might suggest that Israel’s objectives go beyond stopping the rocket attacks and extend to destroying Hamas. But this is unlikely to work, as efforts to dislodge the Islamist movement — including major military operations since Hamas came to power, in 2006, 2008/9 and 2012 — have only strengthened its grip on power.

In addition, Israel has imposed severe restrictions on Gazans since at least 1991, when it began its permanent closure policy in the Strip, with little noticeable effect on Israel’s security or prospects for peace. 

In short, principle and pragmatism demand that both Israel and Egypt lift their inhuman and insane siege of Gaza.

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

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From peace now to peace how

 
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By Khaled Diab

As John Kerry’s efforts appear doomed, Palestinian and Israeli peace activists are left with an impossible challenge: peace how? Ask the people.

Wednesday 29 January 2014

In a speech to the World Economic Forum in Davos, US secretary of state John Kerry sounded a doubtful note on the “intractable” Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but emphasised that the US is committed to finding a solution. Kerry’s determination seems to reflect his conviction that Israel can be brought to make peace with the Arab world.

Earlier this month,  Kerry commended Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas for having “demonstrated courageous and determined leadership”. But in the real world, Palestinian negotiators are in open mutiny against Abbas, settlement building is continuing apace and senior Israeli officials are urging the government to reject any proposals put forward by the “messianic” Kerry, as Israeli Defence Minister Moshe Yaalon described him.

And to me it is unclear just how Kerry intends to breathe life back into the failed Oslo framework, especially as the race against space for the two-state solution was lost many years ago and Washington shows no signs of bringing anything new or imaginative to the table.

This has left peace activists contemplating peace how more than peace now. “Despite all Kerry’s efforts, I am not optimistic at all,” confesses Nancy Sadiq, the director of Panorama, a Palestinian pro-democracy and peace NGO in Ramallah. “I guess Netanyahu and Abbas are playing a game of political poker and they’re waiting to see who will blink first.”

“And Kerry has no Plan B,” she added for emphasis.

Sadiq co-organised the recent annual conference – which took place in Beit Sahour near Bethlehem – of the Palestinian-Israeli Peace NGO Forum, an umbrella group of around 100 pro-peace organisations, where the mood struck me as being similarly dour.

Gathered at the forum were Palestinians and Israelis from all walks of life and backgrounds – from secular types whose national background could not be determined easily to Muslim men in beards and women in headscarves, as well as Jewish men in kippas and women in wigs or colourful headscarves. There was even a man with a Moshe Dayan-style eye-patch.

This reflects the fact that, despite growing mutual hostility and rejection, not to mention the huge contraction of the active peace camp, a broad cross-section of both societies still mobilises for peace. “Peace is too dear to be left to politicians,” as one speaker put it.

Though the conference met under the banner of a “Palestinian state now”, one major overriding focus was to plan a course of action in the likely event that negotiations broke down.

“We are the peace police. We are the peace firefighters,” emphasised Yossi Beilin, the co-architect of the embattled and defunct Oslo process and the grassroots Geneva peace initiative, the sabotaging of which, the late Ariel Sharon admitted, was part of  the motivation behind his Gaza disengagement, which many leftist Israelis disastrously supported.

And preparing for a breakdown, rather than a breakthrough, seemed to be the order of the day. “There is a fear that talks will fail which will make the work of peace NGOs very difficult,” one Palestinian participant said, echoing the general sentiment.

Some participants suggested that both societies needed to focus on laying the psychological groundwork for resolution through promoting peace education and a deeper commitment to mutual non-violence.

“I wish that there was room for grassroots activities for peace, separate and joint, but it seems that the time is not yet ripe for that,” veteran Israeli peace activist Gershon Baskin told me. “While a majority of Israelis and Palestinians want peace, a majority on both sides, roughly the same size, does not believe that it is possible… because each believes that there is no partner for peace on the other side.”

Personally, I think the problem runs much deeper and relates to the political infantilisation of the public. Efforts to bring about a resolution to the conflict have largely been top-down and from the outside-in, side-lining the actual parties who will have to implement and live with any agreement – the people themselves.

In addition, the two populations have been kept artificially apart, creating fear and distrust, while no leaders of the stature of the late Nelson Mandela or FW de Klerk have emerged. These factors create ideal conditions for extremists to have their way and to reinforce the downwardly spiralling status quo.

For that reason, I do not share Baskin’s optimism that Kerry can bring about a framework agreement, and if he does, it will likely fall apart under the combined fire of extremists, fear and hatred.

In my view, the only sustainable way forward is to launch a true people’s peace process in which a bi-national conversation and negotiations involving all segments of both societies is launched to bring all the issues out clearly in the open.

In addition, anyone should be free to suggest actions and any proposals which garner enough support should be voted on by the Israeli and Palestinian publics. Any measure which the majority on both sides vote for should be implemented immediately. This will help build traction and a virtuous circle of gradual change, rather than the all-or-nothing game currently in play.

“You know what I would like to see?” Nancy Sadiq asks. “The grassroots on both sides gathering in their masses until the white smoke of peace rises from the chimney of conflict.”

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in The National on 26 January 2014.

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A peace of the people, by the people, for the people

 
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By Khaled Diab

Palestinians and Israelis don’t need more US diplomacy but a people’s peace process… and this requires mutual understanding and humanisation.

Wednesday 11 December 2013

Photo: US Department of State

Photo: US Department of State

John Kerry recently returned, yet again, to the Middle East on an impossible mission to revive stalled Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. In an effort to allay Israeli fears, the US Secretary of State was expected to present Israel’s Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, on Thursday, with a plan for security arrangements in the West Bank following the establishment of an independent Palestinian state.

Even though this is the Promised Land, the facts on the ground do  not look so promising. Just ahead of Kerry’s visit, Israel defiantly bulldozed Palestinian land earmarked for settler homes, according to media reports.

It was exactly this issue of settlement building and how it makes the establishment of an integrated and contiguous Palestinian state impossible that prompted Palestinian negotiators to quit last month, even though Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has not yet accepted their resignation.

For his part, Abbas has reportedly said he will appeal to the United Nations if peace talks fail.

On the Israeli side, Netanyahu focused on the Iran nuclear issue during his encounter with Kerry, despite the fact that, in my view, the unresolved Palestinian question is the greatest threat to Israel’s future security.

In addition, prior to the Secretary of State’s arrival, Israeli officials voiced loud criticism of Washington. For instance, Economy and Trade Minister Naftali Bennett expressing his view that Israel must reduce its dependence on the US, which was holding it “hostage”. This echoes the findings of a poll in which half of Israeli Jews believed that Israel should seek new allies other than the United States.

But judging by his previous statements, John Kerry seems undeterred by the obstacles ahead. He has warned Israel that it faces the prospect of a “third intifada” if it fails to forge a durable peace with the Palestinians, and Washington may push through its own deal in January if an agreement is not reached before then.

Despite this uncharacteristically active US diplomacy, I am unconvinced John Kerry will succeed in his mission. This is partly because the two-state formula has lost the race against space, Washington is not an honest and impartial broker, not to mention poor political leadership on both sides, a reality which favours the status quo and the downward inertia this imposes.

The Oslo process has also been undermined by its quest for a “comprehensive peace”.  This raised unrealistic expectations. In a conflict this deeply entrenched and with the massive disparity in power, there can be no ultimate, one-time, all-or-nothing resolution.

But possibly the most fatal flaw of Oslo has been its largely top-down, outside-in nature which sidelines and ignores the most vital ingredient in any truly lasting peace: the people. That is why I have repeatedly advocated a people’s peace process.

For such a grassroots effort to work and to stand a chance of success requires a high degree of mutual understanding and a good dose of empathy. This conviction is what spurred me, as an Egyptian, to climb down from the ivory tower of the outside spectator and to engage directly with Palestinians and Israelis, despite the mainstream hostility towards such encounters in the Arab world and Israel alike.

Like only a handful of Egyptian journalists and writers before me, I have embarked on a personal journey of discovery in the unholy mess of the Helly Land. I have visited Israel and Palestine, lived there for nearly two years and now have returned to live among the people again.

In my time here, I have encountered the good, the bad and the ugly, not to mention the outright eccentric, from Palestinian women race drivers to Israel Jewish Sufis who fast Ramadan. Along the way, I have had many adventures and misadventures.

To construct a proper understanding and a realistic picture, I have striven to challenge and push myself, not only questioning every aspect of the conflict, but also forcing myself to meet people from all walks of life, including those who are hostile to who I am and what I stand for, such as ideological settlers.

On the whole, Palestinians are thrilled to have an Egyptian here, given the Hollywood-like appeal of Egypt in these parts, and Israelis, who are more hospitable than their hard exterior suggests, are flattered to find an Arab willing to learn more about them.

This has enabled me to see the human face veiled by the conflict, and to witness how people on both sides are, for the most part, ordinary folk caught in an extraordinary situation – a conflict inherited from their great-grandparents which most expect to hand down, as an unenviable legacy, to their great-grandchildren.

My journey has radically altered my view of the situation and has unearthed some surprising realities, such as just how much in common Israelis and Palestinians have, their massive political differences notwithstanding, and how confoundingly diverse each society is, despite being so small that, combined, they would only make up half the population of my hometown, Cairo.

In fact, it would not be a stretch to say that, if it weren’t for the artificial political and physical constructs keeping them largely apart, many Palestinians and Israelis would find greater common cause among members of their enemy camp than among their own side.

In a bid to promote understanding, or at the very least a modicum of human sympathy, I have tried hard to capture this complexity and ambiguity in my journalism. I am also writing an ambitious book about those most intimate of enemies, those forgotten people, the Palestinians and Israelis.

Even though Israel-Palestine has become overshadowed by the recent uprisings and upheavals in the region, it is probably the most written-about conflict in the modern Middle East. But I believe my book of the people is different. Most of the literature out there deals with the geopolitics and history, focuses on the land, as if a nation is a piece of dirt and not the sum total of its people, and/or is partisan in nature.

Based on extensive interviews and thorough research, I profile both peoples in all their rich variety, relate my personal experiences living among them, explore the two societies, examine the culture, plot the differences, investigate the commonalities, and much more.

Although my book is not primarily about the politics or history, I do explore both through the prism of the people. I dig into the annals to uncover the shocking and shameful history of missed opportunities for peace over the past century, and I propose what I call the ‘non-state solution’ to the conflict.

But at the end of the day, it is up to the Israeli and Palestinian people to find the path to peace and coexistence that best suits them. And, to paraphrase Abraham Lincoln, to forge a peace of the people, by the people, for the people.

 

If you would like to keep abreast of the latest developments relating to Khaled’s book, please drop him a line at info@chronikler.com

____

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in The Huffington Post  on 5 December 2013.

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Israel-Palestine: a book of the people

 
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By Khaled Diab

In Israel-Palestine, a peace without the people has left two peoples without peace. That is why I am writing a book about these most intimate of enemies.

People: the forgotten link. Photo: ©Khaled Diab

People: the forgotten link. Photo: ©Khaled Diab

Thursday 21 November 2013

Although the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has become overshadowed by the tumultuous upheavals gripping the Middle East, the US Secretary of State has created something of a stir with his stated determination to revive the defunct and dysfunctional peace process.

John Kerry even warned Israel that it faces the prospect of a third intifada, if it failed to forge a durable peace with the Palestinians. Presumably to avoid such an outcome, Washington reportedly plans to push through its own peace deal in January if an agreement is not reached before then.

Even if the uncharacteristically stern tone Kerry adopted with Israel’s intransigent government is sincere, I cannot help but think that the Secretary of State is flogging a dead horse.

As I’ve argued on numerous occasions before, the Oslo framework has been a spectacular failure. This is for a host of reasons, including the fact that Washington is not an honest and impartial broker, as well as poor political leadership on both sides, a reality which favours the status quo and the downward inertia this imposes.

The Oslo process has also been undermined by its quest for a “comprehensive peace” and to put in place a “permanent status”.  This raised unrealistic expectations. In a conflict this deeply entrenched and with the massive disparity in power, there can be no ultimate, one-time, all-or-nothing resolution. The best we can hope for is little pieces of peace, shards of shalom or slices of salam, as the two sides gradually navigate the minefield towards conciliation.

But possibly the most fatal flaw of Oslo has been its largely top-down, inside-out nature which sidelines and ignores the most vital ingredient in any truly lasting peace: the people. That is why I have repeatedly advocated a people’s peace process.

For such a grassroots effort to work and to stand a chance of success requires a high degree of mutual understanding and a good dose of empathy. This conviction is what spurred me, as an Egyptian, to climb down from the ivory tower of the outside spectator and to engage directly with Palestinians and Israelis, despite the mainstream hostility towards such encounters in the Arab world and Israel alike.

Like only a handful of Egyptian journalists and writers before me (at least since the conflict began), I have embarked on a personal journey of discovery in the unholy mess of the Helly Land. I have visited Israel and Palestine, lived there for nearly two years and now have returned to live among the people again.

In my time here, I have encountered the good, the bad and the ugly. I have had many adventures and misadventures. Although as an Arab my instinctive sympathies are with the Palestinians, as a humanist, I have also nurtured empathy and sympathy for Israelis. To construct a proper understanding and a realistic picture, I have striven to challenge and push myself, not only questioning every aspect of the conflict, but also forcing myself to meet people from all walks of life, including those who are hostile to who I am and what I stand for, such as ideological settlers.

Along the way, I have made many good friends on both sides, and probably some enemies, though on the whole Palestinians are thrilled to have an Egyptian here, given the Hollywood-like appeal of Egypt in these parts, and Israelis, who are more hospitable than there hard exterior suggests, are flattered to find an Arab willing to learn more about them.

Photo: ©Khaled Diab

Photo: ©Khaled Diab

This has enabled me to see the human face veiled by the conflict, and to witness how people on both sides are, for the most part, ordinary folk caught in an extraordinary situation – a conflict inherited from their great-grandparents which most expect to hand down, as an unenviable legacy, to their great-grandchildren.

My journey has radically altered my view of the situation and has unearthed some surprising realities, such as just how much in common Israelis and Palestinians have, their massive political differences notwithstanding, and how confoundingly diverse each society is, despite being so small that, combined, they would only make up half the population of my hometown, Cairo.

In fact, it would not be a stretch to say that, if it weren’t for the artificial political and physical constructs keeping them largely apart, many Palestinians and Israelis would find greater common cause among members of their enemy camp than among their own side.

In a bid to promote understanding, or at the very least a modicum of human sympathy, I have tried hard to capture this complexity and ambiguity in my journalism. I am also writing an ambitious book about those most intimate of enemies, those forgotten people, the Palestinians and Israelis.

Another book, the weary reader might ask? It is true that, even though Israel-Palestine has become overshadowed by the recent uprisings and upheavals in the region, it is probably the most written-about conflict in the modern Middle East – some might say, the entire world.

But I believe my book of the people is different. Most of the literature out there deals with the geopolitics and history, focuses on the land, as if a nation is a piece of dirt and not the sum total of its people, and/or is partisan in nature.

Based on extensive interviews and thorough research, I profile both peoples in all their rich variety, relate my personal experiences living among them, explore the two societies, examine the culture, plot the differences, investigate the commonalities, and much more.

Although my book is not primarily about the politics or history, I do explore both through the prism of the people. I dig into the annals to uncover the shocking and shameful history of missed opportunities for peace over the past century, and I propose what I call the ‘non-state solution’ to the conflict.

The unusual nature of my enterprise has made publication a tough challenge, given the polarised nature of the Israel-Palestine publishing industry. Although I have written some 65,000 words and am two-thirds of the way through my manuscript, I have yet to find a publisher who will actually publish it.

A number of publishers have expressed initial interest and praised the manuscript, but have shied away from actually committing to publishing it. This is partly due to the (unintentionally) controversial nature of my work and partly due to the crisis afflicting the industry which has made editors reluctant to try the untested. Perhaps the path to follow, and one that will guarantee my editorial and political independence, is to self-publish, despite its reputation as a vanity outlet.

Whether I find a publisher or not, I am determined, with the help of family, friends and supporters, to finish what I have begun and to make whatever modest contribution I can to the quest for peace, by the people and for the people.

If you would like to keep abreast of the latest developments relating to Khaled’s book, please drop us a line at info@chronikler.com

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter. This article first appeared in The Daily Beast on 13 November 2013.

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Obama, enough listening, it’s time to act

 
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By Khaled Diab

Barack Obama’s plan to “listen” when he visits Israel and Palestine is not enough, the US president must act to launch a people’s peace process.

Wednesday 13 March 2013

Official White House photo by Pete Souza. www.whitehouse.gov

Official White House photo by Pete Souza. www.whitehouse.gov

Sages through the ages have told us that listening is a virtue – and US President Barack Obama is apparently heeding their advice. According to the new US Secretary of State John Kerry, Obama “wants to listen” during his upcoming visit to Israel and the Palestinian territories this spring.

But is this wise?

“We’re not going to go and sort of plunk a plan down and tell everybody what they have to do,” Kerry explained. And more recently, a senior US official noted: “The Israelis and Palestinians must decide what they want to do, and we’ll be happy to help.”

On the face of it, this sounds like a sensible course of action. One of the things the United States is most regularly criticised for is its dictatorial foreign policy tendency to impose its will on smaller countries.

In addition, the sympathetic and optimistic might read into Obama’s reticence a judicious and prudent silence. After all, if Washington plans to (re-)launch a serious new bid to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Obama may be keeping his cards close to his chest, given the enormous obstacles that stand in the way of peace and the potentially dire consequences of further failure.

But judging by Obama’s first term and the state of the union speech inaugurating his second – in which the only mention of the Holy Mess was the president’s reiteration of his oft-repeated pledge to “stand steadfast with Israel in pursuit of security and a lasting peace” – “listening”, the sceptic in me is tempted to conclude, sounds a lot like code for inaction and maintaining the status quo.

And maintaining the status quo has been the hallmark of Obama’s presidency, as I predicted even before he became president and after his famous Cairo speech.

“The visit will be a good opportunity to reaffirm the strong and enduring bonds of friendship between Israel and the US,” Washington’s ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro said. And in case anyone was in any doubt that this would be more than a photo-op, Obama will be feted wherever he goes and offered the Presidential Medal of Distinction during his visit – perhaps in an effort by Shimon Peres to exercise damage control following Binyamin Netanyahu’s disastrous attempt to influence the U.S. electoral process.

And if media reports are to be believed, security, or at least the illusion of it, will trump peace. The American president, Israel’s Channel 10 has claimed, intends to tell Netanyahu that a “window of opportunity” for a military strike on Iran will open in June 2013.

So, rather than chart a course towards peace between Israelis and Palestinians, Obama’s visit could trigger a plunge towards regional conflict. Meanwhile, the true “window of opportunity” and key to Israel’s future security, the Palestinians, will be ignored, relegated to non-issue status, even if they deserve their freedom and dignity, rather like they were during the Israeli elections.

However, Palestinian impatience and frustration is simmering near boiling point – with renewed talk of a third intifada, though a full-scale uprising has yet to erupt – as reflected in the collective prisoner hunger strike and demonstrations to end detention without trial following the death in Israeli custody of Arafat Jaradat.

But inaction on the Palestinian-Israeli front is not an option – at least not for anyone desiring a better and fairer future, and avoiding future escalations of the conflict. In addition, if Obama wishes to secure a lasting legacy for his presidency and to earn the Nobel peace prize he was prematurely awarded, he must do more than listen. He must take robust action.

But what can and should the American president do?

Well, freed of the spectre of re-election, Obama has the space, if he so wishes, to work towards radically redefining the US approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The first step, in my view, is for him to announce publicly that the failed, discredited and ineffective Oslo process will be abandoned.

One reason why the peace process broke down is that Washington has never succeeded in playing the role of an honest and impartial broker. To address this shortcoming, Obama should announce his intention to turn peace mediation into a truly multilateral process not only by giving the toothless Quartet real teeth but also by bringing in the Arab League and other influential and important members of the international community.

In order to focus the Israeli and Palestinian leaderships’ minds, Obama should harness and mobilise all the diplomatic and economic carrots and sticks at his disposal – and encourage international partners to do the same.

For example, he should significantly downsize US military aid to Israel – though this seems highly improbably, given new Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel’s assurances that American military assistance would continue, even as the United States hangs precariously off a fiscal cliff – and security assistance to the PA. Obama should also make continued aid to both sides contingent on progress towards peace. In Gaza, where far too many sticks have been deployed, inhumanely and ineffectually, Obama should offer to end its destructive international isolation and he should start a dialogue with the Hamas leadership – perhaps even visiting the Strip, which would be a huge symbolic act of peace and conciliation.

Of course, as decades of foreign meddling going back to the 1947 partition plan and before have clearly demonstrated, there can be no lasting resolution without broad domestic buy-in, among both Israelis and Palestinians.

This involves forcing the leaders on both sides – who are blighted with serious visionary myopia, lack courage, represent too many vested interests, and suffer from ideological paralysis and ineptitude – to take action by giving representatives of every strata of Palestinian and Israeli society seats at the negotiating table.

This may seem like a recipe for chaos, disaster and deadlock, but I am convinced that direct public dialogue and participation is essential if this impasse is ever to be overcome. One factor that has held back a peace deal, even at the most pragmatic and optimistic of times, is the fear that the negotiators would not be able to sell the agreement to their respective constituencies, particularly the radical elements among them.

By involving the public from the start, the entire process is given democratic legitimacy and ensures that there will be a groundswell of popular opinion for any accord when it comes time to sign on the dotted line.

Moreover, such a process would allow an honest public debate to emerge, within both societies and between them, which would most likely strengthen the hand of moderates and pragmatists, allowing the emergence of robust pro-peace alliances, and would shed light on who the true villains of the peace are.

Most importantly perhaps, public involvement would challenge the current levels of endemic popular apathy, cynicism, distrust and despair by empowering people to take direct responsibility for their future, and that of their children. And with apathy and despair, the best allies of extremists, out of the way, pragmatism and moderation might finally win the day.

Some might wonder how on earth you’re going to get two such fractured and divided societies, not to mention determined foes, to agree on the colour of the stationery, let alone the outlines of a comprehensive peace deal.

Well, poll after poll after poll keep suggesting to us that the public in Israel and Palestine are more sensible than their leaders, so it’s time to put that hypothesis to the test. Moreover, “comprehensive” is unlikely to happen, because as bitter experience shows, no wand exists to magic away decades of animosity and wrong turns.

Instead, we should take an immediate and incremental approach. Anything agreed on by the majority of people on both sides, no matter how small or apparently insignificant, should be put to an immediate referendum and implemented straight away. This would gradually improve the situation, create positive momentum, and build a house of peace, shalom, salom, or even salom, one brick at a time.

“All of us have a responsibility to work for the day when the mothers of Israelis and Palestinians can see their children grow up without fear,” Obama said in Cairo, at the beginning of his first term. I hope he lives up to this responsibility by supporting and facilitating a peace of the people, by the people and for the people.

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Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in Haaretz on 10 March 2013.

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