Column: Dispatches From the Edge: Israel and Palestine: Is There a Way Out? By Conn Hallinan

Friday December 23, 2005

In a 2002 Le Monde Diplomatique article titled “Constructing Catastrophe,” Israeli journalist Amon Kapeliouk challenged one of the central myths about the ongoing conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. To wit: that Palestinian President Yasir Arafat was offered a great deal at the Camp David talks in July 2000, but turned it down and launched Intifada II.  

What is so damaging about the Camp David myth is that it perpetuates the fable that the Palestinian side of the peace equation is unreliable. It is at the core of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s argument that Israel has “no partner for peace,” and Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz’s comment that Israel “will have to wait for the next generation [of Palestinian leaders] for a peace agreement.” 

The “no partner” myth is the rationale behind the unilateralism the Sharon government has practiced over the past four years on everything from building the wall, to withdrawing from Gaza. It will also be at the center of the upcoming Israeli elections in March, which will go a long way towards determining whether there will be a peace agreement or another generation of war and reprisal. 

According to Kapeliouk, the Palestinians were wary about Camp David because Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak refused to lay out a pre-talk proposal. But because the Palestinians were also worried that if they refused to sign on, Barak and President Bill Clinton would paint them as obstructionists, they agreed to the negotiations. 

Sure enough, when the Palestinians got to Camp David they were handed an offer they could only refuse: Israeli sovereignty over the Haram al Sharif, Islam’s third holiest site; continued Israeli presence in the West Bank; no sharing of Jerusalem; and no plan for the 3.1 million Palestinian refugees. To top it off, Barak insisted nothing be written down. 

The Palestinians countered with a proposal to give up 9 percent of the West Bank, agree to Israeli sovereignty over settlements in East Jerusalem, and to find a solution to the refugee issue that “would not threaten Israeli demographic and security interests.” 

The Palestinians also wanted this in document form because they felt that by not insisting on specific language concerning the settlements, they had been burned in the 1993 Oslo Accords. At the time, the Palestinians assumed Oslo meant the settlements would be frozen until a final agreement was worked out. Instead, Israel doubled the settler population and built more than 40 new ones. 

The U.S.-Israeli response was “take it or leave it.” Arafat said no and for most Israelis and virtually all Americans (Europeans and the rest of the world never thought the Camp David proposals were fair), the Palestinians got tagged as the bad guys.  

Sharon and his new Kadima Party will run on this “bad guy/no partner” myth, particularly since Hamas did so well in the last round of Palestinian elections. His only serious opposition—Amir Peretz, the newly elected head of the Labor Party—will have to confront this myth.  

If there is anyone who has the credentials to do this, it is Peretz.  

He was one of the so-called “Eight,” the members of the Knesset who called for full withdrawal from the territories and a two-state solution back in 1988. He is also a long-time member of Peace Now. He told LaborStart last June, “I see the occupation as an immoral act,” and that the issue is “not a territorial question but one of morality,” adding, “when a nation rules for 38 years over another people, moral norms become twisted.” 

However, it appears that Labor will try to avoid getting into a slugging match with Sharon over security by focusing on “it’s the economy, stupid!”  

Yuri Tamir, a Labor Party politician close to Peretz, says the fight with Sharon is “not about policy toward the Palestinians—on which we largely agree—but about economic policy.” 

However, with the occupation costing $1.4 billion a year (not counting building the wall) there is simply no way to separate those issues. As former Knesset member Uri Avnery points out, the two are intertwined and Labor must link the growing economic inequities in Israel to the occupation. 

So far, Peretz supports Labor’s basic positions on the territories: keep the major settlements in the West Bank, deny Palestinians full sovereignty in economic, diplomatic and military affairs, and maintain control of a united Jerusalem. He also supports the wall, which is slowing strangling the possibility of a viable Palestinian state. These current positions are not likely to lead to peace. 

Unlike Sharon, however, he promises to negotiate with the Palestinians.  

Peretz’s election to head Labor has already driven the national dialogue to the left. No other major politician uses the words “occupation” and “morality” in the same sentence. He has also turned a spotlight on the neo-liberal economic policies of former Economic Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.  

As the Labor Party’s first Sephardic leader, Peretz will directly challenge the lock Likud and the right-wing Shas Party has had on this population of poor and marginalized Israelis. As the leader of Histadrut, Israel’s trade union organization, he has campaigned for raising the minimum wage, guaranteeing trade union rights, and resisting the wave of privatization that has impoverished a growing number of Israelis. 

He also initiated a series of meetings with the Histadrut’s counterpart, the Palestinian General Federation of Trade Unions. 

Peretz says he wants to address the “strange situation” in Israel, “in which the lower classes and the working class tend to support the parties of the right, and the upper class tends to support the Left.” He says this not only prevents the Left from winning elections, “it has also caused the concept of peace to become an elitist product which is identified with factory owners and not factory workers.” 

It has been a long time since Labor has used this kind of language, and it has stirred hope among peace activists. Even a critic like University of Haifa professor, Ilan Pappas says, “A cool-headed assessment of Peretz’s politics should not preclude the kind of hope that attended Yitzhak Rabin’s second term as prime minister, when he joined the peace camp, despite his previous brutal policies in the Occupied Territories.”  

At the same time, Pappas warns that unless there is a willingness to negotiate seriously with the Palestinians, Israel may face “strong international pressure, of the kind that was directed against apartheid in South Africa in the form of sanctions, boycotts and disinvestments.” 

Such a campaign is already underway among a number of churches in the U.S., and Europe, and the EU recently proposed scaling back support for infrastructure work like roads and rail lines in the West Bank. The organization is also contemplating giving legal help to stop the demolition of Palestinian houses, and to meet with Palestinian leaders in East Jerusalem rather than Ramallah. 

There is much at stake in the upcoming election, for both Israelis and Palestinians. Polls predict a Sharon victory, but he is not in the best of health, and the election is three months away. According to Avnery, Peretz must seize the opportunity, and take the issue of peace head-on. “After so many sacrifices of blood and money,” he argues, “the public may be ripe for this.”