Hanna Khamis the myths of the Oslo Process and why it has failed to deliver peace or economic and social gains to the Palestinians

As Israeli tanks and bulldozers bury any lingering hopes of an early peace settlement in the rubble of West bank towns, it is legitimate to ask, why? What can the Israeli State hope to achieve by dismantling the very institutions they had invested so much effort in creating? The convoluted peace process begun in Oslo some 12 years ago may have ground to a halt even before the second intifada and the Sharon election victory administered it the coup de grace, but the PNA, with Arafat at its head, still posed the option of an imposed deal that could be given a wash of legitimacy. That option has now gone for the duration of this government and the next, at the very least.

In the aftermath of the offensive, Sharon has insisted this sacrifice was far from accidental. He has gone from the destruction of the institutions that would have underpinned some sort of Palestinian entity, to demanding the removal from the stage of the only person who could have negotiated in the name of all Palestinians: Arafat.

There is deep irony here. Before the invasion of the West Bank towns, the main thrust of Israeli propaganda was that Arafat was now irrelevant. He could not control his people, had lost his base of support, was forced through his weakness (or, alternatively, was driven by his malevolence) to support attacks on Israel. There was some truth to this, in that Arafat was totally bound up with the Oslo Process and its failure to deliver either peace or economic and social gains to Palestinians had resulted in a drift of support to more radical groupings. However, one consequence of the siege of Arafat at Ramallah has been an improvement in his standing, granting him greater freedom of manoeuvre. Sharon has no intention of utilising such an opening, at least not beyond shortterm goals such as ending the Bethlehem church siege. Negotiations with Palestinians on a full settlement are off the agenda.

Arafat’s capitulation

A full appreciation of the gravity of this change in Israeli strategic thinking requires a brief review of the last 10 years. These were the years of Oslo, of grinding negotiations, of Palestinian concessions, of Israeli facts on the ground. It was also the years of the construction of the PNA (in essence, of a Palestinian police force), of the semi-autonomous Palestinian enclaves and of the Israeli–controlled barriers between them.

The Oslo Process was one of the first results of the new world order that followed the collapse of the USSR and the assembling of the Gulf War coalition. For Israel, the rewards were an end to the intifada that had damaged its standing abroad, while sapping morale and threatening the consensus at home. Maintaining an occupation army had become a burden both economically and socially. The idea of a client Palestinian state that would police its population on Israel’s behalf was appealing. There was another prize in waiting, though: Israel’s economy was straining at the bit. It was a regional super-power without a region to dominate, forced into competing for sales in Europe and the
USA, denied its own sphere in North Africa and, critically, the oil states of the Gulf. A peace settlement seemingly accepted by the Palestinians would open the doors locked for 50 years. The process required a further ingredient – a partner to negotiate with. This was provided by the Arafat wing of the PLO. It was a perfect match – an aging leader who wished to see some success before he died, who could still trade on his status as the symbol of Palestinian resistance to Israel, along with a liberation army that had grown soft and corrupt in North African havens, far from any conflict zone. In return for conceding 78% of the Palestinian territory to Israel, this body of men was returned to the Occupied Territories. The British police and the

CIA engaged in training this force for its role as controller of Palestinian militants. Half of the Gaza Strip and, one by one, the towns of the West Bank were handed over to the control of the PNA.

However, Israel failed to keep its side of the bargains in full. The settlement building program and expropriation of Palestinian land continued at an accelerated pace. Deadline after deadline in the original process timetable was missed. Every act of resistance by the militants of Hamas and Islamic Jihad was met by collective punishments which served to illustrate how feeble was the autonomy of the
PNA areas. These did not control even their power and water supplies. A succession of blockades strangled the
PNA economy. Palestinians began to look back at the intifada years as a golden era.

When Barak presented the final settlement plan, against the background of an impending election defeat, it fell far short of what Arafat could sign. It gave the Palestinians only 90% of the remaining 22% of Palestine, and that territory was too fragmented to be viable. Furthermore, Israel retained control over borders and foreign policy. Access of Palestinian goods and labour to the Israeli market was to be curtailed. No satisfactory answer was given to the questions of Jerusalem and of the refugees. The Palestinians asked for more time to consider the plan and propose amendments. The Israelis walked out, withdrawing the offer. In the meantime, Sharon staged his visit to El Aqsa Mosque and triggered the second intifada.

Return of the Transfer Option

After his election victory, Sharon’s strategy appeared to be ambiguous. He led a coalition government and, although he had won the election, a clear majority of the population favoured a deal which would create a Palestinian entity of some form. His response to the intifada was a tight ring of steel around the
PNA areas and, in time, brief incursions into them. This escalating violence drew an unsurprising response – an escalating rate of reprisals, including suicide bombings. It could still be argued, though, that Sharon was attempting to squeeze the fight out of Palestinians and would then seek their agreement to a plan still less favourable to them than the Barak plan.

The strategy has now become clearer – and negotiations are not part of it. Among Sharon’s rivals on the right, former Prime Minister Netanyahu has publicly advocated reoccupation of the West Bank and Gaza. However, it is hard to see a simple return to the morass of the 1980’s as being a credible goal. This would have to be a reoccupation with another agenda – ethnic cleansing. The Transfer Option, the name used to make more palatable the idea of expelling all Palestinians from the Occupied Territories, has long been attractive to Sharon, who has often stated that Jordan is the natural location for a Palestinian State. Annexation of the West Bank and Gaza into a Greater Israel has always featured in the Likud programme. The main obstacles to carrying out the policy have been world and internal opinion. One of Sharon’s successes has been to shift internal opinion far to the right. For example, two years ago, less than eight per cent of those who took part in a Gallup poll among Jewish Israelis said they were in favour of the Transfer Option. Now, that figure stands at 44 per cent. As for the world, the USA, its most important component, in Israeli eyes at least, has shown that its protests are for window dressing only.

An Israeli historian, Martin van Creveld, has suggested that plans have already been laid for carrying out the transfer. All that is needed is a pretext. One possible trigger could be a major US assault on Iraq. One danger sign is that Israel’s supporters in the USA have been geared up to start preparing the US public for the crime. On May 2nd, Republican House Majority Leader Dick Armey, endorsed on television the expulsion of all Palestinians from the Occupied Territories. This is just the most serious of recent calls for ethnic cleansing to appear in the US media.

Build the Solidarity Campaign

The recent Guardian Opinion Poll showed an overwhelming majority of those with an opinion now supported the Palestinians. The invasion of the Occupied Territories has created an opportunity to build a mass, global, solidarity movement over this issue. Unless we seize the opportunity, we may end up watching helplessly while 2 million Palestinians are evicted from their homes and land.

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