Palestinian state as Israeli demand
It is pointless to ask why the British prime minister or why the chief executive of the World Bank never visited Palestine while Arafat was alive. No one will answer. But there they were when, on 20 December, George Bush reminded us that he was the first American president to officially acknowledge the principle of the creation of a Palestinian state. Yet, the principle was implicit in Clinton's proposals in Camp David II and even Sharon had declared his acceptance of the need to create a Palestinian state ahead of Bush. So, what distinguishes the current diplomatic drive on Palestine, explicitly, implicitly or otherwise?
The question of Palestine, today, is being presented as the question of a state, and nothing but a state: a state without borders, without a capital and without a national cause ñ just a state. There is a concerted attempt to create the impression that if "a state", with the emphasis on the indefinite article, is offered to the Palestinians they cannot refuse. After all, everyone knows that that is what they have been fighting for, so when it is offered to them on a platter what more could they ask for?
One could not help but to be struck by the coincidence between Sharon's optimism and an Arab optimism of a very particular stamp. Something jarred, and instinctively one's eyes did a double take and one's ears pricked up. Certainly, both senses couldn't be wrong, or perhaps one of the two senses had to accommodate to the other.
The Israelis are reading portents of great change in Sharon's Herzliya speech of 16 December. Certainly, in Israeli language and substance the speech was upbeat and thus merited being dubbed the "historical opportunities speech." But, if Sharon is optimistic, the Arabs have every cause to wonder why; they certainly have no cause to share the sentiment unless they accept its component parts.
The Israeli optimism that sees "historical opportunities" in Sharon's speech can only stem from the prospect of an "improvement in Israel's strategic condition" ñ as Sharon, himself, said in his speech ñ a major component of which resides in "the most important accomplishment" of the disengagement plan which was "the understandings between US President Bush and me." Sharon goes on to call upon the Palestinian leadership to share his optimism by "taking a historic decision to stop those who support terror," for by taking such a historic decision the leadership will qualify to be a partner ñ in what? ñ in "coordinating various elements relating to our Disengagement Plan with a government which is ready and able to take responsibility for the areas which we leave." Take it as read that Sharon expects the Palestinians, who had no input in that plan and refused to respond to it, to regard Israel's readiness to let a "responsible" PA maintain security on Israel's behalf in the areas it vacates as a great Israeli compromise, and thus cause for optimism. Sharon goes on to say that if the PA is successful in this task this will pave the way to comprehensive peace negotiations ñ with no question of breaching the ceiling of the understandings between Bush and Sharon of course Again, Palestinians are to hail the return to the negotiating table on the basis of these understandings, which embody the Israeli formula for a permanent settlement, ñ Israel's major political accomplishment from the disengagement plan, we recall ñ as a great achievement. This is what it takes to be optimistic.
If the understandings are the bases for Sharon's optimism it obviously does not follow that the Arabs should thrill in unison. As Sharon made so explicit in his speech, Bush pledged to support the annexation of Jerusalem and Israeli settlement blocs to Israel and the exclusion of the Palestinian right to return within the framework of a permanent solution. However, instead of taking this as impetus to reform the Arab order, to truly work together to defend Palestinian and Arab rights against Sharon's designs to swallow up as large chunks as possible of the occupied territories, to counter his incitement, which was blatant in his speech, against Syria and against the Palestinian resistance, and other such actions that would really give us cause for hope, some Arabs and Palestinians rushed to embrace that artificial patina of Sharonic optimism that so thinly disguises what should give us (presuming we have a collective opinion on the matter) cause for the gravest concern.
These Arab and Palestinian optimists have sought comfort or justification in the argument that the disengagement plan is part of the roadmap. Sadly, they are deceiving no one but themselves. Lest we forget, the author of the roadmap took the trouble to spell out his perception of where that road would lead. That destination, as Arab policy makers are perfectly well aware, is not contained in the roadmap but in the "vision" detailed by Bush in his letter of guarantees to Sharon. The most telling proof of the fallacy of the premise that the disengagement plan as part of the roadmap is cause to join in Sharon's optimism is to be found, firstly, in the stance the Israeli government took in a recent case before the Israeli courts. In a dispute between two Israeli settlements, one inside the Green Line, the other outside, the former claimed that the latter was expanding illegally. Lawyers for the first settlement argued that Alfi Manshi ((SP??)), as the settlement outside the Green Line is called, was constructing what it termed a new neighbourhood located two kilometers away from the settlement and that this project was in effect a new settlement and as such violated the roadmap that Israel had approved. The public prosecutor, representing the government, countered that the government did not recognize the legal efficacy or validity of the roadmap. But just in case we missed this message, Sharon's bureau chief Dov Weisglass was not so subtle. In his speech at Herzliya, delivered just a day before Sharon's, he said that the roadmap was not a conception of a permanent solution but a guide to the phases of the negotiating process, no more no less. In other words, he is telling us, if the Arabs want to consider the disengagement plan as part of the roadmap that is perfectly alright with Israel.
But what about the Palestinian state, some might ask. Didn't you say that Sharon approved of the idea? And so he did, even before the roadmap was unveiled. But to Sharon, a Palestinian state means demographic separation. It means a state on the smallest patch of land possible containing the largest number of Palestinians possible, a state constructed on the logic of Elon's historical plan and of Begin's concept of autonomy. But more importantly to Sharon, the state has now become a prerequisite for continuing negotiations over a final settlement. Yes, what since Rabin had been regarded as a distasteful inevitability of a permanent settlement has become an Israeli demand that must be fulfilled not just before a permanent settlement but instead of a permanent settlement To Sharon, a Palestinian state is another word for a protracted interim period. Whether this state is created on a little more or a little less than 40 per cent of the occupied territories is not the point; the point is to make it the cornerstone of a drawn-out interim phase after which negotiations will take place with a government that has demonstrated its mettle as a government, which is to say proven its ability to monopolize the means of violence and to organize its legal and social affairs. Once this state is in place, according to Sharon's way of thinking, everyone can relax, because then negotiations over a the outstanding issues of a final settlement can proceed in a nice, genteel pace until the end of time if the negotiating parties so desire, because then the nature of the conflict will have been transformed into a dispute between two states. And what outstanding issues might two states have to settle between them? Borders of course. Niggling details over borders. Certainly not national rights or other matters pertaining to national liberation. And certainly not the Palestinian right to return. Naturally, the Palestinian state established in Gaza and a portion of the West Bank will have the right to grant passports to Palestinian refugees if it wants. In fact, it can even grant them the right to return to the areas within its borders. That would be its right as a state, which Sharon would gracefully acknowledge or, if not gracefully, he would object and then grudgingly make another "painful concession."
This is Sharon's concept of a Palestinian state. It is his alternative to a fully sovereign state with a capital in Jerusalem, to the 1967 borders and to the Palestinian right to return. And not one word of the roadmap contradicts his "vision." It is also his alternative to having to negotiate with a national liberation movement. There is a vast difference between negotiating a final settlement with a state and with a national liberation movement. Dozens of states have borders disputes; there is nothing particularly urgent or unsettling about them, unlike national liberation causes. Sharon has no intention of broaching the latter, and the Palestinians will forfeit the opportunity to broach them too if they accept the creation of a state outside the framework of a just, comprehensive and permanent solution, a state amputated at its inception and that Sharon intends to make the permanent solution.