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Palestine and Israel at the Sham Sharm Talks

by Phyllis Bennis
February 11th, 2005

** The U.S. goal for the Sharon-Abbas ceasefire talks was to provide a new chance for Sharon and Abu Mazen to deliver a level of quiet on the Israel-Palestine front so it does not continue to undermine the Iraq war and U.S. regional goals. The Israeli goal was to normalize the occupation, not to end it. The Palestinian Authority's goal was to give Israel what it wants (an end to militant resistance) in the hope that the Bush administration will eventually make good on its claimed commitment to a Palestinian state, however truncated, divided and besieged.

** Security for Israel, not an end to Israeli occupation and creation of a Palestinian state, was the only operative focus.

** The talks reflected U.S. and Israeli hopes and Palestinian exhaustion. Whether a Palestinian ceasefire holds (the only issue relevant to the U.S.) will reflect decisions made by militant organizations regarding their accountability to Palestinian public opinion; Abu Mazen does not have the capacity to "impose" such a ceasefire.

** There is no evidence of the U.S. planning a bigger, let alone different, diplomatic role; the newly appointed U.S. security coordinator's role is to monitor Palestinian, not Israeli, compliance. Monitoring continuing Israeli use of U.S.-supplied weapons in violation of U.S. domestic law is not part of Gen. Ward's mandate.

** Israel's negotiations on serious issues (before and after Sharm al-Sheikh) are being conducted with the U.S., not with the Palestinians. They include where settlements can be strengthened, how much land can be annexed, how to continue building the Apartheid Wall despite the World Court ruling against it. The U.S. is not holding Israel accountable even to its existing obligations under the U.S.-backed "Roadmap."

** These talks are not "historic." Earlier parallels of failed Middle East peace talks in history include the U.S.-convened 1991 Madrid talks after the Gulf War as well as the 1993 Oslo Declaration. In all of them, occupation was never mentioned.

** For optimists, the "best" possible outcome would be a return to the conditions of September 2000 before the second intifada began - recalling that those "better" conditions were so desperate that they led directly TO the uprising.

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The Bush administration orchestrated the Sharm al-Sheikh talks as part of their regional strategy centered by the Iraq War. That strategy requires reassuring Arab governments, as well as attempted reassurance to the Arab populations, that U.S. calls for "freedom" and "liberty" in the region include dealing with the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, even if ending the Israeli occupation was never on the U.S. agenda. The immediate goal is a period of calm - characterized by an end, or at least serious decrease, in Palestinian militant attacks against the Israeli occupation.

So far the Bush administration has largely succeeded in its effort to win U.S. political and media acceptance of the Palestinians-must-provide-security-for-Israel approach to these talks. When Israeli troops shot and killed Fathi Abu Jazar in Rafah the day after the ceasefire talks, the Washington Post never mentioned it. But the next day, when Hamas fired mortars towards Israeli settlements in Gaza, with no casualties, in claimed response to the killing of Abu Jazar, the Post responded with a huge headline "Radical Palestinians Attack Jewish Settlements in Gaza: Abbas Reacts Quickly by Firing 10 Security Officials." Only in the second to last paragraph was there any mention of Abu Jazar "reportedly" being hit by Israeli fire. The New York Times did mention the shooting of Abu Jazar (but never named him) in a story headlined "Israelis and Palestinians Cautiously Optimistic on Road Ahead." But the next day the Times' piece began "In the first serious test of the Israeli-Palestinian truce, the Palestinian leader, Mahmous Abbas, fired three of his security chiefs on Thursday after Palestinian factions staged a mortar and rocket attack on Jewish settlements in the southern Gaza Strip." The Israeli killing of Abu Jazar was clearly not a "serious test of the Israeli-Palestinian truce."

On their own terms, the talks were never designed to move towards ending the Israeli occupation. Indeed, the word "occupation" never appeared in any of the statements from either the Israeli or Palestinian officials. Rather, the goal was to end Palestinian militant resistance to the occupation, thus normalizing life for Israelis. Palestinians, even with a partial redeployment of troops out of some West Bank cities, even with 10% of the prisoners released, even if Israel temporarily halted its assassination policy, would still live under conditions of military occupation in which all economic, social and political life is constrained and controlled by Israeli troops.

Without moving directly towards an end to occupation, "peace talks," even security talks, are almost certain to fail. The goal of these talks was not to move towards peace, justice and an end to occupation, but to put Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) on record with a full commitment to stop any Palestinian attacks on Israel. That would include not only attacks on civilians but attacks on occupying soldiers as well. Israeli Prime Minister Sharon's statement made clear that Israel's commitment not to kill Palestinians was conditional and reactive, valid only as long as Sharon believes the Palestinians are complying; there is no such conditioning of the Palestinian commitment.

For Israel, the talks were based on hopes that its willingness to talk to Abu Mazen, after years of isolating Yasir Arafat as the "obstacle to peace," will be sufficient to satisfy U.S. interests in finding something resembling a solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict. So far that hope seems likely to be realized. After four years of the intifada, and hundreds of Israeli casualties both military and civilian, Sharon is under pressure to bring Israel back to "normal" life - meaning generally life as it was in September 2000. If Sharon can claim credit for an end, even a significant diminution, of Palestinian resistance violence, he will win his victory.

For Palestinians, the talks were largely a reflection of the exhaustion of four years of escalating occupation violence, more than 3200 dead, continued settlement expansion and the continued land-grab known as the Apartheid Wall, massive impoverishment, social and economic stagnation, and internal corruption. Palestinian public opinion has for more than a year begun to turn against military attacks as a viable resistance strategy. The significant second-place showing of human rights campaigner Mustafa Barghouti in the recent Palestinian presidential election is one indicator of that shift. If a Palestinian ceasefire holds (the only issue relevant to the U.S.) it will reflect decisions made by militant organizations regarding their accountability to that shifting public opinion; Abu Mazen does not have the political legitimacy or the military capacity to "impose" such a ceasefire. Unless Sharon is prepared to move seriously towards ending occupation, even in the future, it is unlikely his current conditional agreements will give Abu Mazen enough to consolidate his political base. Israeli indications (they are no more than that) on prisoner release (900 out of almost 10,000), redeployment of occupation soldiers out of several West Bank towns (but not removing them from the occupied territories), allowing workers back into Israel (a couple thousand when 150,000 Palestinians worked inside Israel before 2000), and maybe "easing" a few checkpoints (when 750 permanent checkpoints choke off life for Palestinians throughout the West Bank) are simply insufficient for Palestinians to take seriously.

The U.S. remains the key factor in determining whether or not these talks are a serious beginning or simply one more smile-for-the-cameras spin stunt. So far, there is no evidence of the U.S. planning a bigger, let alone different, diplomatic role. A big part of the reason for U.S. pressure to convene the talks is rooted in the U.S. government's need, in the midst of a losing Iraq War strategy, to convince its regional and global allies (and its opponents) that it is serious about "expanding democracy" in the Middle East as a whole. While the eagerness of Jordan's king and Egypt's president-for-life to preside over the festivities (and the Condoleezza Rice's eagerness to stand aside while they do so) may indicate that the plan is working at the regional governmental level, there is no indication that it is being taken seriously in the Arab street or anywhere in Europe. Leaders of the UN, Russia and the EU, who pretended to be equal partners with the U.S. in the 2002 "Quartet" clearly have no intention of protesting the all-but-official abandonment of the Roadmap and of their alleged role in the context of these new talks.

The Bush administration role has not qualitatively changed. Bush and Rice continue to refuse selection of a high-level special envoy to engage in the "peace process." Instead, Rice selected a new U.S. "security coordinator," the title specifically chosen to make clear his limited mandate. General Ward will spend most of his time in the Palestinian territories, and his role is to monitor Palestinian, not Israeli, compliance with the ceasefire call. Monitoring continuing Israeli use of U.S.-supplied weapons in the occupied territories, violation of U.S. domestic law as well as international law, is not part of Gen. Ward's mandate. Those continuing violations include the use of F-16 fighter-bombers, Apache helicopter gunships, Hellfire missiles, Caterpillar armored D-9 bulldozers and other U.S.-provided military equipment to attack Palestinian towns, demolish Palestinian homes, uproot Palestinian olive trees, and construct Israeli settlements and the Apartheid Wall on Palestinian land. None of those actions are prohibited, nor did Israel promise to avoid any of them, in the latest talks.

In 2003 the U.S. had insisted that Israel sign on to the "Roadmap." But Israel's acceptance was conditioned by its 14 points of disagreement, and the U.S. accepted that. The obligations Israel actually accepted in the Roadmap, including a complete freeze of all settlement activity, dismantling over 50 settlements established since 2001 (misleadingly identified as "illegal" settlements as if the others were somehow legal because they are older), end house demolitions, and pay the Palestinians the tax revenues due them, are not even mentioned.

Israel is in fact negotiating on critical issues of settlements, the Wall, Jerusalem, even the Palestinian right of return. It just isn't negotiating with Palestinians. Rather, Tel Aviv is and has been negotiating these issues with U.S. intermediaries, to determine how far it can go in annexing additional territory, expanding settlements, avoiding sanctions or other consequences for its violations of the International Court of Justice's findings against the Wall. It should be noted again that Sharon's plan for a withdrawal of soldiers and settlers from Gaza will not only leave Gaza as besieged rather than occupied (with all entrance and exit, all border crossings, the ports, seas and airspace of Gaza all remaining under Israeli control) but it will be accompanied by the annexation of huge swathes of far more valuable West Bank land, an arrangement accepted by President Bush in the spring of 2003.

These talks are obviously not the first to raise hopes for a new era of Middle East diplomacy. Earlier parallels of failed Middle East peace talks in history include the U.S.-convened 1991 Madrid talks after the Gulf War, in which U.S. and Israeli willingness to talk to Palestinian interlocutors (although the PLO was officially shut out of the process, as were all Palestinian refugees, Palestinians inside Israel and those living in Jerusalem) was considered enough of a breakthrough that no serious negotiation was required. Like the current talks, in Madrid international law was never identified as the fundamental basis for any negotiations. Those talks foundered and failed. Similarly, the 1993 Oslo Declaration included two full volumes of detailed analysis of first and final stages, sequences of actions, and more. In none of them was the word "occupation" mentioned. Abu Mazen, who shook hands with Sharon this week in Sharm al-Sheikh, was the primary author of the Oslo agreement.