Appearance is Everything

The Guardian- 08/08/2007

US Secretary of State Condolleeza Rice has now completed her four day trip to the Middle East. Dr. Rice was evidently well-pleased at what she found, describing herself as “impressed by the seriousness of (Olmert and Abbas) to really advance this two state solution.” A number of commentators have remarked on the similarity between the current moment and the days of the Oslo peace process. A notable difference, however, is that during Oslo one had the sense that the protagonists, or at least some of them, really believed they were on the way to making peace in the Middle East. This time around, the whole thing has a strained, slightly unreal sense to it. What lies behind this?

First, it’s crucial to understand the regional backdrop. The war in Iraq has ushered in a new Middle East. Unfortunately, it isn’t the new Middle East that the war’s planners had hoped for. The new regional dispensation is one characterized by a contest between the United States and its allies on the one hand, and Iran and its clients on the other. This has brought a rapid end to hopes for regional democratization, and a return to older methods and conceptions of the region.

The revived ‘peace process’ is part of a rearguard action intended to solidify the ranks of the regional opponents of Iran and of revolutionary Islamism. The so-called axis of moderation – Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan – do not wish, by aligning with the US and Israel, to leave Iran and its allies to champion the cause of the Palestinians – still the greatest ‘legitimating card’ in regional politics. There is therefore a need for something to seem to be happening on the Israeli-Palestinian track.

But the chances of all this actually leading anywhere – as protagonists from both sides will tell you behind the scenes – are close to zero. Why?

Firstly, because the two leaders, Olmert and Abbas, lack credibility with their respective publics. Indeed, a sizable part of Abbas’s public currently lives under the rival Palestinian Authority maintained by Hamas in Gaza. The very existence of that authority raises the question of in whose name exactly will Abbas and Fayad be negotiating, and who will feel bound by any agreement they might reach.

Olmert, meanwhile, has been deeply unpopular among the Israeli public since the Lebanon War last year, and surely lacks the authority that would be required to order the large scale removal of West Bank Jewish communities as part of any deal. Olmert needs to give his own government – rudderless for the last year – a defining task, and the revived peace process seems tailor-made for the purpose. But again, the current government of Israel can do appearance, but not substance, on this issue.

Secondly, there is the more fundamental issue of intention. The peace process of the 1990s collapsed not because of a misunderstanding, but because of the fundamentally irreconcilable positions of the sides – most crucially, on the issue of the Palestinian refugees of 1948 and their descendants. The Israeli left thought that the Palestinian ‘right of return’ was a sort of metaphor, which required only a bit of empathy and a few ritual expressions of guilt to be satisfied. They found out they were wrong. The issue of the refugees remains the single most defining element of Palestinian nationalism. It is also an issue on which Israel cannot concede without ceasing to exist as the expression of the national rights of the Jews – its very raison d’etre.

Is there a substantive basis for supposing that even among the narrow circles around Abbas and Fayad, the idea of the real-life realization of the ‘right of return’ has been transcended? Well, there was the much reported fact that the guidelines of the new PA government spoke only of a ‘just and agreed upon solution to the refugee problem’, rather than openly demanding the ‘return’ of the 1948 refugees and their descendants to Israel. But the current – relative – flexibility of Fatah is a product of its extreme weakness, not of any historic compromise. And with this movement currently engaged in a battle with the Islamist Hamas for the leadership of Palestinian nationalism, it is unimaginable that it would be prepared to compromise on this defining element of Palestinian identity.

So there you have it. Various influential parties have an interest in the appearance of a peace process. So the appearance of a peace process there shall be. But there has been no substantive shift in the underlying geology of the conflict to really merit the latest outburst of diplomacy. Rather, it is motivated by regional and internal political factors not directly related to the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. Given this, the likelihood is that a great deal of process is about to take place, but that peace will remain elusive.

About jonathanspyer

Jonathan Spyer is a Middle East analyst, author and journalist specializing in the areas of Israel, Syria and broader issues of regional strategy. He is the director of the Middle East Center for Reporting and analysis (MECRA), a research fellow at the Jerusalem Institute for strategy and Security (JISS) and a Fellow at the Middle East Forum.
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