Michael Young
The National (Opinion)
December 17, 2009 - 1:00am

Two authors who have written lucidly and imaginatively on the Palestinian-Israeli peace process are Robert Malley and Hussein Agha. Mr Malley served in the National Security Council under Bill Clinton, and heads the Middle East programme at the International Crisis Group, while Mr Agha is a senior associate member at St Antony’s College, Oxford. Yet recently they wrote an article in The New York Review of Books that showed how, when it comes to a final settlement between Israelis and Palestinians, their imagination has dried up.

The article examines why the Palestinian-Israeli negotiation process has reached such deadlock. With a clinical eye they list the obstacles to progress, and propose, without strong endorsement, alternative strategies to make an evidently impossible agreement possible. However, their diagnosis of the difficulties is so precise, so devastating, that they ultimately neutralise their own desire to flash a light at the end of the tunnel. The machine is broken, and for all the authors’ efforts to submit novel approaches to fix it, none is particularly convincing.

One of these in particular, however, has been making the rounds among publicists. The proposal advocates adoption of a comprehensive approach to resolving the conflict between Palestinians and Israelis, one that addresses not only the territorial disagreements resulting from the 1967 war, but also the psychological needs emerging from that of 1948.

A defender of this idea is the Jordanian-Palestinian columnist Rami Khouri, who has written: “It seems time to admit that attempts to evade, sugar-coat, or postpone coming to grips with the events of 1947-1948 in Palestine will always wreck all other signs of progress or hope.” His view is echoed by the Palestinian writer Marzouq al-Halabi: “The fundamental problem with the Oslo Accords was that the language of negotiations did not address the moral components of the conflict … It did not expand to include an Israeli acknowledgement of the historical injustice that the Zionist project and the establishment of Israel […] inflicted upon the Palestinians [and] it did not address Jewish existential fears nor the Holocaust and its impact on Israeli experience.”

For Mr Malley and Mr Agha, the outcome of returning to these core issues is uncertain, and may be “painful and prolonged”. However, they continue, “at a minimum the effort would be fresh, the leaders untainted and unencumbered by what they had said, done, or rejected in negotiations past.” The approach would attract those alienated from the Oslo process. By facing the legacy of 1948 it would have the “credibility and sturdiness” to produce an end to the conflict.

There is no doubt that one of the flaws of Oslo was its failure to seriously tackle the inheritance of 1948, particularly for Palestinians who came out as the losers. However, it seems fanciful to assume that negotiations that are today deadlocked over relatively tangible issues will somehow become easier to crack once they deal with issues soaked in mutual resentment, moral ambiguity, and clashing historical interpretation. Reopening the door of 1948 at this stage is tantamount to erasing all the gains made in the past decade and a half, with no guarantees of success.

Those who undermined Oslo, on both sides of the Palestinian-Israeli divide, deserve much blame for where we stand today. Often recklessly and intentionally they destroyed the ledge on which the process rested, knowing there was no conceptual substitute for where the process could go. This included Palestinian organisations such as Hamas, but also several pro-Syrian groups, not to mention notable intellectuals such as the late Palestinian-American academic, Edward Said, and a bevy of shoddy imitators and other lesser lights for whom Oslo threatened to render their uncompromising, Manichean view of the struggle obsolete.

And on the Israeli side, even from within the ranks of the so-called “peace camp” there was a strong sentiment that if Oslo didn’t fulfil Israel’s minimal security and territorial conditions, then it was better off emptied of all meaning. That destructive attitude, compounded by the divisions within Israel’s political elite making any kind of territorial compromise tremendously arduous, was happily shared by the country’s political right, one of whose leading figures, Benjamin Netanyahu, is in power today.

Palestinians and Israelis are effectively Oslo’s orphans, unable to find any new framework for a settlement that few still believe in. Articles like that of Mr Malley and Mr Agha are commonplace, offering implausible initiatives to compensate for more feasible ones that, one by one, have led to the present impasse. We may soon have to admit that the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is without a solution at this time; or rather, that the obvious solution, that of two states living side by side, is not achievable given the capacity of those opposing a settlement to obstruct it.

The problem is not that both sides were denied an opportunity to open their hearts to the aftershocks of 1948; it’s that those who refuse to accept what happened in 1948, like those who cannot limit their territorial ambitions to the 1948 boundaries, have a means to stamp out an Oslo process they never liked, and that supporters of the process, by action or omission, actively damaged or failed to adequately defend.

The tragedy of the Palestinians in 1948 surely merits more attention than it has been given. The Israelis, too – doubly so for holding the stronger cards – must be convinced that peace and withdrawals will not merely bring new waves of fighting. But the reality today is that the Oslo process, warts and all, remains the only game in town. Oslo brought the Palestinians back to the land, and far closer to statehood than idle talk of “revolution until victory” ever did. Either we resolve the Palestinian-Israeli conflict in the context of Oslo, or we delay things until inevitable new wars determine what kind of settlement is imposed.


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