Osama Al-Sharif
Arab News (Opinion)
May 4, 2010 - 12:00am

But perhaps the big question today is: Are there still believers in the US-sponsored peace process?

We've seen this before in the past. The US special envoy to the Middle East heads to the region amid signs that peace talks, bogged down for what seems like an eternity, are about to resume. The peace process, an American coinage that dates back to the 1970s, is going into its penultimate thrusts. It has become an institution, a diplomatic edifice that thrives and withers depending on geopolitical agendas and regional crises.

Since Oslo and the signing of the Washington Accords in the early 1990s between Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, both of whom have since been eliminated, the peace process has taken on a new direction. There was much promise and hope in the beginning; long days and nights of arduous negotiations, going over minute details, complicated maps with A, B and C area markings, a breakthrough in Wye River, another in Sharm El Sheikh, only to be followed by a setback in Camp David and another in Taba. This is how difficult and frustrating the search for an ultimate settlement has been.

And then it all changed so quickly. A Palestinian Intifada in 2000, instigated by a provocative visit by opposition leader Ariel Sharon to Al Aqsa and the Sacred Sanctuary on the eve of his election victory, sent the peace process into a free fall. Two years later, Israel reoccupied the entire West Bank, reversing Palestinian fortunes, besieged Arafat for months before his mysterious demise.

9/11, the war on terror, the occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq derailed the peace process completely. It was downhill from there; the Road Map, Annapolis and other gestures, but none was genuine enough to jump-start the lifeless peace wagon. It stood idle for years as suspicions, distrust and accusations between Israel and the Palestinians poisoned the atmosphere. In the meantime Israel launched two wars; against Lebanon in 2006 and on Gaza in 2008-09, before electing a right-wing government composed of radical coalition parties headed by an intransigent Benjamin Netanyahu.

The PNA under Mahmoud Abbas lost political ground as well. Radical factions had contested the 2006 elections and defeated moderate Fatah in Gaza and the West Bank. A Hamas-led government quickly collapsed, all credit to the Americans and Israelis, and Palestinian internal strife finally led the eviction of the PNA from Gaza, which fell under Israeli siege.

In brief, the first decade of the third millennia has not been good for the peace process institution. In the past years Israel has had a change of heart, refusing to yield on final status issues and looking for ways to derail the prospect of ending the conflict through a two-state solution. Their backs against the wall, the Arabs, and Palestinians, could only tout the peace option. For them no other option exists.

In came President Barack Obama with his promise to breathe life back into the dead body of the peace process. But his early attempts were met with stiff, and humiliating, Israeli resistance. They were willing to talk but without preconditions. East Jerusalem, the presumptive capital of the future Palestinian state, was beyond the scope of negotiators, and so were the "legal" settlements, Jordan Valley, borders and refugees.

It is a tough challenge for George Mitchell, Obama's envoy to the region, and the Palestinians, divided and all, and the Arabs, now also divided over the credibility of the process. After many false alarms, Mitchell is back again, and this time he hopes to give the peace train a much-needed nudge forward. It will be a humble beginning; indirect talks, no conditions, no clear agenda and no obvious finishing line. To resume negotiations in such a symbolic manner, 18 years after Oslo and the big achievements of Rabin and Arafat, is no breakthrough.

But it's not déjà vu all over again. The mood has changed significantly since Oslo and Camp David. Certainly regional realities are different. Perhaps the big question today is: Are there still believers in the peace process?

Two seasoned Americans, a politician and a scholar, have given separate answers to this question in the past few weeks. Both have lost their faith in the peace process. Writing in this month's Foreign Policy magazine Aaron David Miller, who had served as an adviser on the Middle East to Republican and Democratic secretaries of state for over 30 years, declares that he had lost his faith in the false religion of Middle East peace. And he presents a solid argument.

Miller believes that America has lost the magic associated with its mediator role, that the Israel-Palestine conflict has no ownership, that both parties have no historical leaders who are willing to take historical decisions, that Palestine no longer represents a central issue in Middle Eastern politics — with two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and a third possibly against Iran — and that the influence of the Israeli lobby in Washington will circumvent any attempt by Congress or the White House to force a deal on the Jewish state. In Miller's view Washington must come to the conclusion that it cannot implement a deal; that its power has limits.

Professor John Mearsheimer, co-author of a controversial book on the influence of the Israeli lobby on America's foreign policy, believes the two-state solution is no longer viable. Speaking at the Palestine Center in Washington DC last month, Mearsheimer believes Israel will not allow the Palestinians to have a viable state of their own in Gaza and the West Bank. "Regrettably," he says, "the two-state solution is now a fantasy." Instead, those territories will be incorporated into a "Greater Israel," which will be an apartheid state bearing a marked resemblance to white-ruled South Africa.

Nevertheless, a Jewish apartheid state is not politically viable over the long term, he adds. In the end, it will become a democratic bi-national state, whose politics will be dominated by its Palestinian citizens. "In other words, it will cease being a Jewish state, which will mean the end of the Zionist dream."

Both views may disagree on the final outcome of the conflict, but both believe the peace process is dead; that it cannot deliver a two-state solution. There are others who share these beliefs based on the conviction that Israel's political establishment has finally and irrevocably abandoned the basic tenets that launched Oslo and extended the life of the peace process institution all these years.

The alternatives are daunting and unpredictable. One thing is for sure and that is the region cannot go on suspended in midair between a state of no war and no peace. The process, the occupation and the future of both Jews and Arabs in historical Palestine are converging at a point of culmination. Few can dare predict what that point will finally mean!


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