The Riyadh Conference
We have all become inured to the compliancy or complicity of the Israeli media insofar as they deal with “state security” or the Palestinian conflict. In compensation they inundate us with sharply critical accounts of the shady doings of our ministers, members of Knesset or senior government officials. This latter kind of reporting, which is often biting and cynical, offers us one scandal after another, creating the image of a free and vital muckraking press. But again, when it comes to the really paramount issues – like war and peace – the media as a whole stand at attention and salute the official press releases and government spokesmen. Look at the Second Lebanon War: not a single press or TV journalist dared to come out against the war from the beginning.
How refreshing therefore to read the words of Tzvi Barel in Haaretz (March 28, 2007): “Thus, even if Haniyeh starts wearing a skullcap and Khaled Mashal begins humming Hatikva, and even if Abbas makes it mandatory to teach the heroic story of Masada in Palestinian schools, Israel does not want and is unable to propose a diplomatic alternative that would lead to the establishment of an independent and democratic Palestinian state. It does not want to – because any such proposal would mean a withdrawal from most of the territories and the dismantling of most of the settlements.” (As long as we impose sanctions)
So, there you have the whole story in a nutshell. And even if another thousand articles will be written on how much Israel wants peace; and even if all its diplomats all over the world continue to assert this; and even if not only all the experts on state security but all the professors from all the universities declare unequivocally that all Israel wants is peace – nothing will change Barel’s basic assertion.
One must of necessity relate to this conference seriously. After all, it is a meeting of 22 Arab countries who are suggesting to Israel, for the first time since its founding, a proposal for peace and the normalization of relations with the entire Arab world.
The Riyadh initiative includes two central demands: withdrawal to the ’67 borders and a solution to the problem of the Palestine refugees. And rightly so. The participants also insist on an answer: does Israel accept or reject this offer.
Sadly but not unexpectedly, Israel’s answer is – once again – rejection. And, as usual, it is also evasive and hypocritical. Ehud Olmert has suggested, in fact, to eliminate everything substantive from the proposal. He has asked Condelizza Rice to make sure that the Riyadh proposals will not include any formulas for a permanent settlement or touch on any of disputed core issues, such as Jerusalem, the refugee problem or the ’67 borders. He is also against the participation of the Palestinian government in the discussions. At the last meeting of the government he attacked Abu Mazen, the chairman of the Palestine Authority, for “blatantly violating all of his promises to Israel, especially his promise not to form a unity government until Gilad Shalit is released.” (No mention is ever made of the Lebanese prisoners held by Israel. As for the thousands of Palestinians in Israeli prisons - forget about them.) Olmert insists, to begin with, that everyone return to the Road Map and its stage-by-stage structure, beginning with “an end to terror,” and continuing with a Palestinian state with temporary borders. And just to make sure that no one ever accuses him of consistency, he just recently declared, in light of the proposals of the 22 Arab countries, that he is interested only in direct negotiations with the Palestinians.
Happily, Condi likes playing the same games. Her suggestions begin with meetings between Olmert and Abu Mazen for the purpose of “confidence-building” and “leaving the door open” for “future discussions”.
From the nattering of these two one can really sense their fervent desire to get the peace process rolling, to get everyone interested around the table as soon as possible, and to get rid of all those inconsequential, unnecessary and mind-diverting hamstrings.
Anyone really interested in a solution to the problem of peace with the Palestinians and with the Arab world has to adjust to the fact that the Israel-Palestine conflict is not a dispute over borders – as was the case in so many of the European wars. Nor is it a conflict between the sons of light and the sons of darkness, as so many Israelis are taught to enjoy thinking. Nor is it a century-long conflict between two peoples over the same piece of land, as Israel claims, thereby equalizing the position of the occupiers with that of the occupied and pointing to the longevity of the conflict to prove its inevitability and the impossibility of its resolution.
It is, therefore, necessary to define the nature of the conflict with precision. The Israel-Palestine conflict is a colonial conflict between an occupying power and an oppressed people striving to rid themselves of the occupying power.
The Zionists came to Palestine over a hundred years ago, settled there, and expelled the native population from its land. It is of little importance what the reasons were for doing this, what the ideology behind it was (even if it was “socialist”). It is not even important if the foreign settlers were idealists, pioneers or voracious invaders, or if their motives were good or bad or even if their occupation was benevolent or cruel. It is not even important if they ruled with an iron hand or with a stick of candy. What counts is if one people came and displaced another. It is the colonialist situation that colors the relations between the two peoples. It is the colonialist situation that determines where right and wrong lie. No people can accept the existence of a colonial usurper and they will fight against it to the bitter end. There can never be peace here as long as the occupation remains in force.
It is impossible to roll back history. It is impossible to destroy the countries that arose on the basis of colonialism. It is not at all a question of “right to exist.” One cannot expiate one wrongdoing with another. But one can assign responsibility. One can decide who is the perpetrator and who is the victim. In the case of the Israel-Palestine conflict the answers are abundantly clear. Jewish Israel has an enormous obligation to the Palestinians. The least that can be done today is to give the Palestinians back what was taken from them in 1967, that is, withdrawal to the 1967 borders without any ifs or buts, and to recognize the right of return of the Palestinian refugees. This is precisely what the Riyadh Conference is proposing. This is a real and credible peace proposal.
But, as pointed out above, sad to say, all Israel can answer to these very real proposals is “let’s look for a political way out,” “let’s start the peace process,” “lets postpone the core issues.”
Israel has already described the Riyadh proposals as an ultimatum to which it cannot surrender. The truth is a lot simpler. Long and tortuous discussions are really pointless. The Riyadh proposals are really minimalist. An end to the occupation is not a question for negotiations, nor is the right of return for the refugees. Israel must simply accept responsibility for what is has done. Only then can negotiations take place about the implementation of the agreements with the Arab countries, on the one hand, and, more importantly, with the future state of Palestine, on the other. By continuing its policy of rejection Israel is taking a heavy burden of responsibility on itself for the continuation of the colonialist war with all the suffering and hardship that will be inflicted on both peoples.
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Israel’s policy of rejection is supported by the United States. Otherwise it could not have carried on the way it has since 1967. Neither the settlements nor the separation wall nor the check-posts could have possibly come into existence without that support. The United States is not doing this for Israel’s sake but for the sake of its loyal strategic stronghold in the Middle East. In the wake of its colossal failure in Iraq and Israel’s failure in Lebanon, along with pressure from its Arab allies in response to widespread public disapproval of American policy - the United States acts as if it were open to the Riyadh proposals. Perhaps in light of the changing situation in the Middle East America may alter its policies towards Israel. But this possible turn of events is not yet apparent. Israel can continue to maintain its rejectionist stance.
But let us return for a moment to Barel’s simple assertion quoted at the beginning of this article. Israel is not looking for peace because it does not want to leave the occupied territories. Israel still hopes to maintain its stranglehold on the Palestinians. Israel refuses to take responsibility for creating the refugee problem because in general Israeli refuses to take responsibility for any of its actions.