Tuesday, 3 March 2009

An evasive peace

Making his first trip to Gaza since taking on the role of international Middle East envoy, Tony Blair spoke of "a recognition that we have got to change our strategy towards Gaza," The Guardian reports, and has "urged Israel to lift its economic blockade of the strip." His remarks upon the situation there, in the wake of the recent invasion by Israel, were quoted in full by Haaretz;
We should learn from what happened in the past few weeks and make sure that in the future our strategy toward Gaza is different from the one we have pursued until now, because it hasn't worked, and we need to change it.
Whilst the words themselves are not particularly remarkable, reflecting as they do the international consensus beyond Washington, Whitehall, and Tel Aviv, they are significant in the fact that they come from a leading western statesman. Blair's thoughts reflect a shift, however slight, in the consensus of the dominant powers on the region.

Britain's international developnment secretary, Douglas Alexander, has pleged another £30m in aid to the Palestinians, taking the total since the invasion to £47m. The United States, quite remarkably, has gone even further, pledging $900m to reconstruction in Gaza according to The New York Times. Echoing Blair, meanwhile, secretary of state Hilary Clinton has promised to pursue peace between Israelis and Palestinians on "many fronts" and to "vigorously" seek a two-state solution. She has insisted that "we take inspiration from" the Arab Peace Initiative, and been blasted by the Israel lobby for her words.

There has also been growing optimism about the appointment of George Mitchell, who had a primary role in securing peace in Northern Ireland, as special envoy to the region. His stance, condemning violence by both the IRA and by Britain and recognition of the legitimate grievances fuelling the conflict, is one badly needed towards Israel, where the dominant superpower has accorded its client with unilateral and near-unconditional support, aid, and protection.

Other factors also appear to justify optimism for the future of the region. The most significant is the agreement between Palestinian factions, as al Jazeera reports, "to establish five committees to address key issues for unity" after talks brokered by Egypt in Cairo. Also relevant is the fact that the International Criminal Court is "exploring ways to prosecute Israeli commanders over alleged war crimes in Gaza," according to The Times, including "the use of deadly white phosphorus" on civilians. Though the case faces problems due to both Israel's status as a "nonsignatory" of the ICC and due to "the legal black hole that Palestinians find themselves in while they remain stateless,"a positive outcome could "lead to snowballing international recognition of a Palestinian state by countries eager to see Israel prosecuted," an important development.

However, we should of course not be blinded by these developments into over-optimism or taking an uncritical stance towards the involved parties. In Hilary Clinton's speech, it is vital to note that the Obama administration retains the uncompromising stance of its predecessors towards Hamas. She spoke of how they "have worked with the Palestinian Authority," meaning the Fatah administration of Mahmoud Abbas, whose term ran out on the 9th January, "to install safeguards that will ensure our funding is only used where and for whom it is intended and does not end up in the wrong hands," which are of course those of Hamas, the democratically elected government of Gaza. Though it is without question that Hamas "exploit the suffering of innocent people," one must also acknowledge that "the cycle of rejection and resistance" Clinton speaks of is a reaction to genuine crimes and injustice by Israel, with the tacit support of the US.

If, indeed, the Obama administration is serious about "tak[ing] inspiration from" the Arab Peace Initiative, then it must recognise the Initiative's full implications. Writing on the new administrations stance on Israel-Palestine in January, Noam Chomsky pointed out that, "unlike the two rejectionist states, Hamas has called for a two-state settlement in terms of the international consensus: publicly, repeatedly, explicitly." It is, in fact, the United States and Israel which have rejected the very conditions they place upon Hamas. "In international isolation, they bar a two-state settlement including a Palestinian state; they of course do not renounce violence; and they reject the quartet's central proposal, the "road map." Israel formally accepted it, but with 14 reservations that effectively eliminate its contents (tacitly backed by the US)." Thus, by their own standards, "neither the US nor Israel is a 'genuine party to peace.'"

Also important is Clinton's omission in her speech of the closure of West Bank crossings or to illegal Jewish settlements there, two issues that must be addressed in negotiating any meaningful and lasting peace. This omission was also prevalent in Obama's words on the matter back in January, a fact which Chomsky was quick to pick up on;
The most significant acts to undermine a peaceful settlement are the daily US-backed actions in the occupied territories, all recognized to be criminal: taking over valuable land and resources and constructing what the leading architect of the plan, Ariel Sharon, called "Bantustans" for Palestinians -- an unfair comparison because the Bantustans were far more viable than the fragments left to Palestinians under Sharon's conception, now being realized. But the US and Israel even continue to oppose a political settlement in words, most recently in December 2008, when the US and Israel (and a few Pacific islands) voted against a UN resolution supporting "the right of the Palestinian people to self-determination" (passed 173 to 5, US-Israel opposed, with evasive pretexts).
Obama had not one word to say about the settlement and infrastructure developments in the West Bank, and the complex measures to control Palestinian existence, designed to undermine the prospects for a peaceful two-state settlement. His silence is a grim refutation of his oratorical flourishes about how "I will sustain an active commitment to seek two states living side by side in peace and security."
The conclusion remains an apt one. I do not think that the two-state solution is a lost-cause, and I certainly do not think we should give up on the plight of the Palestinians, but at the same time it is clear that whilst recent events do represent something of a refreshing change of pace in the politics of the Middle East, they are still very far from a unanimous declaration of peace.