The recent attempt to revive the peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians is not likely to produce more meaningful results than that of any of the previous attempts. It comes 20 years after the Oslo Accords were signed between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organisation.
The Oslo Accords were a twofold event. There was the Declaration of Principles (DoP) signed ceremoniously on the White House lawn on September 13, 1993; and there was the relatively less celebrated ‘Oslo II’ agreement signed in September 1995 in Taba, Egypt, which outlined the implementation of the 1993 DoP, according to their Israeli interpretation.
The Israeli interpretation was that the Oslo Accords were merely an international as well as a Palestinian endorsement of the strategy the Israelis had formulated back in 1967 vis-à-vis the occupied territories. After the 1967 war, all the successive Israeli governments were determined to keep the West Bank as part of Israel. It was, for them, both the heart of the ancient homeland and a strategic asset that would prevent the bisection of the state into two should another war break out.
At the same time, the Israeli political elite did not wish to grant citizenship to the people living there, nor did they seriously contemplate their expulsion. They wanted to keep the area, but not the people. The first Palestinian uprising, however, proved the cost of the occupation, leading the international community to demand from Israel a clarification of its plans for the future of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. For Israel, Oslo was that clarification.
The Oslo Accords were not a peace plan for the Israelis; they were a solution to the paradox that had long troubled Israel, of wanting the physical space without the people on it. This was the predicament of Zionism from the day of its inception: how to have the land without its native people in a world that no longer accepted more colonialism and ethnic cleansing.
The Oslo II accords provided the answer: the discourse of peace will be employed while creating facts on the ground that lead to the restricting of the native population to small spaces, while the rest is annexed to Israel.
In the Oslo II accords, the West Bank was divided into three areas. Only one of them, Area A, where Palestinians lived in densely populated areas, was not directly controlled by Israel. It was a non-homogeneous territory that constituted a mere three per cent of the West Bank in 1995, and it grew to 18 per cent by 2011. The Israelis granted that area autonomy and created the Palestinian National Authority to run it. The two other areas, Area C and Area B, were run directly by Israel in the case of the former, and allegedly jointly, but also directly in practice, in the latter.
Oslo was meant to allow the Israelis to perpetuate this matrix of partition and control for a very long period. The second Palestinian uprising of 2001 showed that the Palestinians were unwilling to accept it. The Israeli response was to search for yet another Oslo, which we can perhaps call Oslo III, that would again grant them international and Palestinian acceptance for the way they want to rule the occupied territories. That is, by granting limited autonomy in densely populated Palestinian areas and full Israeli control over the rest of the territory. This would serve as a permanent solution in which that autonomy would eventually be termed ‘statehood’.
But something has changed in the Israeli view of Oslo since the year 2000. The political powers in Israel before 2000 were genuine, I believe, in their offer of Area C of the West Bank, and Gaza to the Palestinians for statehood. The political elite that took over in this century, however, while employing the discourse on two states, has established, without declaring it publicly, a one Israeli state in which Palestinians in the West Bank will be in the same secondary status as those living elsewhere inside Israel. They also found a special solution for the Gaza Strip: to ghettoise it.
The wish to maintain the status quo as a permanent reality became a full-blown Israeli strategy with the rise of Ariel Sharon to power in the early part of this century. The only hesitation he had was about the future of the Gaza Strip; and once he found the formula of ghettoising it, instead of ruling it directly, he felt no need to change the reality on the ground elsewhere in any dramatic way.
This strategy is based on the assumption that in the long run, the international community would grant Israel, if not legitimacy, than at least leniency toward its continued control over the West Bank. The Israeli politicians are aware that this strategy has isolated Israel in world public opinion, turning it into a pariah state in the eyes of civil society groups all over the globe. But, at the same time, they are also relieved to know that so far this global trend had little effect on the policies of the Western governments and their allies.
Any hope of reviving something out of the original ideas that led the Palestinians to support the Oslo Accords back in 1993 wilted with Ehud Olmet’s government of 2007, when it buried, for all intents and purposes, both the Oslo Accords and the two state solution.
This strategy was defined by Olmert as ‘unilateralism’. The raison d’être of this policy is that there would be no peace in the foreseeable future and therefore Israel has to decide unilaterally the fate of the West Bank. The diplomatic efforts in this century did very little to disrupt the implementation of this strategy on the ground.
From today’s vantage point, the strategy unfolds clearly on the ground. The West Bank is divided into two spaces: one Jewish, one Palestinian. The Jewish areas are more or less equivalent to Oslo’s Area C, where Israel has full control, but also parts of Area B, where the PNA (Palestine National Authority) and Israel share control. Together they form almost half of the West Bank.
Israel has not as yet annexed officially the ‘Jewish’ space; but it could do so in the future. For the time-being the ethnic identity of the space is determined by massive Jewish presence in it, coupled with a creeping ethnic cleansing of the Palestinian inhabitants in those areas, or pushing them into tight enclaves within this ‘Jewish’ space. The ‘Palestinian’ space, meanwhile, is Area A, which is controlled by the PNA, where Israel reserves the right to enter at will with its secret agents, special units and, if needed, massive armed forces, whenever it deems it necessary.
For the chief policy makers among Israel’s politicians and generals this is not a temporary situation, but a way of life that can be maintained for a very long time. It is complemented by several measures which are of the highest importance for anyone involved in the struggle against the occupation. The first is financial: the Israel government continues to pump large sums of money into the colonies and a result these colonies have now become an urban sprawl, with all the modern infrastructure of a new metropolis. The money is used mainly to build within the existing colonies, but also to expand the area around them in such a way that have turned them into a fixed feature in the landscape.
The second measure is the continued de-Arabisation of the ‘Greater Jerusalem’ area – more than 250,000 Palestinians were uprooted from this area that covers almost one third of the West Bank. This is achieved by demolition of houses, political arrests and mainly by not allowing people to return to the Greater Jerusalem area if they had made the mistake of leaving it.
The third measure is the network of walls. Its most visible feature is the famous Apartheid wall which has bisected the West Bank in a way that diminishes the territorial integrity for any future Palestinian state. The network also includes smaller fences and walls that enclave most of the Palestinian villages and towns in a way that does not allow any spatial development beyond the parameters in which people live now. In 2013, this is the state of Israel: one Zionist republic that stretches between the Mediterranean and the River Jordan, with an almost equal number of Palestinians and Jews in it. This demographic reality does endanger so far the identity of the state as a Jewish one, or the regime of the masters’ democracy.
There are no political parties of any significance in Israel that offer to change this reality. There is no real Western plan to stop the solidification of this one state on the ground, let alone offer a viable alternative to it in seriousness. Factors such as the fragmentation on the Palestinian side, the disintegration of the Arab nation states around Israel and a continued unconditional American support to Israel, all act as a buffer that cushions the Israeli Jewish public from any potential threats to their new enlarged, racist, but economically viable state.
The moral validity of this new geo-political enlarged state of Israel has been eroded significantly since the successful Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign by Palestinian civil society began few years ago. Israel’s own actions have contributed to the state’s further de-legitimisation in the eyes of the civil societies around the world.
The past struggle in the West against South Africa’s apartheid regime shows that intentional rejection of a regime’s legitimacy is a bottom up process, and this may still happen to the new, enlarged state of Israel. The role of Palestine’s friends world-wide has therefore not changed and this is to continue with the same commitment and vigour to pressure their governments to sanction this new regime for its criminal policies.
The strategy for the people inside has also not changed much. The sooner they realise that they cannot struggle any more for an independent Palestine inside the ‘Palestinian space’, the better. They could instead concentrate on uniting the Palestinian front and strategising a struggle plan, together with progressive Israelis, for a regime change in this new one state that was established in 2001. There is an urgent need for a new strategy to reformulate the relationship between Jews and Palestinians in the land of Israel and Palestine.
The only reasonable regime for this seems to be one democratic state for all. If this is not going to happen, the storm on Israel’s borders will gather with even bigger force than hitherto. Everywhere in the Arab world, people and movements are seeking ways of changing regimes and oppressive political realities – surely this will also reach the new enlarged Israel; if not today, then tomorrow. The Israelis may occupy the best deck on the Titanic, but the ship is nonetheless sinking.
Ilan Pappe is an Israeli historian and the director of the University of Exeter’s European Centre for Palestine Studies