by Igor Bakharev
This past November saw President Bush take another page from his father’s Middle Eastern policy book and begin an initiative to end the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. The plan, which aims for a December 2008 completion date, strive to be unique in its approach to the peace process; instead of getting mired in the minor details (water rights and treaty semantics), the Bush administration approach will tackle the core issues (right of return, borders of the new Palestinian state, status of Jerusalem) first and then iron out any auxiliary details. As seemingly innovative as this plan is, it carries the weight of an almost insurmountable problem flanked by smaller, but ever expanding ones.
The primary obstacle, is the right of return, a reference to the rights of Palestinian refugees that were chased out of their homes in the 1948 war to return to what is now (and has been for sixty years) Israeli land steadfastly in Israeli hands. The accepted solution to this problem has been to compensate the various dispersed Palestinian families monetarily in return for their relinquishment of any right of return, indeed in expectation of the peace initiative, international donors had lined up around six billion dollars for purposes of compensation. Bizarrely, Mahmoud Abbas, President of the Palestinian Authority, has kept his commitment to allowing any willing refugees to settle in their original homes, a certain impossibility and impediment to peace. However bizaare that claim is, it is one that is also politically pragmatic; giving up the right to return means giving up the raison d’etre of Palestinian nationalism: the right to return to Israel and would take a particularly audacious leader given the possible post-decision backlash he might face.
Unfortunately, recent events have further mired the peace process in the relentless muck of regional conflict. Firstly, as of now, there is no Palestinian territory to speak of, rather there is the West Bank controlled by Abbas and his party Fatah, and the Gaza sSrip which is currently controlled by Hamas; after the expulsion of Fatah’s forces in mid-2007. So any peace agreement made by Abbas would be tentative, as he would need the cooperation of his radical opposition to create a formative Palestinian state. But the peace process may not even get to the point of negotiations, instead Hamas’ actions in the Gaza strip might disrupt any initiative regardless of President Bush’s earnest intentions.
Upon Hamas’ seizure of power, Israel declared a series of quasi-embargoes, at times limiting the entry of everything from food supplies to the energy needed to run basic services in the Gaza Strip. The strategy behind this was two fold: to get Gaza’s population to link the existence of Hamas with their own demise and to give Fatah a chance to regenerate within the Gaza Strip. Neither has proven to be the case, instead Hamas has become more belligerent, recently launching hundreds of Qassam rockets in to Israel’s Negev desert, rockets that are rarely (poor aim) lethal, but have the potential for the Israeli army to launch a major assault into Gaza, potentially fracturing the peace process. On the Palestinian side, Abbas is losing substantial clout as a leader who is doing nothing to alleviate the suffering of his distressed population. The level of distress was evident last week when hundreds of thousands of Gaza residents rushed into Egypt through makeshift holes in the normally closed border to try and barter for the most basic essentials. A continuation of such conditions may potentially remove any viable Palestinian leader receptive to peace.
Before the latest foray into Israeli-Palestinian relations by an American president, there were some pundits expressing genuine enthusiasm. They pointed to the earnest efforts of President Bush, Tony Blair, and how unusually receptive the Middle Eastern and European communities were to the prospect of peace. However, they forgot to assess the problem on the ground and notice that the standstill blocking peace rests between Israel and Palestine and not the international community. Only a bold move from both the Palestinian and the Israeli sides can break the stalemate, and until then, 2008 will be just like any other year.