In dealing with the Arab-Israeli conflict, there seems to be a major problem in deciding what the time reference is. Listening to US Secretary of State Colin Powell on Friday, one got the impression that for America, history begins and ends with the last suicide bombing against Israelis.
Attacks against civilians anywhere are reprehensible and must be condemned.
The Middle East conflict needs to be seen in the larger context of a people wishing to end the 21 century’s only remaining foreign military occupation of a civilian population.
In 1967, Israel occupied Arab territories in a flagrant contravention of international norms. At the time, the United Nations Security Council called that occupation “inadmissible” and called on Israel to withdrew from the occupied territories.
Not only is there need to take into consideration the 35-year-old Israeli occupation, but the US and others must also note the illegal Jewish settlements that have been planted in occupied Palestinian territories in contradiction to the Fourth Geneva Convention.
The present situation can also be seen in a much closer time frame. Let us take the past week only. First, the Israelis refused to allow Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat to participate in the Arab summit that was scheduled to take place in the Lebanese capital, Beirut. They imposed humiliating conditions on Arafat, were he to leave for Beirut and concerning his return. The Arab summit which Arafat was denied from attending was not a war council against the state of Israel, but rather a conference that was scheduled to give unanimous Arab backing to a Saudi peace initiative.
Arafat was not the only Palestinian besieged and humiliated. Three million Palestinians have been similarly besieged and humiliated for nearly a year-and-a-half. International efforts to permit Arafat to attend this conference failed. Even a public plea from the United States didn’t persuade the Israelis to change their mind. They were trying to blackmail Arafat into making political concessions in return for this permission to attend the Arab summit. Many warned against the consequence of this humiliation to Palestinians and Arabs.
The mass-circulating Israeli daily Maariv quoted the hawkish Israeli defence minister, Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, as predicting that Palestinians will respond violently to this grave humiliation of their democratically elected leader. But despite these warnings, the Israelis insisted to deny Arafat permission to leave.
Arab leaders and the Arab public were angry but the Arab summit went on as planned. Arafat, who spoke by video from under Israeli siege, publicly supported the Saudi peace initiative. He even used the occasion to call Israel to positively respond to the plea for a comprehensive peace for the sake of “our children and your children”. The opposite happened after the Arab leaders unanimously approved a peace plan which provided an historic opportunity for Israel to become a normal part of the Middle East. All Israel needed to do was to agree to withdraw to the internationally recognised borders in order to be accepted as a “normal” state in the region. Israelis should have been dancing in the streets, but instead, a low-level spokesman said his country accepts the word “normal” but is not ready to provide the “withdrawal” price.
True, a terrible explosion occurred during this period that caused the death of 20 Israelis and the injury of many who were attending a Passover meal. The Palestinian National Authority immediately condemned this act of terrorism committed by a hardline Islamic group. A few weeks earlier, the US administration had dispatched a special envoy. They had said that they were committed to reaching a ceasefire and knew that many radicals on both sides would try to derail this process. Before the latest escalation in violence, US envoy, General Anthony Zinni was quoted as saying that progress was made in trying to reach a ceasefire agreement.
When Yitzhak Rabin found himself in a similar position, he stated that Israel will spend a week mourning the dead and on the eighth day they would be back to the negotiations. He knew that radicals on both sides don’t want peace. He paid for his search for this elusive peace with his life.
The current cycle of violence is destructive. Each side can point to this or that date or this or that massacre as the reason for their actions. There has to be courage to break this cycle. The United States has an obligation not to take sides or to “understand Israel’s needs”. Its responsibilities as the sponsor of the peace process require it to look at the larger picture. Instead of dealing with the history of this conflict based on the latest suicide bombing, the US needs to focus on President George W. Bush’s words calling for an end to the occupation and the creation of the state of Palestine alongside of Israel.
The Arab peace plan that was approved in Beirut provides a perfect vehicle to reach a comprehensive solution to this decades-long conflict. A free and independent Palestine alongside a safe and secure Israel is not an impossible dream.
Daoud Kuttab is a journalist who covered both intifadas and Director of the Institute of Modern Media at Al Quds University in Jerusalem.