Apocalypse deferred

The notion of an apocalypse kept at bay underpinned the peace process from the start. How else could heroic dimensions be given to a process whose very logic is deferral — the self-conscious avoidance of dealing with any issue of substance? Heroic status was a function not of what was being achieved but of what was being precluded. The process had magical properties — as does an incantation, the sheer repetition of which keeps the surrounding forces of darkness and chaos in chains.

Now they’re unfettered, and they’re coming in.

But wait: there’s something not quite right here. What’s taking place now is actually very different from the augured apocalypse we’ve all come to know and dread.

In the peace process gospel, the forces of light (euphemistically: The Peacemakers) were heroically engaged in warding off the forces of darkness, an amorphous mass defined basically by its irrational and fanatical hatred of peace and other good late-20th-century values such as globalisation, liberalisation and security cooperation under the tutelage of the CIA, but most potently symbolised by Islamist “terrorism” of the Omar Abdel-Rahman/Osama bin Laden variety. The fact that these two representatives of evil incarnate had engaged for years in intense “security cooperation” with the CIA was, naturally, glossed over.

In fact, no criticism could expose the farce that was peace processing ideology as dramatically and thoroughly as its overnight collapse has done. It lies in a total shambles: Sharon, the butcher of Sabra and Shatila and the only Israeli general found by his own people to have committed war crimes, is Israel’s leader, with (super-dove) Peres acting as his PR man; Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian peace partner par excellence and the winner of half of a Nobel Peace Prize, has been reconstructed as an unreconstructed arch-terrorist; Egypt, the Arabs’ ultimate good guy and peace pioneer, is rediscovered as a wicked, ill-intentioned authoritarian regime and the site of rampant anti-Israeli and anti-American attitudes.

Sharon is fighting Israel’s War of Independence all over again. Peres is speaking of a battle for Israel’s existence, describing the current situation as an existential dilemma the likes of which he’s never seen before (and he’s seen a lot). Uniquely, both Sharon and Arafat are now calling for a “cease-fire,” not a cessation of violence. Note the shift in idiom: we no longer have peace partners whose failure to “keep talking” results in “violence,” which either party could blame on the other, but war adversaries talking truce.

More ominous still, references to the possibility of all-out regional war have become commonplace. President Mubarak, who has consistently dismissed as farcical the possibility of another Egyptian-Israeli war, is now forced to tell the Israelis that June ’67 will not be repeated (i.e., if it comes to an Egyptian-Israeli war, Egypt will not be defeated as in ’67). The fact that Egyptian involvement in another war with Israel is no longer considered a fantastic proposition advocated by over-heated student demonstrators is the most potent illustration of the utter collapse of peace processing ideology.

This, then, is a very different apocalypse from the one the peace process prophesied. And rather than being a result of the failure of that process, it is the outcome of its completion. Deferral had provided the primary logic of the Palestinian-Israeli peace process since the Madrid talks (then Israeli Prime Minister Shamir later revealed that he had planned for the Madrid-launched peace talks to go on for decades). And the deferral was grounded, above all, in Israel’s own desperate need for some form of “separation,” which is equal to: 1) maintaining control over the land, water and other resources; 2) disclaiming responsibility for the people who happen to inhabit it; but 3) ensuring that they are bound and gagged (through security installations, settlements, by-roads, security cooperation, and a Palestinian gendarme) so as not to threaten Israel’s security.

Deferral provided the ideal means of Bantustanising occupied Palestinian land, without acknowledging it. But all good things must come to an end. Final status talks, delayed and delayed, had to come nevertheless. In Camp David last year, they did.

And there is where it all came to head, for the process had another salient feature, which by last summer should have borne ample fruit. Settlements and land-grabs of all sorts, which witnessed their golden days precisely while the process was on-going, were supposed to have defined both the basic territorial limits of Palestinian statehood and the extensive reach of Israeli security requirements; the PLO bureaucracy, transplanted from Beirut via Tunis, was supposed to have adapted to its subservient status, evolved appreciable vested interests in the status quo, and grown accustomed to acting as Israel’s gendarme; most important of all, however, the Palestinians in particular, and the Arabs in general, were supposed to have been taught enough lessons in “realism” — to use my favourite Netanyahu quote — to accept apartheid in Palestine, and Israeli supremacy in the region.

It did not work. The Palestinians, simply, were not ready, and a domino effect ensued that has surpassed the wildest imaginings of the most pessimistic of peace processors and the most optimistic of rejectionists.

But if the peace process apocalypse was a chimera, does not the “existential” apocalypse of today appear much more real? There is a lot of ideology in it still, and no indication yet that any of the major protagonists has shifted strategy drastically. The Israelis still want an apartheid solution to the Palestinian question. The difference between Barak and Sharon is that the latter would like to extend, ad infinitum, the “interim” cover-up Oslo provided for years. As for the Palestinian leadership and its Arab allies, they continue to bank on a revival of peace talks (hopefully, with the Americans and Europeans leaning more heavily on the Israelis) leading to a somewhat more respectable final settlement than that offered at Camp David. The mood on the Arab streets is unprecedented, but one would be hard pressed to find portents of revolution, Islamic or otherwise. No Arab state would start a war with Israel, and while not totally improbable, it is as yet difficult to imagine even a Sharon-led Israel starting one. It is equally difficult to conceive of Israel getting away with the reoccupation of the Palestinian territories and/or launching of an ethnic-cleansing operation on a 1947-’48 scale.

Apocalyptic rhetoric continues to serve tactical interests, with each side hoping that its version of the coming apocalypse will intimidate the other, as well as the various international sponsors, into making or imposing concessions within the same strategic framework.

All this appears extremely tenuous, however, for with or without a cease-fire, a revival of the peace process is now next to impossible. How long can it go on before an apocalypse? Looking for signs and portents, soothsaying or standing before this or that oracle are no help at all. The most absurd prophesy can be self-fulfilling if people believe in it sufficiently. Ultimately, people make their own history, and we need to make it with a view to winning, not to dying, however much of the enemy we take with us.

Mr. Hani Shukrallah is Managing Editor of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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