The Bush administration is in the process of falling in the same Israeli trap as that of the former Clinton administration as far as the Middle East is concerned. Favoring form over content will not bring about lasting peace.
Favoring the Israeli direction, the latest US policy push has been to shore up a short term cease-fire at the expense of the long term political process.
Palestinians badly want and need a genuine cease fire. Eight months of intifada has left more than 400 Palestinians dead (more than 100 of them children) homes demolished, an infrastructure bombed, trees uprooted and three million Palestinians trapped in a big prison.
But despite the loss of life and property, Palestinians don’t want to see a short term solution that will inevitably be followed by another round of fighting and a virtual indefinite continuity to the unbearable Israeli military occupation of our lands.
Despite its inequities, the Palestinian Authority fully supported the fact finding report issued by the committee headed by former US Senator George Mitchell. The report calls for a permanent and total freeze of all Jewish settlement activities by the state of Israel in the occupied Palestinian territories. It also calls for Israel to complete its commitments in the transitional period of the Oslo accords, namely to carry out the third redeployment, and to move directly into serious permanent status talks.
While the Mitchell Report failed to call for international observers in the occupied territories, there is no doubt a need for some type of neutral observation that will guarantee the accurate implementation of agreements between both sides.
In taking the lead from Tel Aviv, US officials (whether General Powel, CIA chief Tenant or peace envoy Burns) seem to favor a process. They insisted on the Israeli demand that a cease-fire must come first. In their opinion the process will lead to positive results. The Middle East reality has not shown that to be the case.
Shortly after the Palestinian President Yaser Arafat announced his acceptance of a cease fire agreement, new conditions were quickly put on the table by Israel and faithfully delivered by the US. And the one positive point in the Mitchell agreement regarding a settlement freeze, has been suddenly downgraded. Instead of insisting on its implementation the US is trying to help Israel finesse its way out of the total and absolute freeze of all settlement activities by suggesting various formulas that fall short of the clear and unambiguous requirement stated in the Mitchell report.
And in a move that contradicts the United States human rights policy, the Bush administration wants the Palestinian Authority to arbitrarily arrest Palestinians of the Islamic movements without any hard evidence against any of them of actual involvement in acts of terrorism.
Without specific evidence, President Arafat will not and can’t randomly crack down against an anti occupation movement, just like Sharon would not arrest Israeli leaders of the settlers movements or supporters of extreme right wing opinions. Many such Israelis, who publicly call for the expulsion of Palestinians, sit in Mr. Sharon’s own government.
Furthermore, the United States is also buying the rather silly Israeli claim that the source of the Palestinian resistance is what is said in the Palestinian media, rather than the reality of the existence of an unwanted illegal Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands.
Instead of this exaggerated concern of form and for short term solutions, the United States ought to spend some quality time in understanding the root of the problem and begin with instituting a strategic policy that aim at helping both sides reach the desired lasting peace.
While it is clear Israel and its people want and need quite and existential acceptance, Palestinians want and need a road map that leads to the end of occupation.
As much as they are suffering now, most Palestinians refuse the idea of an end to the current intifada until they can see a light at the end of the tunnel. Nothing would light up the dark Middle East tunnel more than the belief that an end to the Israeli occupation is in sight.
If the US would concentrate on the content of any peace process rather than its form, the Palestinian public and leadership will be much more enthusiastic supporters of the form that reaching that end result will require. The fear is that concentrating simply on form and process rather than content will keep Palestinians and Israelis spinning in our wheels, rather than working for a peaceful Israel and an independent Palestine.
Daoud Kuttab is a journalist who covered both intifadas and Director of the Institute of Modern Media at Al Quds University in Jerusalem.