First thoughts after the Aqaba meeting:
If there had been a printed program, it would have looked something like this:
“Peace in the Holy Land” by George W. Bush.
Director: George Bush.
Principal actor: W. B. George.
Music: G. W. Bush.
Mis en scene: Bush W. George.
What makes George run?
Why this sudden enthusiasm for personal intervention in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?
There is a purely political aspect: in Afghanistan, anarchy reigns. In Iraq, all the high-sounding plans about a “democratic Iraqi government” have been shelved. In the United States, ugly news-stories are circulating, insinuating that the administration deliberately deceived the public about the existence of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction.
Bush needs an uncontested achievement in the Middle East. What could be more beautiful on television than the picture of the President of the United States standing between the Prime Ministers of Israel and Palestine with a background of blue sea and soaring palms, bringing peace to the two suffering peoples?
For this purpose, Bush has set in motion a brutal steamroller that crushes all opposition, Palestinian or Israeli. Bush practically dictated all four speeches himself.
This is not a one-day stand. It will go on until the American election in November 2004. Bush wants to be reelected, and this time with a real majority. Therefore, we shall probably be living for a year and a half in the shadow of the Bush initiative, enforced by Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice. Both Israelis and Palestinians will have to conduct their business within this framework.
And please remember: Bush is no Clinton. Clinton was an attractive, sympathetic, very intelligent, idealistic and devoted president. He really wanted to solve the problem. But he suffered from a certain lack of seriousness and moral fiber. Bush, on the other hand is not sophisticated. If anything he is rather primitive. But he has a brutal willpower that does not suffer contradiction. When he wants something, he unleashes the power of the United States to attain it.
Now he wants a conspicuous achievement in the Israeli-Palestinian arena, an achievement that will look good on television and be clear to every American voter. Anyone who gets in his way will be crushed.
It is impossible to know how long this pressure will last. Some may hope that it will go on till the final agreement. Others may count in weeks. But in our desperate situation, every week is important.
The Aircraft-Carrier changes course
Bush’s personal calculations must be seen, of course, against the national background.
Immediately after the Twin-Towers outrage, I wrote in this column that this traumatic event would compel the United States to change its policy towards the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Such an atrocity would have been impossible without the huge accumulation of fury and hatred directed against the US in the Arab é and, indeed, the entire Muslim é world. This has many causes, but the first and foremost among them is American support for Sharon’s brutality in the Palestinian territories, seen daily by millions of Arabs and other Muslims on al-Jazeerah television.
I predicted then that the US would act quickly to change that policy. I made my prediction é and nothing happened. I had to admit (at least to myself) that I was wrong, that American logic doesn’t work this way.
And now it is happening, after all. Two years late the US is indeed changing course. I did not take the time factor into account. A speedboat like Israel can turn around in weeks, an aircraft-carrier like the USA needs years.
It is said that the American public is not interested in foreign affairs, that in elections only domestic issues matter. That is true in normal times, such as the days of George Bush Sr. But the events of 9/11 have brought the Middle East into every American living room, much as the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. It has now become a domestic matter.
The leopard’s spots
Has Sharon changed his skin?
It may seem like that. He has spoken about the “occupation” (and denied it immediately). He is going to remove outposts (but only make-believe outposts). He talks about a “Palestinian state” (But not about the “State of Palestine”). So what has happened? Has he got old? Desperate? Wise?
None of these. As a son of the soil, he is sensitive to changes in the weather. He notices the new winds blowing from Washington. The smiling George W., his great buddy, adopts a rough tone in private conversations. He dictates instead of discussing. He issues ultimatums. What is to be done?
Sharon behaves like the Jew who was threatened with death if he did not teach the Polish nobleman’s beloved horse to read and write. Pleading that the job is difficult, the Jew asked for three years. “By then, either the horse or the nobleman will be dead,” he comforted his despairing wife.
Sharon accepted the Bush ultimatum, but only in appearances. He is trying to win time, at least until after the American elections. Perhaps Bush will not be reelected, perhaps he will have other things to worry about by then. In the meantime, Sharon will do the inescapable minimum, postpone everything that can be postponed, cheat as much as he can, change what can be changed. His principal assistant, Dov Weissglass, is a grand master of this kind of thing.
Sharon’s final objective has not changed, and in Aqaba he has said nothing to contradict it. If the Arabs cannot be removed from the country, they must be confined to isolated enclaves, which will be connected artificially by strips of land to create “contiguity”. He is ready to call this a “Palestinian state”. It will consist of 42% of the occupied territories, which themselves constitute 22% of Palestine before 1948. The main settlement blocs will remain as they are and eventually be annexed to Israel. No mention of Jerusalem or the refugees.
As we have said many times: don’t listen to what Sharon says, look at what he is doing with his hands. Will he freeze the settlements, as demanded by the Road Map? Will he really stop building in Ma’aleh Adumim, where hundreds of new houses are now planned? Will he stop building the “separation wall”, whose purpose is to cut off large chunks of the West Bank? Will he immediately remove the 60 settlement outposts that were build since he came to power? Will the IDF get out of Area A and cease the closures and blockades of Palestinian towns and villages?
Anything else would be a sham.
The good and the bad
On the Palestinian side, something interesting has happened. Without anyone planning it, a game of “good cop, bad cop” has developed.
The Americans and Israelis have swallowed the fairy tale of the “bad Arafat”, that was invented by Ehud Barak in order to cover up his monumental failure. So as not to have to talk with the evil Arafat, they have proclaimed that Abu Mazen is the incarnation of everything good and beautiful.
The result: in order to strengthen his standing vis-a-vis Arafat, they are obliged to give Abu Mazen things they refused to give Arafat. The Palestinian public gives qualified support to Abu Mazen and waits to see what he can get from Bush and Sharon. Abu-Mazen cannot move without Arafat, but the results do not bind Arafat, who can always assert that he was not a partner to the deal. An ideal situation for him.
From the Israeli point of view, this is idiotic. If we are negotiating and ready to pay the price, wouldn’t it be better to do it with the person who can deliver the goods?
A huge achievement
If the armed intifada ends, who can be said to have gained from the 32 months of bloody struggle?
The objective answer: it is a draw.
The Palestinians have suffered terribly. Their infrastructure has been destroyed. Their dignity trampled on. Some 2000 men, women and children have been killed, tens of thousands injured, ten thousand put in prison. Their homes have been demolished, their trees uprooted, their livelihood destroyed. But their resistance has not been broken, it is as strong on the last day as on the first.
The Israelis have suffered much less, but they, too, have suffered a lot. Some 800 Israelis killed, hundreds wounded. Fear stalks the streets, the malls and the buses. Private watchmen, one hundred thousand of them, are everywhere. The intifada has cost us some 20 billion dollars, the economy is in a deep crisis, there is no tourism and no foreign investment, the quality of life has gone down, the welfare state is collapsing, social tensions are increasing. But the IDF continues to deal blows to the Palestinian population and the settlement drive is in full swing.
The draw has created a mood of hopelessness on both sides. Both have come to the conclusion that there is no military solution.
But when there is a draw between two sides, one of which is a thousand times stronger than the other, it is a fantastic achievement for the weaker.
What has been achieved?
What came out of Aqaba? What does the Road Map present?
The easy answer is: nothing substantial, only words, words, words.
But words, too, are important.
The Oslo agreement was disabled at birth because it did not spell out the final destination: the State of Palestine side-by-side with the State of Israel. The Road Map clearly defines this aim, confirmed by the whole world and with the agreement of the most rightist government Israel ever had. This is a big step forward, a point of no return.
The spokesman of the settlers has asserted that this is a “reward to the terrorists”. And, indeed, this is an achievement of the intifada. Without it, the Palestinians would have got nothing.
The appearance of an inspection team (American, for now) is also very important. We have demanded this for years. The era of deceit is drawing to an end.
The removal of outposts is important, too. Sure, it concerns only a few, which are, by themselves, unimportant. But to quote again from one of the settlers: Even the removal of one single outpost breaks a national taboo. It proves that settlements can be removed; it creates a pattern, a precedent.
The Road Map does not say where the permanent borders between Israel and Palestine will be. That will be the issue for the next battle.
But we are moving forward. Perhaps only a small step. Perhaps a bigger one than it seems. But even in the most pessimistic view, this is a move in the right direction, towards the end of the occupation, towards peace.
Pray for the Road Map
This is the traditional “Prayer for the Road” for Jews who set out on a voyage (my translation):