Friday, Apr 16, 2004
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By Hamid Ansari
THE PRIME Minister of Israel, Ariel Sharon, is nothing if not single-minded. He initially raised one hundred objections to the Quartet Road Map, delayed it by over six months, and finally accepted it (under some U.S. pressure) in May 2003 with 14 reservations. These were intended to negate the road map. Last week, he again played poker with the Americans and refused to go to Washington unless he got full satisfaction on the text of a formal exchange of letters with the United States President. George W. Bush obliged and in return received fulsome compliments from his guest: "I have never met a leader as committed as you, Mr. President, to the struggle for freedom and the need to confront terrorism wherever it exists," Mr. Sharon wrote adding that "your vision is the only way to achieve peace and security in the Middle East."
This was sweet music to ears that have heard nothing but trenchant criticism of the handling of pre-9/11 intelligence as also of the current mess in Iraq. Beleaguered as both leaders are in domestic controversies, an exercise in mutual sustenance is understandable. As the Persian proverb goes, "I will call you Haji if you will call me Haji"!
In terms of its historical memory, the State of Israel attaches particular importance to letters written by the high and the mighty. It was a 10-line letter by Lord Balfour in 1917 that initiated the process of a "National Home for the Jewish people." The expression itself was carefully chosen; the purpose being, as Max Nordau had occasion to clarify, "to deceive by mildness" until such time as "there was no need to dissimulate our real aim." The objective then, as now, remains true to the vision of Vladimir Jabotinsky: "a colonizing adventure" that "stands or falls by the question of armed force." In the past 55 years therefore, and particularly since the time of President John Kennedy, the American commitments to Israel have been incrementally enhanced through exchanges of such executive commitments. The three full pages of the Bush letter not only continue this process but carry it to a higher pitch.
The Bush letter is to be read with an even longer statement that the U.S. President made on April 14 in the presence of Mr. Sharon. The letter barely mentions the Quartet road map, refers to the Bush Middle East Vision statement of June 24, 2002, reiterates the now familiar rhetoric on fight against terrorism and the responsibility of the Palestinian leadership in the matter, welcomes the Sharon Plan for unilateral disengagement under which "Israel would withdraw certain military installations and all settlements from Gaza, and withdraw certain military installations and settlements in the West Bank," accepts that this involves certain risks for Israel and therefore gives the assurance that the U.S. "is strongly committed to Israel's security and well-being as a Jewish state."
It stresses that a final peace settlement with the Palestinians must give Israel secure and recognised borders "in the light of the new realities on the ground, including already existing major Israeli population centers." Hence a return to the pre-1967 borders is not possible. It also asserts that the question of the Palestinian refugees has to be resolved by settling them in the future Palestinian state (to be for the sake of form "viable, contiguous, sovereign and independent") and absolves Israel of any responsibility in the matter.
The two leaders of course had less room for the fortitude of the Palestinians, formally under occupation since 1967 an occupation whose continuation is possible only and exclusively because the U.S. does not wish otherwise. As a result, every effort to resolve the problem ends up as an exercise in extracting more concessions from the Palestinians and the time thus gained is used to create "new realities on the ground." This was the logic of occupation in the first place and was continued for the same purpose after the Oslo Accords that were so bitterly, and so successfully, opposed by Mr. Sharon. Edward Said was therefore right when he described the road map not as a plan for peace as much as a plan for pacification and as a way of putting an end to Palestine as a problem.
The Disengagement Plan is intended to do away with a negotiated settlement. Its clear objective is to impose a settlement on Israeli terms, to retain Israeli settlements on the best parts of the West Bank, to further weaken and eventually undo the Palestinian Authority in its present leadership, to create the illusion of a Palestinian state devoid of the essential attributes of statehood, and to bury the problem of the Palestinian refugees irrespective of the justice of their cause and of their numbers. Its acceptance by the U.S. is an intentional gesture.
It is ironic that an American President, who wanted to use Iraq to create a favourable climate for resolving the principal and the oldest problem in West Asia, and for democratising and modernising the region, is today wishing to divert attention from his follies in Iraq by complicating still further that older problem that has cast its shadow over the whole region for half a century. He can only think of Palestinians as a people "tainted by terror".
(M.H. Ansari is a distinguished Fellow at the Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi.)
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