Friday, April 16, 2004
In early February, as I frantically prepared for looming exams, I went to a debate at the Cambridge Union with a couple of classmates. We were all taking a Middle Eastern politics course, and so justified our night out on the grounds that it would aid, not hinder, our studying. The debate - on the motion, "This House regards Ariel Sharon as the greatest single obstacle to peace in the Middle East" - was a lively affair, though being filled with student hippies, the majority of the crowd was all in favour of branding Sharon in all kinds of terrible ways.
Sharon had just announced his intention to unilaterally pull out of the Gaza Strip, and speakers on the negative side cited this as evidence that the Israeli Prime Minister is indeed, as George Bush eloquently puts it, "a man of peace". Some two months later, and as things go to shit in Iraq and the US President tries heroically to change the subject, there were those two great peacemakers of our time, Misters Bush and Sharon, on the front of this morning's papers, grinning their heads off.
Yesterday, Bush gave his blessing to Sharon's plan: we'll give up Gaza, reject Palestinian refugees' right of return, and keep our biggest settlements in the West Bank. That sounds fair, right? We give up something (Gaza), the Palestinians give up something (their refugees' right of return), and we keep a major presence in the West Bank. What could be fairer? This is about give and take, rights and obligations, difficult compromises, choosing peace over terrorism, etc. "These are historic and courageous actions," Bush said. "If all parties choose to embrace this moment, they can open the door to progress and put an end to one of the world's longest running conflicts."
Interesting that Bush is talking about opening doors. One of the speakers in the February debate used the analogy of a house to describe the generosity of Sharon's plans. Let me expand on it a bit here. You own and live in a house, which has five rooms. You've been letting some people stay with you for a while, because they've got nowhere else to go, and have been mistreated by all sorts of other people in the neighbourhood. But then your guests, seeing their family members getting murdered in other parts of neighbourhood, get scared that their whole family is going to get wiped out, and decide that they want to take over your house. This causes a lot of friction and they eventually control four of the five rooms in the house: you get to stay in the bedroom, but they'll be there with you the whole time, will go through your things and make sure you only leave the bedroom when they let you. Then, after many years, they say: "Hey, we've decided you can have unfettered use of the toilet. We're going to leave you alone in there, because it's really unhygienic, and we don't want to get ourselves messy. But the bedroom itself, we'll be staying put, because we've grown attached to it. But that sounds like a pretty good deal, eh? You get the ensuite all to yourself!"
It's an inexact analogy, to be sure, but given the dispute is essentially about land, one should always keep maps in the back of one's mind when thinking about Palestine/Israel. The "green line" that often gets spoken of as the natural dividing line between the two parties was set in 1949, as armed hostilities between Arab states and Israel ceased with the signing of an armistice. The green line meant that 78% of what was Palestine was given to Israel with the remaining 22% for the Palestinians: four rooms for the Israelis, one for the Palestinians. The green line was always problematic because the 22% the Palestinians got was divided into two, unconnected parts - the West Bank and the Gaza Strip - making the construction of a state at best very difficult.
Over the past half-century, two streams of thought have flowed through Israeli politics: there are those who argue that Israel should be content with its 78%, and those who think it should try to get an ever larger slice of the pie. The Zionist dream of a "Greater Israel", which would take up 100% of pre-WWII Palestine, has lived on. Some Israeli governments (and certainly Sharon) have officially pursued the let's-get-even-more policy. The government has encouraged and funded the building of Jewish settlements in the Palestinians' 22% of the land, and built roads throughout the West Bank so that Jewish settlers can travel between Israel and the West Bank with ease.
This is called "creating facts on the ground" – if enough Jews live there, then the international community will decide the land belongs to Israel. Bush got very close to using this precise language when he hailed the Gaza pullout yesterday. "In light of the new realities on the ground, including already existing Israeli population centres, it is unrealistic to expect that the outcome of final status negotiations will be a full and complete return to the armistice lines of 1949." This statement overturned decades of US foreign policy, which had always explicitly called Jewish settlements beyond the green line illegal under international law (as they are) and unjustifiable.
So, the Palestinians' 22% will probably drop into the teens if a two-state solution is ever found. But none of this is just about basic fairness. One thing that runs through the Middle East is that the population is expanding and the amount of arable land is contracting. There are not enough jobs and resources (save oil) to go around. And creating a viable Palestinian state means allowing it enough land and natural resources to prosper. Israel's security ultimately relies on Palestinians’ being able to live peaceful, relatively prosperous lives, and squeezing them into a smaller and smaller slice of land just ain't going to cut it.
UPDATE: Richard Adams, an editor of Salient back in the late 80s, has this interesting insider-outsider's account of Brash's speech in this morning's Guardian. Adams now works for the Guardian's comment section, as a leader writer.