Two events that took place Sunday illustrated perfectly the elements of the diplomatic impasse that have prevented any serious progress toward peace in the Middle East. Israel’s ruling party voted never to allow any form of Palestinian statehood whatsoever, while three key Arab leaders reaffirmed their commitment to normalize relations with Israel if it withdraws from occupied Palestinian lands.
The Central Committee of the Likud, the party that leads Israel’s coalition government, voted that “No Palestinian state will be created west of the Jordan (River).” Supporters of the resolution, led by former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, insisted that Israel would never permit an independent Palestinian state of any kind in any part of historical Palestine. The vote endorses permanent Israeli occupation of East Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza Strip, which is the cause of the ongoing conflict between Israel and the Palestinians.
Netanyahu was no doubt attempting to undermine Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, attacking him from an extreme right-wing position and demonstrating that he, in this case at least, commanded more votes in the Likud Committee that determines party leadership. And it is certainly true that neither Netanyahu nor Likud speaks on behalf of all Israelis.
However, the fact that Israel’s governing party would slam the door so completely on the one and only chance of resolving the conflict peacefully is an indication of how radicalized Israeli society has become in recent months. What Likud was voting in favor of is a permanent state of apartheid in the occupied territories, with Israel ruling millions of Palestinians without allowing them independence but also without granting them citizenship. As Netanyahu put it, “autonomy, yes — statehood, no.”
The problem is not simply on the Israeli right. No Israeli government has ever been willing to seriously consider ending the occupation and allowing the Palestinians a completely independent state in the scraps of Palestine still not fully colonized. No Israeli government has stopped or even slowed significantly the settlement activity designed to entrench the occupation.
The most Israel has ever been willing to offer the Palestinians, as presented by Prime Minister Ehud Barak at Camp David in 2000, was nominal independence within a greater Israeli state: a fragmented “state” that would not even have controlled its own borders.
The Likud vote simply underscores the obvious point that as long as Israel refuses to fully end its occupation, the conflict cannot end. As things stand now, 3.5 million Palestinians live under Israeli military rule as non-citizens with no legal, political or human rights whatsoever. The commitment of the Likud party to continue that situation indefinitely is not only a prescription for endless conflict, it is an excellent illustration of the extremist policies that have forced this hideous conflict on Palestinians and Israelis alike and precluded peace. The whole world, including the Bush administration, recognizes that Palestinian statehood is the key to peace, yet Israel’s leading party remains implacably opposed to it.
In stark contrast, following a meeting at Sharm el Sheik in Egypt, the leaders of Syria, Saudi Arabia and Egypt reaffirmed their commitment to a peace plan adopted unanimously by the Arab League which holds that all the Arab states would create normal relations with Israel in the event of an Israeli withdrawal from Arab lands occupied in the 1967 war.
The Arab League peace plan is the only serious attempt on the table at present to rethink the peace process and meet the stated needs of all parties in a fair and reasonable manner. It would create secure and recognized borders for both Israel and a Palestinian state. All that is being asked of Israel by the Arabs in general is that it bring its troops back inside its own country, and stop subjecting millions of Arabs to colonization and foreign military dictatorship. The outstretched hand is being rebuffed. Israel’s ruling party has rejected any form of Palestinian statehood whatsoever and committed itself to a future defined by more colonization and permanent inequality. That should provide clarity to all those who wonder why there is and has been no peace in the Middle East.