Sunday, 20 June 2010

Waiting for Leaders

Tariq Ali recalls a recent conversation with John Reid.

ME: I always had a visceral hatred of New Labour.
REID: If we'd listened to people like you the Tories would have been in power for another 13 years.
ME: They were. Just called themselves New Labour.

In Leeds recently, on a stall selling Palestinian dates and olive oil, I talked to a visiting MP. How far Labour has fallen.....

Balance. Even-handedness. Listening to both sides…

How can we disagree? But what if the balance of forces is uneven? Would we expect the weaker to compete on equal terms with the stronger, the Marvi Marmara with an Israeli warship?

This thought came to mind last week when I spoke to a prominent Labour politician about Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and its blockade of Gaza. For him, in order to resolve the conflict there was a need for good leaders from both sides, who were prepared to listen and talk, to compromise. All sounds so very reasonable! Until you look at the balance of forces; and the actual history. And indeed when the question of the United States was raised – their influence on the conflict is immense, and the occupation could not continue without its support – the response was a guffaw. The idea of Britain influencing the Superpower! Yet, why expect Hamas or the Palestinian Authority to do any better. We at least have a large army and nuclear weapons. Jean Bricmont in an important book puts it well:

What characterizes idealism in politics is to act as if the world is full of well-meaning folk, sitting around a table trying to work out an intellectually complicated problem. Whereas political problems are generally not intellectually complicated. Take the example of Palestine: one could demand the application of all the United Nations resolutions, which would doubtless be the fairest solution, and in any case would not demand any particular intellectual exertion. Of course, it’s impossible to achieve, and the reason is the relationship of forces – which is where the real problem lies.

People without political power who propose “peace plans”, such as the Geneva agreement on Palestine, rarely ask themselves how to establish a balance of forces that would allow their plan to be adopted. Worse still, proposing such plans in a vacuum, that is, without the support of an effective political power, and letting the media report on it as they please, can have a demobilizing effect, giving public opinion the impression that the problem is in the process of being solved, an effect that gets in the way of any favourable solution.

Tanya Reinhart, in another important book, makes a similar point about the Camp David negotiations of July 2000:

Apart from the facts, the biggest distortion in the dominant perspective of Camp David has been the symmetry it imposes on the two sides – that they were both facing equal sacrifices that the rejectionist Palestinians were not willing to undertake… In the eyes of Israel giving up even an inch of the occupied territories means renouncing dreams about the historical promised land where the ancestors of the Israeli people lived two thousand years ago…

What has gained far less attention and sympathy is the sacrifices of the Palestinian people… Up until 1948 the Palestinian people lived in the whole land… Still, they agreed to give up 78 percent of the homeland of their parents and elders. They accepted that division in 1988, and reconfirmed it in Oslo. Since Oslo, mainstream Palestinian society has given up on armed struggle and even on political struggle to regain the land. For seven years the Palestinians kept waiting for the Israel to carry out its pledge to return 22 per cent of the land. And during the wait, all the Palestinians would hear echoing through Israel and the West was that their sacrifice was still not enough.

Not that I’m suggesting the politician was an uninformed idealist. No, his views merely that of a public figure who does not want to take sides – a politician, like the majority today, who have no mission, and no ideology. Will Self described them well: just managers.

What Bricmont describes is in fact the actual Israeli and American strategy since Oslo: endless negotiations that are represented as attempts to resolve the conflict, but are actually a camouflage for its continuation; until the Palestinian “state” becomes a collection of powerless cantons. The table talk of administrators and functionaries serving as the cheap window dressing for brute cynicism.

And his leaders? Let’s hear Binyamin Netanyahu:

Goldstone is a codeword for an attempt to delegitimize Israel's right to self-defense… The international battle against Israel began in UN Durban Conference I, and continued in the 2005 IJC advisory opinion against the security fence and in the Durban Conference II, as well as the Goldstone Report. This is a comprehensive attack, not on a specific Israeli government but on the state of Israel.

And Hamas? Here’s their letter to Obama….

Delivered by…. Codepink! Nothing better illustrates the falsity of balance of forcesof true statesmen. And when will we get them? Like the Road Map, it’s going to be a long wait; and when the bus does arrive, with our Mandelas and Gandhis, will there be a station stop to receive them?

What Hamas’ letter shows, and which the mainstream discourse avoids, is that the Palestinians have moved very far from the late 1960s. They have moved to the centre of the international political spectrum. At the same time Israel is moving further and further away from it. Its policies increasing fundamentalist and extreme. I would imagine this is the reverse of how most people view the situation; while our politician’s conception of fanatics on both sides is the cruellest hypocrisy. At least the former view is probably based on ignorance; the latter is merely a cover-up of well known of facts (for those who want to informed).

But in Gaza there is no political process and no prospect of one. The fundamentalist party, 
Hamas, won the January 2006 parliamentary elections in the Palestine Authority. But the Israelis and the US immediately rejected its victory and kidnapped parliamentarians and disrupted the government and then supported a coup in the West Bank by Fatah, the secular nationalist party of president Abbas. An attempt to extend the coup to the Gaza Strip failed, so Hamas remained in power there. The Israelis have attempted to overthrow and dislodge Hamas, including through the blockade on ordinary civilians and through the 2008-09 Gaza War, but so far have failed.

Unless a way can be found to hold legitimate elections in Gaza, it will remain isolated, even from other Palestinians in the West Bank, both politically and economically, so that the lives of its inhabitants will continue to be hell. The Israeli far right, now in power politically, will use the isolation of Gaza to argue that there is no single Palestinian representative with whom they can negotiate, and that they therefore do not need to negotiate, and can go blockading Gazans and stealing the land of West Bank Palestinians. (Juan Cole)

A good summation, although the reference to legitimate elections is dubious. Compared to other elections in the region it was reasonably free and fair. But of course, legitimate, like true statesmen, is a definition only the West can bestow.

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