The Wye agreements and the myth of the “peace process”

By Robert Jensen

with Sylvia Shihadeh

Published in San Francisco Chronicle · November, 1998

[An abridged verison of this article was published in the Houston Chronicle on Nov. 11, 1998, San Francisco Chronicle on Nov. 13, 1998, and the Austin American-Statesman on Dec. 4, 1998.]

For the past week, politicians and pundits have asked whether the Wye agreement can revive the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

That is, sadly, the wrong question using the wrong terms, for there is no authentic peace process to revive. There is only a continuing process of Israeli subjugation of Palestinians, with the Palestinian Authority (PA) scrambling to shore up its meager power by continuing to sell out its people to the conquering regional power, which has the support of the dominant world power, the United States.

It is easy to throw around the term “peace,” for everyone wants peace. But peace on what terms? An honest answer leaves many not only skeptical about the Wye agreements but about the long-term possibility of real peace under the framework of the Oslo accords, which have done little to derail Israeli domination.

The latest step in this process is hardly cause for celebration, for it reinforces dangerous trends in the region and may deepen the repression Palestinians face at the hands of both the Israelis and the PA. A review of some elementary facts leads to a different framework and challenges to the conventional wisdom.

The position we describe may seem extreme to many American readers. But these and similar views are widely held around the world—not only in Palestinian, Arab and Muslim communities, but among progressives in Europe and the United States. In much of the so-called Third World, such views are commonplace, perhaps because of similar experiences with colonizing powers. It is, in fact, the routine exclusion of such views from the mainstream U.S. media that contribute to their appearance as extreme.

The Wye agreements continue an Israeli policy designed to secure the best land and retain control of the water resources of the West Bank and Gaza Strip while terminating responsibility for the indigenous population. With settlements on the ground and agreements in place, Israel maintains some features of the occupation while ridding itself of obligations to the occupied peoples.

While Israeli settlers enjoy lush green lawns and swimming pools, water is rationed to Palestinians. In one camp near Bethlehem, refugees get access to water once every two weeks; if they’re careful, they’ll have drinking water until the next round. The story is much the same for water for irrigation. For the PA, sovereignty means complete control over garbage collection but no effective control over the available resources.

As the Israelis and PA have quibbled over whether 7 percent or 13 percent of the West Bank will be transferred to PA control, it has been easy to overlook the fact that Israel is an occupying power in violation of international law in ALL of the of West Bank. A basic principle of international law is that lands taken by force must be returned, and UN Security Council Resolution 242 calls for the withdrawal of Israel from territories taken in the 1967 war, including the West Bank and Gaza. Though Oslo and its aftermath have rendered 242 effectively dead, the moral imperatives have not changed. But Israeli aggression and flaunting of international law have paid off handsomely.

The other major element of the Wye agreement concerns security. Although the agreement demands that both sides work to prevent “acts of terrorism, crime and hostilities,” it is clear that “security” means security for Israelis. But what of security for Palestinians? Is Israel going to restrain its military and disarm settlers? Will Israel be serious about policing itself and prosecuting settlers who commit violence against Palestinians? Is Israel going to stop demolishing Palestinian homes?

Along with the daily humiliations and deprivations that are a consistent feature of the Israeli occupation, Palestinians face real threats of violence with little protection. It is difficult for Palestinians to feel secure when they walk among Israeli soldiers and ideologically fanatic settlers with machine guns. It is difficult to feel secure knowing that the bulldozer could be at your door tomorrow.

A main target of this talk about security is Hamas, the radical Islamic resistance group. One need not endorse the violent strategies of Hamas to acknowledge that the demand for a PA crackdown likely will encourage the already repressive character of the PA and increase human-rights violations. Demanding a policy of “zero tolerance” of terrorism from the PA is almost certain to mean arrest campaigns, unlawful detention, excessive force and arbitrary restrictions on free expression.

Despite the capitulation of Arafat and his cronies, it would be misguided to dump all the blame on them. A comparison with apartheid South Africa is useful. Arafat is roughly equivalent to the “leaders” of the black homelands, or bantustans. Those nominally autonomous areas were set up by the racist South African regime to exclude blacks from meaningful participation in politics and transfer the task of control to a black collaborator elite. In the sense that “peace” commonly is used in Israel today, South Africa was engaged in a “peace process” when it deprived blacks of rights and material resources through the homelands policy.

If Arafat had chosen the route of Nelson Mandela’s principled opposition instead of the collaboration of Chief Buthelezi, the situation for Palestinians today might not be much better, given Israel’s aggression and U.S. support. But it is hard to imagine things being worse. Arafat now provides Israel the facade it needs to ward off international criticism.

All this leads to a truism: Without justice, there can be no stable and lasting peace. Violence by some Palestinians against Israel is likely to continue as long as Israeli violence against Palestinians and other Arabs, particularly in Lebanon, continues. Labeling the violence of one side “terrorism” and of the other side “self-defense” resolves nothing.

One need not support violence to understand the sources of violence. “Every relationship of domination is by definition violent, whether or not the violence is expressed by drastic means,” wrote the late Brazilian educator Paulo Freire. “When the oppressed legitimately rise up against their oppressor, however, it is they who are usually labeled ‘violent’ and ‘barbaric.’”

Any real peace process will require acknowledging the dispossession of the Palestinians and honoring the moral claim of all Palestinians—in Israel, in the occupied territories, in the refugee camps in other Arab countries, and around the world—to return to land that is theirs under international law. No matter how the details of the Wye agreement are resolved, it is a failed agreement because it turns away from that simple truth. The failure will be compounded if repression by the PA and Israel increases. And the absence of a just peace—or any reasonable hope for one—will continue to create conditions that ensure Hamas will thrive.

South Africa teaches another lesson. The struggle against apartheid by black South Africans was aided by a grassroots international solidarity movement that saw the issue in moral terms. If a similar movement could be mobilized with Palestinians, focusing on the moral issue raised by the dispossession and the second-class status of Palestinians in Israel, progress is possible.

Such action by Americans would require abandoning the myth that the U.S. government is, or has been, a force for peace in the region. For three decades the United States has consistently blocked an international consensus on a two-state solution and a just resolution of the Palestinian land claims. Any U.S.-brokered “solution” is inherently dangerous because it reinforces this unilateral imposition of an unjust policy.

With U.S. aid to Israel at $3 billion a year—or more, depending on the financial accounting—our responsibilities are clear. It is difficult to state with precision what a just peace would like at this point, but it must start with a moral accounting. The story of Israel and Palestine is a story of two peoples who have suffered as a result of bigotry, greed, violence and the indifference of the world community. Let us acknowledge both stories so that a commitment to real justice can create the conditions for real peace.