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Illusory peace

The Middle East 'peace' plan is not only a defeat for the Palestinians but threatens to destabilise the whole region, argues Eve Anderson

The historic agreement between the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) and the state of Israel seems to promise peace in the Middle East. For the first time the sworn enemies of nearly 40 years have agreed to recognise each other. Israel has offered Palestinian autonomy on the Gaza Strip, in Jericho and, possibly, over the whole of the West Bank. The PLO in turn has promised to renounce the struggle against Israel.

It all sounds very generous and enlightened. At last, both extremes are seeing sense and coming together to end the bloodshed. Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, the proposal represents the defeat of the PLO as a liberation movement. But it is also an extremely high-risk strategy for Israel, and one that threatens the stability of the Arab regimes.

In the West, opponents of the deal, whether Islamic fundamentalists like Hamas or hardline Zionists like Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu, have been pilloried for their attachment to ancient hatreds. But both Israeli and Palestinian critics, from very different standpoints, have got a case.

A defeat

The main purpose and consequence of the deal is the defeat of the Palestinians. What has the PLO settled for in return for abandoning the struggle for national self-determination? The Gaza Strip is a rubbish dump for refugees and rebellious Palestinians. Nearly 800 000 people are jammed into 135 square miles of arid, dusty land - one of the most densely populated regions on the planet. The Israelis tried to give Gaza back to Egypt in 1978 but the Egyptians turned the offer down.

The Gaza Strip is a liability for Israel and a security nightmare. Now the PLO will police it and save them the trouble and expense in money and Israeli lives. In return, PLO leaders will have all the power and authority of jumped-up town councillors. Real control will remain with the Israeli state.

It is the Western powers, principally the USA, that have imposed this solution upon the Palestinian people, with the collusion of the leadership of the PLO. The idea that the peace deal was made on the basis of a personal rapport among the negotiators and their Norwegian hosts is laughable. Rather it is America's domination of the Middle East that has reduced the Palestinians to accepting a subordinate role in the Israeli state.

'The last superpower'

Brent Scowcroft, national security adviser to ex-US president George Bush, gave the game away. 'It took two wars to break the ice', he told Newsweek, 'the end of the Cold War and the beginning of the Gulf War...we were the last superpower' (13 September 1993).

What started with the end of the Cold War was a new relationship between America and the Arab states. No longer did radical Arab regimes have the option of escaping the Western orbit by seeking Soviet support. As a result, the USA had a much freer hand in the region. That shift in relations was consolidated in the Gulf War, when Bush mobilised the support of Arab states such as Egypt and Syria for his crusade to destroy Iraq.

The end of the Cold War and the outcome of the Gulf War finally removed two vital props from under the PLO: Soviet diplomatic support, and the backing of Arab nationalist regimes. This enabled the West to press Yasser Arafat into doing a deal with Israel on such punitive terms. But it was pushing at an open door.

PLO pays price

Although the PLO has been a focus for Palestinian hatred of Israeli and Western domination, its own attitude has been far more equivocal. Increasingly over the past 20 years, the PLO leadership has deprioritised the armed struggle against the Israeli state and instead pinned its hopes on Western diplomacy. Arafat has courted first the United Nations and more recently the USA itself, seeking entry to the Western-sponsored 'peace process' in the Middle East.

The West has always made it clear, however, that the price of the PLO's ticket to the negotiating table would be the recognition of Israel and the abandonment of 'terrorism' - here a code word for the liberation struggle. In effect, the PLO would have to cut itself off from the aspirations of the dispossessed Palestinian masses. Arafat's shift in that direction culminated in his signing of the deal. More than 40 years of resistance have given the Palestinian people the right to control over the non-existent amenities of the Gaza Strip and the traffic in Jericho.

Israel's problems

The fact that the deal is a defeat for the Palestinians does not mean that it is all good news for Israel. The Zionist state has also been affected by the end of the Cold War, which called into question its role in the region. Through the Cold War era, the Israelis were armed and funded by Washington to act as the West's gendarme in the Middle East, a counterpoint to Soviet-backed Arab nationalism. But once America was able to deal direct with Arab states, and to put US troops on Saudi soil, Israel's usefulness as a local policeman was undermined. American support for Israel has become more conditional. Washington has put pressure on the Israelis to come to an accommodation with the PLO. But the Americans may yet come to regret this.

Today, commentators who fear that the 'peace' deal may lead to instability tend to see the problem in terms of an uprising by Palestinian 'hardliners' like Hamas in the Gaza Strip. No doubt such groups will do their best to make trouble for Arafat and Israel. But the danger to Israel is far broader. The 'Gaza-Jericho first' deal may keep the lid on things in the short term. But it also brings the question of the legitimacy of the Israeli state closer to home.

Jerusalem tomorrow?

The Zionist state of Israel was founded after the Second World War on the basis of the occupation and partition of Palestine. The suppression of the Palestinians has been Israel's organising principle ever since. From the attack on Egypt in 1956 to the invasion of Lebanon which drove out the PLO in 1982, the Israelis demonstrated their refusal to make any concessions to Arab demands for self-determination.

The Israeli state is an artificial construction on Palestinian soil, wholly dependent upon Western arms and aid for its survival. To concede any right to Palestinian autonomy, however formal, must call into question the basis of the Israeli state. This is why the Israelis took such a hard line in the past - and why the Zionist right has a point when it warns that the deal with the PLO could have far-reaching consequences for Israel.

No part of the artificial Israeli state has any more 'natural' legitimacy than any other. If Gaza and Jericho can be 'given away' today, why not Jerusalem tomorrow, or even Tel Aviv the day after? That is why, whatever immediate benefits the agreement might bring to Israel, it stores up trouble and instability for the future.

And it's not only the legitimacy of Israel which is called into question by the deal. The Arab states, too, are likely to find the prospect of peace with Israel a mixed blessing.

Similar fate

For decades, all manner of Arab regimes have justified their rule by championing the cause of Arab nationalism and Palestinian liberation against Israel and the West. Through giving token support to the PLO and maintaining a hostile stance towards Israel, Arab dictators were able to pose as freedom fighters. They ran repressive regimes and reached an uneasy peace with the West, while their peoples' aspirations for liberation were directed towards Palestine.

Formal hostility to Israel at the diplomatic level leant an important legitimacy to Arab states. Egypt was the first of the Arab states to recognise Israel at the Camp David talks in 1978, and it has been beset by popular disenchantment ever since. A similar fate awaits the leaders of the more radical Arab states - Jordan, Syria, Lebanon - when they recognise Israel, as seems likely.

Unstable prospects

The old Arab-Israeli conflict has indeed been relegated to the past with the new accord between the PLO and Israel. However, the hopes that the deal will lead to a new era of stability are without foundation. The Arab-Israeli conflict was also the framework that held the region in an uneasy stalemate. In effect, the conflict was the local equivalent of the Cold War. And, just as the end of the Cold War has destabilised international relations, so, too, is the end of the Arab-Israeli conflict likely to destabilise the Middle East before too long.

Like the end of the Cold War, the formal end of the Arab-Israeli conflict will unravel the old relations - between states, between governments and the governed, between the United States and all the players in the region. The likely consequence will be an overall loss of control. Already, before the ink has dried on the accord, Washington has drawn the obvious lesson for the future by offering American troops to police the agreement. In the face of instability, the West's only solution is direct domination.

 Master of all he surveys?

Palestinian youth in the rubble of his Gaza home, destroyed by Israeli forces in May

Reproduced from Living Marxism issue 60, October 1993

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