The Geneva Bubble – Ilan Pappe on the prehistory of the latest proposals

From the archive (legacy material)

Ilan Pappe | London Review of Books, Volume 25, No. 1 | January 2004

Even though we live in an age of intensive and intrusive media coverage, TV viewers in Israel were lucky to catch a glimpse of the meetings that produced the Geneva Accord. The clip we watched in November showed a group of well- known Israeli writers and peaceniks shouting at a group of not so well-known and rather cowed Palestinians, most of them officials of the Palestinian Authority. Abba Eban once said that the Palestinians never missed an opportunity to miss an opportunity, and that, more or less, was what the Israelis were saying now. This was their last chance, the Palestinians were told: the current offer was the best and most generous Israelis have ever made them.
It’s a familiar scene. The various memoirs produced by the major players in the Oslo Accord suggest that much the same sort of thing was said there, while leaks from the Camp David summit in 2000 describe similar exchanges between Clinton, Barak and Arafat. In fact, the Israeli tone and attitude have barely changed since British despair led to the Palestine question being transferred to the UN at the end of the Second World War. The UN was a very young and inexperienced organisation in those days, and the people it appointed to find a solution to the conflict were at a loss where to begin or how to proceed. The Jewish Agency gladly filled the vacuum, exploiting Palestinian disarray and passivity to the full.
In May 1947, the Agency handed a plan, complete with a map, to the UN Special Committee on Palestine (UNSCOP), proposing the creation of a Jewish state over 80 per cent of Palestine – more or less Israel today without the Occupied Territories. In November 1947 the Committee reduced the Jewish state to 55 per cent of Palestine, and turned the plan into UN General Assembly Resolution 181. Its rejection by Palestine surprised no one – the Palestinians had been opposed to partition since 1918. Zionist endorsement of it was a foregone conclusion, and in the eyes of the international policemen, that was a solid enough basis for peace in the Holy Land. Imposing the will of one side on the other was hardly the way to effect a reconciliation, and the resolution triggered violence on a scale unprecedented in the history of modern Palestine.
If the Palestinians weren’t happy with the Zionist idea of partition, it was time for unilateral action. The Jewish leadership turned to its May 1947 map, showing clearly which parts of Palestine were coveted as the future Jewish state. The problem was that within the desired 80 per cent, the Jews were a minority of 40 per cent (660,000 Jews and one million Palestinians). But the leaders of the Yishuv had foreseen this difficulty at the outset of the Zionist project in Palestine. The solution as they saw it was the enforced transfer of the indigenous population, so that a pure Jewish state could be established. On 10 March 1948, the Zionist leadership adopted the infamous Plan Dalet, which resulted in the ethnic cleansing of the areas regarded as the future Jewish state in Palestine.
Palestine was not divided, it was destroyed, and most of its people expelled. These were the events which triggered the conflict that has lasted ever since. The PLO emerged in the late 1950s as an embodiment of the Palestinian struggle for return, reconstruction and restitution. But the refugees were ignored by the international community and the regional Arab powers. Only Nasser seemed to adopt their cause, forcing the Arab League to express its concern. As the ill-fated Arab manoeuvres of June 1967 showed, this was not enough.
In June 1967, the whole of Palestine became Israel; the new geopolitical reality demanded a renewed peace process. At first the UN took the initiative, but it was soon replaced by American peacemakers. The early architects of Pax Americana had some ideas of their own, but they were flatly rejected by the Israelis, and got nowhere. American brokering became a proxy for Israeli peace plans, which were based on three assumptions: that the 1948 ethnic cleansings would not be an issue; that negotiations would only concern the future of the areas Israel had occupied in 1967, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip; and, third, that the fate of the Palestinian minority in Israel was not to be part of a comprehensive settlement. This meant that 80 per cent of Palestine and more than 50 per cent of Palestinians were to be excluded from the peacemaking process. The formula was accepted unconditionally by the US, and sold as the best possible offer to the rest of the world.
For a while – until 1977 – the Israelis insisted on another precondition. They wanted to divide the West Bank with the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. (The ‘Jordanian option’, as it was called, was later adopted by the Reagan Administration as its own peace plan.) When Likud came to power in 1977, the option dropped from view – the new Government was not interested in any kind of agreement or compromise – but it was revived in the days of the national unity government, 1984-87, until the Jordanians realised that the Israeli Government would not relinquish the entire West Bank even to them.
The Israeli occupation continued unhindered in the absence of a proper peace process. From its very first day – long before the suicide bombers – there were house demolitions, killings of innocent citizens, expulsions, closures and general harassment. The 1950s and 1960s saw the rise of the ever- expanding settler movement, which brought with it not only land expropriation but also further brutality. The Palestinians responded with a radical form of political Islam, which by the end of the first twenty years had become a force to reckon with. It was bolder in its resistance to the occupation than anything that had preceded it, but equally harsh in its attitude to internal rivals and the population at large. Neither movement, any more than the Likud Government before them, showed any interest in a diplomatic effort to resolve the conflict. Frustration in the occupied areas intensified until, in December 1987, the local population rose up against the occupiers.
In due course the violence ended and a new period of peacemaking began, very like the previous ones. On the Israeli side the team was extended to include academics as well as politicians. Once again, it was an Israeli endeavour seeking American approval. Once again, the Americans tried to put forward some ideas of their own: the Madrid process of 1991 was part of an American attempt to justify the first Gulf War. There were ideas in it with which the Palestinians could agree. But it was a long and cumbersome business and in the meantime a new Israeli initiative was developed.
This initiative had a novel component. For the first time, the Israelis were looking for Palestinian partners in the search for their kind of peace in Palestine. And they aimed at the top – the PLO leadership in Tunis. They were lured into the process by an Israeli promise, enshrined in Article 5, Clause 3 of the Oslo Accord, that after five years of catering for Israeli security needs, the main Palestinian demands would be put on the negotiating table in preparation for a final agreement. Meanwhile, the Palestinians would be allowed to play with independence. They were offered the opportunity to form a Palestinian Authority, decorated with the insignia of sovereignty, that could remain intact as long as it clamped down on any resistance movement against the Israelis. For that purpose, the PA employed five secret service organisations, which compounded the occupiers’ abuses of human and civil rights with those of the indigenous Administration. Palestine’s quasi-autonomy had little bearing on the occupation. In some areas it was directly enforced, in others indirectly. More Jewish settlers arrived, and harassment continued everywhere. When the Palestinian opposition retaliated with suicide attacks, the Israelis enriched the repertoire of collective punishment in such a way that support for the suicide bombers grew by the week.
Six years after the signing of Oslo, the ‘peace camp’ once more came to power in Israel, with Ehud Barak at its head. A year later he was facing electoral defeat, having been overambitious in almost every field. Peace with the Palestinians seemed to be the only salvation. The Palestinians expected the promise made in Oslo to be the basis for the new negotiations. As they saw it, they had agreed to wait five years: it was time to discuss the problem of Jerusalem, the fate of the refugees and the future of the settlements. The Israelis once more devised the plan, enlisting even more academics and ‘professional’ experts. The fragmented Palestinian leadership was unable to come up with counterproposals without outside help, and sought advice in such unlikely places as the Adam Smith Institute in London. Not surprisingly, the Israeli plan alone was on the negotiating table at Camp David in the summer of 2000. Endorsed by the Americans, it offered withdrawal from most of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, leaving about 15 per cent of original Palestine for the Palestinians, in the form of discrete cantons bisected by highways, settlements, army camps and walls. No capital in Jerusalem, no solution to the refugee problem and total abuse of the concept of statehood and independence. Even the fragile Arafat, who had hitherto seemed to be happy with the Salata (the perks of power), having never exercised Sulta (actual power), could not sign a document that made a mockery of every Palestinian demand. He was immediately depicted as a warmonger.
Unarmed demonstrators showed their dismay in the autumn of 2000 and were shot by the Israeli Army. The Palestinian response was not late in coming: the resistance was militarised. Three years into the second intifada, the peace effort resumed once more. The same formula was at work: an Israeli initiative catering to the Israeli public and Israeli needs disguised as a piece of honest brokering on the part of the Americans.
Three initiatives appeared in 2003. The first has already won American support: the road map. At the end of that road, 10 per cent of Palestine will be divided into two huge prison camps – one in Gaza and the other in the West Bank – with no solution to the refugee problem and full Israeli control of Jerusalem. The initiators are still looking for a prospective Palestinian chief warden. Having lost Mahmoud Abbas, they are pinning their hopes on Ahmad Qurei.
The second is the Ayalon-Nusseibeh proposal, based on a total Israeli withdrawal from the Occupied Territories (apart from greater Jerusalem, which takes up about a third of the West Bank) in return for a Palestinian undertaking to relinquish the refugees’ right of return. I suspect that Sari Nusseibeh, the president of al-Quds University and former PA representative in Jerusalem, is repeating a ploy he attempted in the first intifada, when he suggested the de jure annexation of the Occupied Territories to Israel, so as to show the Israelis that Israel could not include the West Bank and Gaza within its borders and still be at once Jewish and democratic. He now hopes to expose Israel’s unwillingness to evict the settlements. The Ayalon-Nusseibeh plan has so far failed to impress the Israelis, but it did depress the refugee communities and I wonder whether it was worth it. Ami Ayalon, the head of Shin Bet from 1996 to 2000, lives in the former village of Ijzim, from which the Palestinian population was expelled in 1948.
And now we have the Geneva bubble: an impressive production both as a document and as a Hollywood-style ceremony. It will probably never become a reality, but it’s worth taking a look at. Its basic features are described by David Grossman in the introduction to the Hebrew version.
For the first time, there is full Palestinian recognition of the right of the Jewish people to a state in Israel and recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. The document offers practical and detailed solutions to the refugee problem; a problem that has caused all efforts until now to fail. There is also in the document a promise that the majority of the Jews living beyond the Green Line will remain in their homes and become part of the state of Israel. There is also a Palestinian commitment to demilitarise the Palestinian state and allow no foreign troops to be stationed in it.
What catches the eye, not only in this preface but in the document as a whole, is that while the refugees’ right of return is an obstacle that has to be removed if peace and reconciliation are to be achieved, the Jewishness of Israel – i.e. the Jewishness of the original state with the annexed blocks of settlements in the Occupied Territories and greater Jerusalem – is not an obstacle at all. On the contrary, what is missing according to this logic is Palestinian recognition of the new greater Israel. And what is offered to encourage the Palestinians to recognise the state built on the land from which they were ethnically cleansed in 1948 and that was taken from them in 1967? What is the generous offer the Israeli peaceniks loudly urged their counterparts on the Geneva campaign not to pass up? A mini-state, built on 15 per cent of what used to be Palestine, with a capital near Jerusalem and no army. On close reading, the authority and power vested in the aforementioned state bear little relation to any notion of statehood we might derive from global reality or political science textbooks.
Far more important, the Geneva project would leave the refugees in exile. The small print says that the Palestinian refugees would be able to choose either to return to what’s left of their former country or stay in their camps. As they will probably choose to wait until the international community fulfils its commitment to allow their unconditional return under Resolution 194, they will remain refugees while their compatriots in Israel continue to be second-class citizens in the remaining 85 per cent of Palestine.
There is no acknowledgment of the cause of this conflict, the 1948 ethnic cleansing; there is no process of truth and reconciliation that will make Israel accountable for what it did either in 1948 or afterwards. Under these circumstances, neither the Palestinians nor the Arab world at large will feel able to accept a Jewish state.
In a celebration in Tel Aviv, the architects of the Geneva Accord played over and over again a popular song called ‘And Tel Aviv Will Be Geneva’. But Tel Aviv is not Geneva; it is built on the ruins of six Palestinian villages destroyed in 1948; and it shouldn’t be Geneva: it should aspire to be Alexandria or Beirut, so that the Jews who invaded the Arab world by force could at last show a willingness to be part of the Middle East rather than remain an alien and alienated state within it.
18 December 2003
Ilan Pappe teaches political science at Haifa University and is chair of the Emil Touma Institute for Palestinian Studies.