Monday, December 20, 2010

Looking at the last year through new eyes

Having shivered my way through subzero temperatures in Vienna last week for the purposes of knocking heads and putting together a research proposal that will hopefully see funding for up to three years, I also had time to reflect on public perceptions to the first outing of the paper related to the conflict and development project I’ve spent the best part of a year working on. The report itself is very long and full of quotes, but the version I read and we discussed was a fifth of the size.

Essentially, the two main options that I proposed facing international donors in the occupied Palestinian territories (OPT) are a choice between working to end Israel’s occupation or finding programmes and projects that tinker at the edges. The latter is clearly sub-optimal, but it’s probably also the most likely.

What was most striking for me was the extent to which I’ve internalised some assumptions from nearly a year on these issues and seeing how a European audience reacted to some issues that now seem ‘normal’ to me. For example, I felt that there was a bit if a struggle from my student and faculty audience regarding Hamas’s position as part of the furniture. Too often the party is seen as out of the ordinary in Europe. At the same time, because of the Fatah-Hamas split, I was asked whether it was possible for the two – and by implication, both wider Palestinian society and foreign donors – to find some areas where possible consensus was achievable. This might provide scope beyond the one area of joint thinking, namely an end to the occupation – and which is arguably least likely.

It brought it home to me that I feel that I am finally starting to get a real sense of how things are perceived by the community as a whole here, rather than trying to make a set of externally developed assumptions fit from without. So in a strange way, I found that instead of journeying to Europe in my trip to Vienna, I was actually brought back to the OPT.

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

A gulf of misunderstanding?

One of the most striking things about the ‘process’ in this part of the world is the disconnection between Israelis and Palestinians when it comes to envisaging the future. This was most visibly brought home to me during the German-sponsored IPCRI conference, ‘Peace Begins with Jerusalem?’ at the Ambassador Hotel yesterday afternoon. It was during the final session, with presentations from Sonia Najjar, Gilead Sher and Hilia Tsedaka, that I especially noted this.

Gilead Sher was Ehud Barack’s co-chief negotiator at Camp David. His presentation on Jerusalem was that the issue of Arab and Israeli neighbourhoods wasn’t the sticking point. Rather it was the Old City and how to govern the Holy Sites that caused the greatest headache. He felt that on Jerusalem the Clinton parameters that were proposed at Camp David 10 years ago are still relevant today, with the one caveat that the separation of neighbourhoods on the basis on population and majority groups should not be applied within the Old City. Instead he favours a form of independent third party administration, headed by an international and with Palestinian and Israeli input – effectively the Jerusalem Old City Initiative that was launched in May this year.

There is a catch though. Sher claimed that the time is not right for this measure to be put into place. He criticised the current process as one that is waiting for everything to be agreed between the two sides and he suggests an alternative of dealing with those issues that are feasible now and putting into place all those that can be agreed. On the surface this looks reasonable. But what is staggering is that he overlooks the fact that this has been the way that the process has taken its course since the early 1990s. In fact the whole Oslo process has been one of leaving the most insoluble issues to the end, with the aim of building confidence and trust between the two sides through smaller-scale measures in the intervening period.

It was therefore pertinent that Sonia Najjar’s presentation reminded attendees of the current and systematic process of Judaisation that is going on in East Jerusalem. She noted that Israeli laws and policies in the city are diminishing the Palestinian presence through settlement building (which as of today, there are reports that the US has abandoned efforts to try and restart the settlement freeze – outside of Jerusalem though) and the takeover of Palestinian neighbourhoods. Even if there is a ‘negative’ form of peace (i.e. no violence), this comes nowhere near any attempt to build trust between the two sides – or Sher’s vacuum.

That said, to what extent can Najjar’s own suggested course deliver results? Having cited various international obligations that Israel is a party to – and isn’t upholding – she favours international pressure on the Israeli government. But as the US failure over the settlement freeze has shown on the one hand and the Brazilian and Argentine recognition of Palestinian sovereignty within the 1967 borders has shown – there is as yet no teeth to enforce this. That said, it is not unreasonable for us internationals to pressure our governments on this issue, as Mandy Turner pointed out at her Kenyon lecture last week. Nevertheless, given the absence of international pressure to date, why should the future be any different?

So if the external environment is not conducive, what about on the ground? Hilia Tsedaka is with ‘Win-Win Jerusalem’, an organisation that wants to transform the zero sum game (‘win lose’) between Palestinians and Israelis in the city into one that benefits both. To achieve this requires greater citizen participation in decision making and she cited various examples of where this has happened from the top (e.g. Cyprus constitution) to the bottom and through mid-level players (e.g. the participatory budget in Porto Alegre). She feels that the more participation there is, the more trust will be generated between the two sides. Her method is to run facilitative workshops that ‘support’ and ‘empower’ Palestinians on the one side and transform Israeli minds on the other. This will create the conditions for greater trust, including shared interest projects, greater communication skills and better awareness of how to use the system.

Following the conference’s end, I said to her that I was still uncertain as to how trust was to be generated through the methods she suggests. Surely in the case of the Jerusalem municipality a more ‘empowered’ Palestinian is a threat and therefore someone to be denied greater participation rather than the other way around? I was still lost as to how the leap is made from win-loss to win-win.

And this is where I have the biggest problem with these proposals. Ironically, it was Sher that put his finger on it in the discussion when he said it was necessary to combine both top-down and bottom-up approaches to the process (and I assume he means more than just Jerusalem here). He said it’s necessary to condition people’s hearts and minds as well as proposing these ideas and projects, which lack detail of how they are to actually built trust. Unlike Najjar, he opposes third party intervention as a stick to beat Israel with, but supports it to help the negotiations along (a subtle way of shifting the terms of the debate, I feel). That said, he remains frustrated that there has been no movement forward since Camp David – and more to the point, no sign of any response from the Israeli leadership about the Arab Peace Initiative, which has been reiterated every years since it was first proposed in 2002.

To me this suggests that if confidence-building is to start somewhere, it has to be with the Israelis. Najjar’s analysis of a disempowered people being forced out of Silwan and Sheikh Jarrah, with the complicit support of the municipality and state, not only highlights the lack of trust between both sides, but also which side is stronger in this struggle. It’s time to stop pretending that the two sides are equal; indeed, Sher praised the institution building and degree of security that has occurred in the West Bank over the past few years – but he stopped short of suggesting that Israel offer something in return as a (confidence building) gesture.

The Israelis like to talk about Yasser Arafat having missed an opportunity at Camp David. Yet it often seems that it is they who are doing so. To conclude, contrary to the official rhetoric that Jerusalem is a united city, the pollster Dahlia Scheindlin (who spoke earlier) revealed that Israeli Jews recognise Jerusalem’s divided nature and neighbourhoods and are pragmatic enough to accept partition if their government present them with it. Rather than making public opinion, Israelis are following their leaders. Now is therefore the time for them to take the chance. Although I suspect they will miss it.

Thursday, December 02, 2010

No change

Despite the hiatus on this blog, I have been writing elsewhere, for the LSE Ideas Centre and the online Spanish magazine, Global Affairs. Much of the reason for the silence here is the absence of any seminars or presentations that I have gone to over the past few months. Much of this is the result of bad timing for me, having other commitments, visitors, etc. In fact, when I arrived at the Kenyon Institute last night for Naseer Aruri’s and Mandy Turner’s presentations, I noticed that the last event I had attended was back in August – at least one where I took notes (there was also a conference at the end of September where I was both participant and scribe – I hope one day to write something more substantial than a blog piece on those issues there).

The Kenyon event took place last night and was a follow on from their own two day conference on Monday and Tuesday – which I wasn’t able to attend for the above reasons. That said, I suspect that both Aruri and Turner were able to give a flavour of what that event must have been like, since both presented there as well.

Aruri chose not to present the same paper that he had done at the conference – a great shame for me, since it was sought to put Palestinian development in historical and political context. Instead, he offered an alternative paper called ‘The Ongoing Erasure of Palestine’ which was extremely bleak. Essentially his argument was that there can be no two-state solution when Zionism is the Palestinian’s adversary. Zionist colonialism he considers to be unique as a movement, offering no territorial concessions and expanding Israel’s control of historic Palestine. He talked at length about ‘politicide’, the term that Baruch Kimmerling had fashioned to describe what was happening to the Palestinians, with the dissolution of Palestinian political identity through the use of ethnic cleansing.

Aruri was scathing both about external actors such as the US (who he has called a ‘dishonest broker’ in a previous book and who has gone against the global consensus fashioned after 1967 – i.e. end of occupation, withdrawal to the Green Line, East Jerusalem to be Palestinian, etc) and the Palestinian leadership. The latter he deems to have colluded in its own destruction, offering no alternative. Ultimately, the diplomatic paralysis that currently exists is embedded in the failed Oslo peace process for him.

Turner also presented a very compelling argument with her paper on ‘Creating “Partners for Perace”:Aid, humanitarianism and the international donor community in the OPT’. The term ‘partner for peace’ has become increasingly used and she has tried to understand what it means. Essentially, there are three elements associated with the concept: (1) an attempt by donors to support and impose the ‘right’ type of Palestinian political elite, (2) pressure the ‘right’ type of Palestinian elite to make peace with Israel on the grounds set out by Israel and (3) marginalise and/or remove the ‘wrong’ type of Palestinian elite.

It doesn’t take a genius to realise that what this means is the fragmentation of Palestinian politics and society, a process has been in place since 2006 and Hamas’s electoral victory that year. Whereas Mahmoud Abbas, Fatah and Salam Fayyad are seen as ‘partners’, Hamas are clearly not. Turner believes that the Road Map period which emerged in the wake of the Second Intifada met its end in 2006 and has been replaced with the ‘partners’ paradigm, whereby the US has increased its financial commitment to the PA (as have all donors – although interestingly, this may be more to do with better tracking than actual sums) and sought to isolate and defeat Hamas by focusing on building up the West Bank.

For me as a development analyst (!), Turner’s presentation was extremely useful, since you can see a double-edged game being played in the present period. On the one hand donor aid is being used to reduce the impact of the occupation for all Palestinians, but there are differences between that provided to ‘partners’ in the West Bank and the ‘wrong’ type in Gaza. That to the West Bank aims to promote ‘appropriate’ actors while that in Gaza is more humanitarian is scope, being designed to take care of those who do not comply with the ‘partners’ model. Borrowing from a researcher in Africa (whose name I missed), Turner ends up with donor aid as a means of managing a surplus population, where Palestinians are fed but not free. (indeed, Turner also commented on the shift in conceptualising sovereignty in the Palestinian context, away from natural rights of statehood for a nation and the creation of governments to one that is primarily concerned with state capacity and governance – i.e. statehood only comes if you can prove that you can carry it out rather than demanding it as a right)

Both presentations present very bleak prospects in my view. For neither presenter is there a visible alternative to the prevailing situation, whether internal or external. Internally, the options looks extremely limited. The choice seems to be either one of being on the quisling side of supporting the US/Israeli Oslo model or being against it. In the subsequent Q&A I asked where domestic resistance was to come from and Aruri was unable to provide an answer. He said there were three choices, neither of which were realistic: (1) end the current peace process and internationalise it (but this won’t work because the Palestinians are too insignificant to challenge the international balance of power and force participants to the table), (2) maintain the status quo (which is not attractive – and besides the Palestinians are running out of any more concessions they can make) or (3) another intifada (which is not really an option given the demobilised nature of Palestinian society).

Externally, the prospects are not great either. Both Aruri and Turner concluded that the US position is unlikely to change. Turner offered some suggestions as a British and European citizen for the EU (we had a few representatives last night). She said that the EU should consider the following: (1) sue Israel for damages as a result of its destruction of EU-funded projects, (2) pull the EU (and the UN as well) out of the Quartet, since it’s effectively an American enterprise) and (3) make effective use of the human rights conditions within the EU-Israel agreement.

While this may all seem like too proposals though, what are the chances of that happening? The more I think about it, the more I feel that the current situation is like the calm before a storm – yet I don’t know what form the storm will take. It can’t be another intifada since neither the first or second achieved the removal of Israel. If anything it brought about excessive and disproportionate violence in a effort to break Palestinians’ will. In neither case did that happen, but neither did it achieve its goals of an end to occupation. So here we remain, both sides circling and eyeing each other suspiciously, with no clear end in sight. A rather grim vision.