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Crossroads on the road map

Tony Blair must be more assertive with Bush if the ‘road map’ is to go anywhere says Richard Burden MP

Only a few months have passed since discussion of the ‘Road Map’ dominated the headlines about the conflict in Israel and Palestine. Optimists hailed the plan as the best chance for peace in a generation. In particular, they applauded the apparent change of heart on the part of the Bush administration, not only to play an active part in brokering a peace deal, but in recognising that a viable Palestinian state was as vital to such a deal as a secure Israel.

Other commentators were more sceptical, not least about the Bush administrations motives in the light of the conflict in Iraq. But even most of the sceptics conceded that as ‘the only show in town’, the Road Map process had to be given as fair a wind as possible by both the parties involved and the international community if a viable two-state solution was to be achieved.

All those debates seem like a long time ago. As I write this article for Chartist early in October, the last week has witnessed 20 people killed by a suicide bomb in Haifa, the dangerous international escalation of the conflict when Israel ‘responded’ with an air strike on Syria, a further suicide bombing near an Israeli army post in the West Bank, and several more Israeli military incursions into towns and villages in the Occupied Territories. The latest of these - an attack on the Rafah refugee camp in Gaza – claimed seven lives, including those of two Palestinian boys aged 8 and 15. 50 more were injured. At the political level, the last two months have also seen one Palestinian Prime Minister resign. The future of his successor is also uncertain this week as arguments have erupted in the Palestinian Legislative Council over the appointment of a new ‘emergency cabinet’ by Yasser Arafat, apparently with precious little consultation.

So where does all this leave the Road Map and the prospects for peace? The respected Israeli human rights activist, Jeff Halper, probably had it just about right earlier in the year when he described the Road Map process as the last chance for a two-state solution. Bogged down in the quagmire of Iraq and with a Presidential election coming up, trying to get to grips with the complexities of the Israel/Palestine issue may seem less of a prority for the Bush administration. Instead, the White House could slip back into a comfort zone, encouraged by Ariel Sharon and the neo-cons, of simplistically treating the problem as one of ‘terror.’ Of course, the Road Map is not owned by the US alone. Published by the so-called ‘Quartet’, its authors also include the United Nations, the European Union and Russia. But will they be either willing or able to put sufficient pressure on the parties to abide by their responsibilities under the plan without the active engagement of the USA?

If, the answer is no, it could be years before another serious international initiative sees the light of day. By then, according to Halper, the situation on the ground will have moved on so far that it would be simply impossible to create a viable Palestinian state alongside Israel.

Securing Israel’s position in the Occupied Territories by creating ‘facts on the ground’ which are impossible to reverse has long been a central part of Ariel Sharon’s strategy. Anybody who visits the area today can see how far that has already happened. Ever expanding Israeli settlements monopolise the hills of the West Bank and a network of new by-pass roads, which to Palestinians are not allowed to use, are already cutting the territory into segments and establishing a matrix of entrenched Israeli control. The discriminatory use of planning laws, building regulations, and residence rules are combining to de-arabise occupied East Jerusalem at the same time as the borders of the Israeli municipality of Jerusalem are expanding. Originally, the Israeli Labour Party idea of a Security Wall or fence to separate the Occupied Territories from Israel did not fit easily with the ‘facts on the ground’ approach, but as, in practice, the Wall is now being built inside the Occupied Territories rather than between them and Israel, the resulting expropriation of land and water resources is far more compatible with the strategy.

It won’t take much longer, for all this to have advanced so far as to be irreversible. When it is, no viable Palestinian state will be possible. Maybe a series of Bantustans dotted across the West Bank and Gaza, but that is about all.

These things could destroy the dream of an independent Palestine. But, as Halper has observed, they could also mean the end for Israel as a Jewish state. Bluntly, if Palestinians are simply corralled into their Bantustans with control over few natural resources and no hope for the future, then the chances of an end to violent resistance would also be zero. Such an arrangement would also not be sustainable economically. The only way such a scenario could be viable would be for the Palestinian areas to be merged over time into a greater and colonial Israel – providing a pool of labour for the settler cities down the road and dependent on those cities for access to water and other resources. In other words, the occupation would have to be accepted as permanent.

But that would present its own impossible conundrum for Israel. Already, the birth rate for the minority Palestinian population inside Israel is much higher than that for its Jewish citizens. If Israel ends up turning its occupation of the West Bank into effective annexation, a non-Jewish majority for the new ‘greater Israel’ will be only a short time away. This will be the case even if Israel was happy to cut Gaza adrift and continue to deny the right of return to Palestinian refugees living in the diaspora. Sure, Israel could continue to deny the vote to Arab West Bankers whilst maintaining it for Jewish residents of the West Bank as their settlements are regarded more and more as mainstream Israeli towns and cities. But in the long term, would it be any more sustainable for a greater Israel to deny the basic rights of citizenship, on the grounds of race, to its majority population, than it was for White South Africa?

If the Road Map process does indeed disappear into the dust, Jeff Halper is probably right that it could herald the end of both Zionism and Palestinian nationalism and the start of a struggle against a new form of Apartheid. Interestingly, the power of this logic is also just starting to dawn on parts of the mainstream Left of Israeli politics. Avraham Burg, a former Speaker of the Knesset, took up a similar theme in an article recently published both in the Israeli paper, Ha’aretz, and in The Guardian. As a Jewish state, he argued, Israel can have democracy or it can maintain the occupation. It cannot have both. (Avraham Burg: “The end of Zionism - Israel must shed its illusions and choose between racist oppression and democracy” The Guardian: September 15th 2003).

Such voices are still in the minority. But the logic is compelling. It is something that, sooner or later, Israelis as a whole will have to face. That logic is reflected in the recently announced Alternative Peace Plan known as the ‘Geneva Accord.’ Facilitated by the Swiss Government, the plan has been drawn up by a number of Israeli opposition politicians, academics and senior Palestinian figures. Avraham Burg himself is one of the authors. The plan has already been condemned by the Sharon government and it is difficult to see exactly what will happen to it in the current climate. The details of the plan had not been published at the time this article was written. Reports suggest, however, that it challenges some traditional Palestinian thinking on the shape of a settlement for the refugees and that is likely to be met with less than unanimous approval amongst them.

But it is also a powerful reminder to the Israeli public of the central point that Burg and others have been trying to make. The creation of a viable and independent Palestine is as important to the future character of their own state as it is for the Palestinians.

As for the international community, the message is also stark. Time is running out for the two state solution envisaged by the Road Map and required by countless UN resolutions. If we still believe in it, we must make sure it happens. That means doing more than condemning the violence. It also means requiring an end to those things that are not only illegal but which, if left unchecked, will make such a two-state solution impossible. So it is not just desirable to stop settlement expansion and the land grab of the security wall. It is imperative.

If Israel will not cooperate, then the UN must be prepared to impose economic sanctions to uphold its authority. And for Britain in particular, there are some choices to be made. There is little doubt that Tony Blair played an important role in getting George Bush to sign up to the Road Map earlier in the year. But if he was serious then it means being more assertive with Israel now – whether or not that goes down well with the White House.