Thursday, January 26, 2006

What Has Oslo Ever Done For Us?

It is actually quite common to dislike your enemies but if you want peace, you have to negotiate with them no matter how unpalatable. The Hamas election turns the tables on the sponsors of the peace process. The world told the Palestinians they had to control their gag reflexes and negotiate in good faith with the Israeli politicians and parties who had given them the King David Hotel bombing, and the massacres of Deir Yaseen and Sabra and Shatila, and who since Oslo have settled tens of thousands of new colonists.

Interestingly, most of the international peacemakers and negotiators have always tried to try to persuade the Palestinian leadership that they had to accommodate themselves to what Israeli public opinion could take. No one listened to Palestinian negotiators when they remonstrated that they too had a public whose opinion mattered.

The Palestinians took a tip from Monty Python's Life of Brian. They asked 'What has Oslo ever done for us?' and instead of listing the roads, the hospitals, the schools and the factories built, they listed the schools and hospitals shelled and occupied by the IDF, the roads blocked, the walls and settlements built, and the high explosive assassinations of Palestinian leaders regardless of collateral civilian life. They listed the growing daily humiliation of unemployment, poverty and harassment.

Understandably, they showed their frustration with Fatah's inability to deliver on the promises of Oslo by turning to Hamas. Fatah has its own baggage of cronyism and inefficiency, but it was really let down by the international community, the so-called Quartet, which allowed Sharon to turn the Road Map into a one way street aimed at the Palestinians. No one who saw the election results in Iran, reflecting the inability of the reformers to get any concessions from the US should have been totally surprised at the result.

Anyone who knows the Middle East also knew that the White House's mantra that democracy would solve all its problems was a fond and deluded pipe dream. Oligarchs and tyrants are much more manipulable. Even if they have exploited it, the assorted leaders of the Arab world did not create popular anger about the plight of the Palestinians. Israeli behavior did. Whenever they have had elections Arab voters have been much more intransigent than their unelected rulers.

It was a fair and democratic election, with a turnout which shames both British and US election winners. Fatah is too strong for Hamas to roll over completely so some compromises there are possible. Who knows? The Palestinian brewery may survive the victory.

So now the Israelis have to negotiate with Hamas if they want peace. Frankly, if they do not want peace, the rest of the world and the US will have to intervene to persuade them, since the consequences are literally terrifying.

The present situation is so unsustainable that even Ariel Sharon realized that it had to change, although his changes were unilateral and, in the long term ineffective. His Bantustan solution was not going to get international recognition, let alone Palestinian cooperation.

Israel can annex the territories, and give their people full citizenship but it will not do so since the demographics mean that it would no longer be a Jewish state. Or it could try its hand at ethnic cleansing, and risk full scale war, not least if the Muslim states really are as close to nuclear capacity as the paranoids keep saying. That should scare even the White House out of its complacency.

But the Hamas victory does offer opportunities. Israel should know that, since it was the Israeli security services that originally encouraged and fostered it as a rival to what they then saw as the more dangerous and secular Fatah. It has agreed ceasefires, although once again the propensity of the Israelis to assassinate its leaders whenever that happens makes one wonder whether the Security Services really want ceasefires.

Before, the Israelis and the Quartet negotiated with Fatah, which could not necessarily deliver Hamas. Now they can negotiate directly with a partner that can deliver, and which has shown signs of pragmatic accommodation.

We can only hope that the EU can persuade the US to ignore hardline Israeli calls to discount the results and engage in constructive discussions with the new government.  If Israel agrees its borders end at or near the Green Line, Hamas may be able to accept that it will put its fervent prayers for the eventual disappearance of Israel on a par with hopes for the coming of the Messiah as a wish, not a program. But any acceptable ceasefire will have to be two-sided, with an end to Israeli incursions and assassinations. That was the message the Palestinian electorate was sending.

The consequences of failure are really apocalyptic. The failure will be George W. Bush's as much as any new Israeli prime minister's.

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