Category Archives: Conceptions of peace

Why don’t the Abraham Accords look like peace?

It has often been noted that it’s easier to represent war visually than it is to represent peace. When did you last go to see a peace movie? But peace agreements provide photo opps of the signing of peace agreements by leaders who synecdochically stand in for whole nations. This has certainly been the case for previous peace agreements between Israel and its Arab neighbours under the auspices of the USA.

Consider two previous occasions on which peace agreements were signed at the White House, first in 1979 between Israel and Egypt, then in 1993 between Israel and the PLO. The hands of the leaders portray reconciliation and the relinquishing of weapons in different ways. President Carter demonstrates his mediating role by joining hands with President of Sadat of Egypt and Prime Minister Begin of Israel, just six years after the two countries fought each other in a bitter war. President Clinton’s outstretched arms and tall stature seem to create through magnanimous power the space in which Yasser Arafat and Yitzhak Rabin come together in an allegedly reluctant handshake. Clinton was also there to observe a much warmer handshake between Rabin and King Hussein of Jordan when the two countries signed a peace agreement on their border in 1994.

If this is the simple iconography of peace agreements, it should be straightforward to represent the agreements signed at the White House between the governments of Israel, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain as peace. Yet, it doesn’t look that way to me.

Perhaps its the absence of hand-shaking, which might be attributed to Covid-19 precautions if there were any evidence of such precautions being taken throughout the event. As it is, it looks as if Bahraini Foreign Minister Abdullatif al-Zayani, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and UAE Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed Al-Nahyan have all just received a certificate of good behaviour from Trump.

This picture of peace is lacking not simply because of an absent iconographic element, but because of what is missing from it as what scholar W.J.T. Mitchell calls an “imagetext.” An “imagetext” is a hybrid of picture and text and the accompanying texts to the pictures of signing these peace agreements are the stories and dramas for which the pictures are culminating events. If a picture is going to speak a thousand words, you have to know the story. In 1979, the story included wars between Israel and Egypt, the media event of Sadat’s surprise visit to Israel in 1977, and the setbacks and breakthroughs of the negotiations at Camp David. The backdrop to the signing of the Oslo accords was the first intifada, revelations about track-two diplomacy behind the scenes, the apparent conversion of two main protagonists, Rabin and Arafat, from men of war of to peacemakers. To some extent then, as many have said, this doesn’t look like a peace treaty because Israel has not been at war with the UAE or Bahrain. So there has been little drama – other than surprise – to provide the text for this image.

There is more to it than that. This doesn’t look like peace because, even while the agreement claims that the normalization of relations between states is intended to contribute towards peace in the region, including a negotiated solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it does the opposite. Not only is its context the conflict between the Gulf States and Iran, but like its predecessor, Trump’s “Vision for Peace,” it undermines the prospects for a just peace between Israelis and Palestinians. Normalization of relations with Arab states was one of the diplomatic carrots held out in the 2002 Arab peace initiative for Israel to end its occupation and creeping annexation of the Palestinian Territories. As things stand, the occupation has become normalized by Israel, especially under Trump’s administration. Israel no longer pays any evident price for its relentless and continuing injustices, except perhaps for erosive moral corruption, as remarked by Raja Shehadeh. On the same day that the agreement was signed in Washington, Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz reported that a Jerusalem court had ordered the “eviction of dozens of Palestinian residents from their homes in East Jerusalem. The beneficiaries will be settler associations who argued that the homes belonged to Jews before 1948.” Needless to say, Palestinian refugees who owned property in Jerusalem until 1948 are not eligible to reclaim their homes as they are not Jewish. That is one of the injustices that the “Abraham Accords” sanctions, seemingly taking inspiration not from mythical shared ancestry but from the Biblical story of Abraham’s expulsion of Hagar and Ishmael, depicted here by Israeli artist Jakob Steinhardt in 1950, with the refugees of 1948 in mind.

A vision of peace without imagination: Trump’s deal

By Norma Musih and Jon Simons

The proposal of peace plans, for Israel-Palestine or anywhere, are opportunities for political imagination. Even when all that is imagined is the cessation of hostilities, peace plans embody a remarkable human capacity to picture a situation that does not yet exist, to compare it favorably with the current situation, and to act towards making real the vision of a better future. Who could disagree that the people of Israel and Palestine deserve a better future in which they are not condemned “to live by the sword”, in which they can live in security, prosperity and the fulfillment of their human rights? The drafting of peace plans is a crucial step towards diplomatic negotiations and reconciliation of combatants. The Trump plan casts itself as such an act of political imagination, as a “Vision for Peace, Prosperity and a Brighter Future” which people should read so they can “imagine how its concepts will actually dramatically improve their lives,” and which will be the basis for a future peace agreement.

The Trump “deal of the century” has rightly been condemned as a fake peace plan for Israel-Palestine by many potential participants in the peace process. Trump’s initiative is not the first intervention by a western power seeking to “bring peace to the middle east” on behalf of the Palestinian people. The colonial roots of such efforts can be traced from the Balfour declaration to the Oslo agreements. Palestinian official and popular rejection came quickly, including demonstrations in the West Bank. On Saturday February 1st 2020 Israeli anti-occupation groups rallied in Tel Aviv under the banner “Yes to a peace agreement; No to an annexation deal,” in response to the Israeli’s government’s interpretation of the plan that it had been given a green light to annex the Jordan Valley and the settlements in the West Bank by the Trump administration. The Israeli human rights group B’Tselem condemned the proposal for a Palestinian “state” comprised of fragmented enclaves as apartheid, like the South African Bantu states.

Trump plan map
Proposed map of Trump peace plan

Certainly, the most appalling failure of the vision is that it has been conceived in the absence of Palestinians. This is also a failure of the imagination. Hannah Arendt conceived of political imagination as the relationships that emerge among people who can envision each other’s points of view. Famously, in her 1963 report on the trial of Nazi Adolf Eichmann, she faulted him not with being an evil monster but with a “lack of imagination,” an inability to imagine himself in the place of the others whom he sent to the concentration camps. The authors of the Trump plan, led by his son-in-law Jared Kushner, are guilty of such lack of imagination.

Nowhere in the plan is this lack of imagination more shocking than its scant and biased treatment of refugees. While acknowledging that the conflict is about refugees as much as territory and security, it sets up a false equivalence between the Palestinian refugees who have “suffered over the past 70 years” and the “similar number of Jewish refugees [who] were expelled from Arab lands.” No mention of Palestinians being expelled by Israel, of the Nakba, of the systematic erasure of Palestinian presence in what became Israel. No mention of the systematic discrimination faced by Jews from Arab lands in Israel, which promised to be their national home. The plan claims to seek a “just, fair and realistic solution to the Palestinian refugee issue” but it flagrantly denies the “right of return” established in the 1948 U.N. Declaration of Human Rights, Par. 13, Section 2: “Every person has the right to leave any country, including their own, and to return to their country.” Palestinians must renounce not only their individual and collective right to return to their former homes in Israel according to the Trump deal, but also accept that Israeli security concerns will trump (pun intended) their right to return to what would become Palestine. The failure of imagination is enormous, as if people have no attachment to home, as if the violent loss of home can be bartered away by a financial compensation scheme under US control.

Arendt’s condemnation of Eichmann’s lack of imagination was controversial, as if she were being dismissive of the enormity of his crimes. Those criticisms missed the point of her claim about the banality of evil, about how such a horrendous event as the Holocaust happened not because of deep evil intentions but because of thoughtlessness, the failure to imagine oneself in the shoes of another. The Trump deal is banal because of its lack of imagination. And if it is imposed on the Palestinians, who can not accept it without ceasing to be a people with rights, it will be as disastrous for them as the disaster – the Nakba – which has already befallen them. Moreover, it will be disastrous also for Jewish Israelis. Not only will they be condemned to be perpetrators of an increasingly apartheid regime, but also their citizenship will be flawed: they will not be equal until the Palestinians are equal.