Category Archives: Negotiations

Picturing the peace procession

Photographs of the signing of negotiated peace agreements are among the few conventions of the limited iconography of peace. Representing the partners shaking hands, perhaps even smiling at each other, often in the encouraging embrace of a mediator, such photographs are typical images of the sort of peace made between political leaders. Pictures of Arab-Israeli peace agreements follow an established formula, a seen in this vertical triptych printed by the New York Times on December 2, 2007.

Top, middle, Associated Press; lower, Doug Mills, New York Times.

Top, middle, Associated Press; lower, Doug Mills, New York Times.

The series is telling in itself. The top image shows Egyptian President Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Begin smiling and holding hands upon signing the 1979 treaty between their two countries under US President Carter’s close watch. The middle picture shows PLO Chairman and Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Rabin shaking hands, but without much warm body language, in the frame provided by Bill Clinton’s open arms, as they sign the 1993 Oslo Accords, which was a ‘Declaration of Principles on Interim Self-Government Arrangements’ (to establish the Palestinian Authority) rather than a peace treaty. The Oslo Accords envisaged a full and final peace agreement within five years, but the lowest picture records the unfulfilled promise of the one above. In 2007, with President Bush’s hand’s off encouragement, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert allegedly came close to a final agreement, but not close enough. Bush holds the hands of his two guests, who do not (in this image) shake each other hands or exchange looks.

livini.erekat.iftarThe current round of discussions, brokered by US Secretary of State John Kerry, about how to restart direct talks between the Israeli government and Palestinian Authority has already generated its own set of images. In a first series, the two chief negotiators, Israeli Justice Minister Tzipi Livni and Palestinian diplomat Saeb Erekat sit side by side opposite John Kerry at the dinner table, in a suitably posed impression of diplomatic relaxation before the hard work begins. Another series of pictures were published after it was announced that the talks about talks have produced the desired outcome of more talks that will begin in the Middle East in two weeks, aiming for a comprehensive peace agreement within nine months. These photos follow the generic convention of the mediator framing the two partners shaking hands.

erekat.livni.shakeIt may be more appropriate, though, to show here an image captured by CNN, before the two hands meet. The whole process seems so uncertain that all three participants have their eyes not on each other’s faces but on their hands. Will they or won’t they successfully grasp hands? At least the outcome of this encounter is much more certain than the achievement of a negotiated two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The sense of uncertainty and justified scepticism about reaching a final agreement in such a time frame, and to some extent the corollary cynicism about repeated, unsuccessful peace processing, is reflected in a non-conventional image by T.J. Kirkpatrick in the New York Times. The shot captures the procession of diplomats, none of whom seem to be looking forward to a destination. Ereket looks at his watch, as if time is already running out. Livni looks down, uncertain of her ground. Kerry seems ready to reach out to Livni if she stumbles along the way. In the photo, the peace process has become its own goal, not peace itself.

kerry peace processThere is a part of me that was cheered by the news that this very first hurdle in the arduous process has been overcome. But that is the same part of me that expects to win the lottery, a part which indulges in wishful, if not magical, thinking. Once the procession begins, our attention switches to the success of the process, to the drama of breakthrough or breakdown in which the media frames peace diplomacy. For one thing, we lose sight of the peace for which we – and not only the suited diplomats – strive. Is a two-state solution the goal we should seek? Too late to ask, the race is on again. Our eyes are on the finishing line, not on the ground of the present, the ground on which the Israeli Housing Ministry today proposed to build an exclusively Jewish neighbourhood, in the Muslim Quarter of Jerusalem’s Old City, and the ground on which the Israeli occupation continues to operate by force. The peace that must be achieved is one that begins today, not as a photo-opportunity for but as practice of partnership. Perhaps, I hope, my suspicion about the pseudo-peace offered on John Kerry’s table will be proved groundless (and perhaps I will win the lottery). In the meantime, I place my modest hopes for peace with the activists against the occupation, not with the peace procession.

Too Late for Two States? A Stale Debate Makes News

Palestinian street scene (Israel Channel 2 news, screenshot)

Palestinian street scene (Israel Channel 2 news, screenshot)

Estimated cost of removing settlements (Israel Channel 2 news, screenshot)

Estimated cost of removing settlements (Israel Channel 2 news, screenshot)

I’m not a fan of Israel’s Channel 2 news, but I watch it online precisely for the reasons that I dislike it. Its broadcasts exemplify wonderfully Israel’s ‘extreme centre’, the mainstream, consensual  prejudices, defensiveness and self-righteousness of Israel’s ‘white tribe’, its Jewish, Ashkenazi, middle class. It is (not coincidentally) the channel on which Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid used to host a talk show, and then the ‘Friday Studio’ news magazine programme. That honour is now held by Danny Kushmaro, who this week (31 May 2013) filed his own extended report: ‘Two States: Have We Missed the Opportunity?’ As one of his interviewees, academic and former politician Meron Benvenisti, pointed out, the significance of the report is that it raises the question of whether a two-state solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is possible, and explains to the viewers that this is a stale (literally ‘mouldy’) debate.

It is indeed a stale debate for Benvenisti, who made the case as long ago as 1984 in his West Bank Data Project report that the Israeli settlement project in the Palestinian Occupied Territories is irreversible and that there could be no divided sovereignty between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean. However, for Kushmaro this is newsworthy. He framed his recorded report from the studio by presenting  as obstacles to the two state solution the presence of 350,000 Israeli settlers in the West Bank, excluding East Jerusalem, along with the lack of political leadership on both sides,.

Ostensibly, the point of the report is to contrast the official Israeli government policy of ‘two states for two peoples’ with its impossibility. The first point is established through a series of clips of footage in which Ehud Barak, Ariel Sharon, Ehud Olmert, Benjamin Netanyahu, Yair Lapid and Shimon Peres all state their support for the two state policy. Netanyahu does so thrice, once in English for good measure. The case that the opportunity for two states has passed (or that it never existed) is made in three interviews, the first being with Meron Benvenisti, whose skepticism about it predates its adoption by the mainstream Israeli peace camp, especially Peace Now, during the first intifada. Retired politician Yossi Sarid represents the mainstream left, telling us from his living room that ‘the State of the Land of Israel’ has defeated the ‘State of Israel’, that ‘we’ have all been defeated as the settlers are leading us to the ‘end of the Zionist dream’. While he still hopes for another ending, he fears that as far as two states go, ‘the train has already left the station’. For the politically illiterate, he adds that Netanyahu’s declared acceptance of a demilitarized Palestinian state alongside Israel was a ‘statement of political charlatanry’. Former Defence Minister Moshe Arens concurs in his interview that the settlers have won, but he has consistently opposed Palestinian statehood. Additional support for the case is made by Palestinian pollster Khalil Shikaki, whose point in a brief interview is that while most Palestinian still support a two state solution, they no longer believe it is a practical possibility, and by leading Fatah official Abu Ala, who in a short clip says that if the two state approach has failed, there will be one state.

Deputy Foreign Minister Ze’ev Elkin, himself a settler, makes a hapless case for the official government line, undermining it by pointing out that it is only a theoretical issue, a matter for Israelis to discuss among themselves, given the condition of the ‘Palestinian side’. Justice Minister Tzipi Livni sounds more convincing when she insists on her commitment to the two state solution as the only way to sustain Israel as a Jewish and democratic state, despite the difficulties and complexities. Yet, she seems to have been interviewed in the lobby of the studio, as if to indicate that her formulaic statements belong in the never-never land of no progress on peace talks, alluded to in Elkin’s interview, so long as there is ‘no partner for peace’. The issue is, she says, to get into the negotiation room, but she is not in a room herself. The most forceful arguments for the two state approach came for the studio pundits, especially Amnon Abromovich and Udi Segal, commenting after the report. The former claimed the naysayers had formed a link between extreme left and right, which is just what someone from the extreme center would say. The latter managed to make it sound as if he was arguing with him, while insisting that there is no alternative to the two state solution, that former rightists such as Olmert and Netanyahu had come to accept it, that when push comes to shove Israel will make the decision and withdraw, that it is unthinkable that a Palestinian from Nablus would become a citizen of Israel, and that those settlers living outside the settlement blocs (which contain about 75% of the settlers on about 4% of the West Bank) who do not wish to leave can stay. Whatever point Danny Kushmaro had tried to make in his report, they were having none of it. After all, how could they be considered experts if they changed their minds after 13 minutes of footage?

There is certainly much missing in the report, such as a graphic telling us what are the cost of Israeli government support for the settlements, and the additional costs of occupation, including building and maintaining the separation wall. The most significant omission is the range of debate within Israel (as well as Palestine) about alternatives to the two state solution. For example, in the summer of 2012 there was a whole issue of the political science journal Public Sphere, published by Tel Aviv University, dedicated to the question of a single state as a utopia or emerging reality. Kushmaro’s report pitted Benvenisti against the Israeli left, but there is a vibrant if small left which since the collapse of the Oslo process has been discussing with some intensity the question of what sort of political entity should replace Israel and its military occupation: a bi-national state, a federal or confederal arrangement, a unitary state of civil equality, or even no state at all. That is not a stale debate, but one worthy of its own Friday evening extended coverage.

Visually, however, the report seemed to be making another case too. Although the number of 350,000 Israeli settlers is repeated in a graph several minutes into the report, the camera favours the physical existence of the settlements as evidence of the irreversibility of the settlement project. Settlements are shown as the backdrop to Meron Benvenisti’s interview, from a viewpoint where he could show how in the area between East Jerusalem and Ma’aleh Adumim known as E1, wherever one can see trees there is an Israeli settlement. Ze’ev Elkin also points out his own settlement and neighbouring ones during his interview from a similar vantage point, as the camera sweepingly takes possession of the land. When the figure of 42 milliard shekels (over $11 milliard) is cited as the cost of evacuating 70,000 settlers, it is displayed on screen against a background of settlements seen from afar and above. When it is suggested at the end of the report that perhaps a new solution to the conflict is needed, we see settlement building activity, to which we return, complete with heavy machinery and then a shot of a multi-storied set of dwellings built on a hillside, at the very end of the report, which concludes that with each passing day the two state solution becomes less possible. Oddly, the report only shows settlers in footage of them being removed by Israeli authorities from the Gaza settlements. Once, we see such scenes during the interview with Moshe Arens who refers to the ‘uprooting’ of those settlements as a national trauma, while patriotic music plays in the background. We see similar scenes, as well as the forced evacuation of a small hill-top settlement, when the report emphasises how difficult it would be to remove tens of thousands of settlers. Settlements appear in the report to be concrete manifestations of possession of the land, scoped from other points of visual mastery of the landscape, not places where people live.

By contrast, on the occasions when we are shown Palestinian areas of the West Bank, we see streets full of cars and people, first when we are told that the Palestinians would not accept the removal of only 70,000 settlers, but at least 150,000, and then as the backdrop to a couple of vox pop pieces in which two Palestinian men from Ramallah state that 19 years of negotiations have brought no progress and that they would prefer rights and equality under Israel (backing up Shikaki’s assessment). The other typical shot of the Palestinian areas is of graffiti-covered walls (not only the separation wall). Twice we see Arafat’s iconic face, once when the commentary says how many more settlers the Palestinians want to go (as if Arafat is the cause of such ‘intransigence’). His other appearance comes at the point in Kushmaro’s voice-over when he says that the Palestinian Authority is on the point of financial collapse. Along with Arafat’s portrait, we see shots of Palestinian flags and maps on the walls. So, it seems that the Palestinians live in crowded streets, hemmed in by walls decorated by nationalist sentiment. Empty Israeli settlements shot from afar; busy Palestinian streets filmed up close. Somehow, the camera (the shots, the editing, the soundtrack) cannot help but reiterate that whatever the political solution may be, what we see before us is alien settlement and an occupied people.

When Peace Became a Dirty Word: John Kerry and the Peddling of Pseudo-Peace

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is greeted by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu prior to their meeting in Jerusalem on May 23, 2013. [State Department Photo/ Public Domain]

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is greeted by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu prior to their meeting in Jerusalem on May 23, 2013. [State Department Photo/ Public Domain]

Peace is generally thought to be a good thing, conjuring up positive, pastoral images of lions lying down with lambs, swords being beaten into ploughshares, and each person sitting unafraid under their vine and fig tree. Yet, this near-universal and enduring admiration of peace has been perverted in Israel/Palestine, not because of any honest, outspoken preference for war but because ‘peace’ has been contaminated by pseudo-peace. A key trigger for my project on Israeli peace images was a report in Ha’aretz on June 10th 2004 that some 40 Israeli and Palestinian media and public relations professionals would be meeting in Jordan ‘to try and find a way to promote the brand name of peace,’ and ‘to create a ‘local and international campaign to promote the image of peace’. The campaign was initiated by the director of the Peres Center for Peace, Ron Pundak, who was one of the negotiators of the 1993 Oslo Accords between Israel and the PLO. He acknowledged that the ‘image of the peace brand …. has been worn down over the past few years,’ but hoped that the public relations experts could achieve what the diplomats had been unable to do, namely ‘to define certain concepts, such as coexistence, in a way that will be acceptable to both sides’. As it happens, the peace branding campaign never got off the ground, because the Israelis and Palestinians participating in it could not agree on a concept of peace to promote. But what had tarnished the image of peace, and how has it been corroded even further since 2004?

The most obvious answer is that by 2004 the Oslo process had lost all credibility, in the wake of the failed Camp David talks between Israeli Prime Minister Barak and Palestinian President Arafat in 2000 and the violence of the Second Intifada. That answer suggests that the image of peace has been eroded because the promise of peace has not been fulfilled, and raised expectations have been dashed. Yet, equally significant in the context of 2004 was the international Quartet’s April 2003 road map for peace, which offered nothing that had not already been proposed under Oslo (It did, however, cover the withdrawal of Israeli armed forces from the positions they reoccupied inside the Palestinian areas during Operation Defensive Shield in 2002). Ironically, it is pursuit of the pseudo peace of the ‘peace process’ that has tarnished the image of peace among the very people in Israel (and Palestine) that do the most to build peace.

When I visited Israel in the summer of 2009, an academic colleague who has been active in anti-occupation groups and refused reserve military duty in the Palestinian Occupied Territories put it this way – that only a charlatan still speaks about peace. Retroactively, he considered the organization he co-founded, The Twenty First Year, and other groups to the ‘left’ of Peace Now during the first intifada such as End the Occupation, to have been directed against the occupation rather than for peace. Yet, one of our common protest chants at the time was ‘Peace – Yes! Occupation – No’, while the most concrete notion of peace we had in mind was of two states for two peoples, a proposal that was then radical if not unthinkable in Israeli political culture. It seemed clear to us in 1988 that ending the occupation and bringing peace implied each other. However, in June 2009, the charlatan-in-chief, Prime Minister Netanyahu, publicly and cynically endorsed the ‘two state solution’, while his government did as much as it could to ensure that such peace could not be achieved (such as expanding settlements).

It is not surprising, then, that currently Israeli and Palestinian peace-builders often do not identify as peace activists. In her book Struggling for a Just Peace: Israeli and Palestinian Activism in the Second Intifada, Maia Carter Hallward noted an accentuation of this trend between 2004-5 and 2008 among activists in Ta’ayush, Machsom Watch, Rabbis for Human Rights, and other groups (151, 158). For the mainstream Jewish Israeli public disillusion with ‘peace’ deepened because Israeli’s unilateral disengagement from Gaza in 2005 was taken to be a step towards peace taken by Israel to which Hamas responded with Qassam rockets. So much, then, for the formula of ‘territories in return for peace’. But for the activist peace camp, following the Israeli withdrawal Gaza was still under occupation, now out of reach for nearly all Israelis and West Bank Palestinians, and in effect under siege. Hallward considers it crucial as a researcher to focus on ‘peace work rather than peace words’ (54), noting how the latter has become so discredited that is has become a dirty word among activists (164).   

Last week saw the end of yet another international effort to ‘revive the peace process’ that further eroded the image of peace. Unable to bring the Palestinian Authority and Israeli government any closer than they had been before, US Secretary of State John Kerry ended a spell of intensive diplomatic toing and froing with an announcement that the two sides needed to think about their positions and a plan to boost the Palestinian private economy (meaning the West Bank economy), so as to reduce the PA’s dependency on the foreign aid that actually supports the status quo. Under such circumstances, I can only agree with Noam Sheizaf of the +972 blog that:

what this moment calls for, more than anything else, is some honesty. Kerry would have done his own cause justice if he simply stated that there is no peace process, nor has there been one in recent times, and that the current trends on the ground are likely to continue in the foreseeable future.

The peace process is a pseudo peace, a ‘peace’ in which there can be endless negotiations  while at the same time occupation continues, settlements expand, a permit system and checkpoints obstruct Palestinian movement, the separation wall is completed, Palestinians can be imprisoned without trial, and the Palestinian economy is subordinated to the Israeli one. There is ‘peace’ and there is just peace, and the peace that Kerry has been peddling is the snake oil of the charlatan.