Category Archives: Negotiations

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.

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.