In an expression of unbridled American optimism, former diplomat Dennis Ross, a key figure in the post-Oslo process, published in today’s (3 March 2013) New York Times a 14-point agenda for reviving the halted peace process and reviving the two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In principle, there is nothing wrong with being optimistic in an effort to imagine the achievement of peace, but ungrounded optimism can become the grounds for the lost hope of failure. Ross is aware that ‘most Israelis and Palestinians today simply don’t believe that peace is possible’ and that ‘neither side believes that the other is committed to a two-state outcome’, arguing that each side needs to overcome ‘the problem of disbelief’. So, he proposes a package of trust and confidence building measures, most of which can be undertaken unilaterally but in coordination by each side, that ‘can actually generate changes that ordinary citizens on both sides could see and feel’. Never mind that the whole approach of ‘confidence building measures’ championed previously by Ross and US administrations has led into the cul-de-sac of disbelief and despair. He has learned from his mistakes and seeks to repeat them perfectly.
One could take issue with Ross’ specific proposals, which reflect American attunement with Israeli rather than Palestinian concerns. He suggests that the Israeli government from now restrict its settlement building to the blocs in the West Bank that Israel intends to keep as part of any future agreement, while preparing to relocate those settlers who currently live outside those blocs. He does not suggest that Israel dismantle all settlements established since 2001, as required by the 2003 Road Map. Ross does call for Israel to expand the scope of Palestinian self-government and policing in Areas A, B and C of the West Bank, but he does not insist on an end to Israeli military incursions into Area A, the 18% of the West Bank that’s supposed to be under the Palestinian Authority’s full civil and security control.
Last week, there were demonstrations throughout the Palestinian occupied territories in support of the prisoners on hunger strike. In an impassioned appeal to the Israeli public on Israel Channel 2 news on 24th February 2013, PA official Jibril Rajoub spoke of the prisoners and their detention without trial in Israeli prisons as the most sensitive issue of the occupation, the focus of unrest that’s been labeled the ‘prisoners’ intifada’. But that’s not on Ross’s radar. Nor are the numerous, unpunished attacks on Palestinians and their land by extremist settlers, despite the ‘culture of impunity’ regarding such attacks, described in detail in a recent UN Human Rights report. There is no mention in Ross’s list of the ongoing friction caused by the completion of the separation barrier, which entails seizing Palestinian land and separating owners from unhindered access to it. The planned dispossession of Palestinians in the South Hebron hills to clear way for military Firing Zone 918 also does not get Ross’s attention. The weekly catalogue of shootings of Palestinians by Israeli soldiers, their excessive use of force to suppress demonstrations, recorded by the Palestinian Center for Human Rights, does not register for Ross as part and parcel of the insufferable burden of occupation that must be relieved before Palestinians can be convinced that the Israeli government is serious about ending its control over them.
Nonetheless, Ross suggests that the Israeli government take some concrete steps that would be felt and seen by Palestinians. By contrast, the measures he proposes that the PA take would not make much difference to the daily lives of Israelis. Instead, he says that the PA should ‘speak’ of two states, ‘acknowledge’ the existence of a Jewish as well Palestinian national movement, ‘show’ Israel on their maps (though he does not ask for a parallel redrawing of Israeli maps so that they show the ‘green line’), and end ‘incitement’. The only practical step that Ross asks of the PA is to build permanent housing in the Palestinian refugee camps (presumably to reassure Israelis that Palestinian refugees will forego their ‘right of return’ to their former land now in Israel). As he acknowledges that Palestinian security forces fulfill their obligations to collaborate with Israeli forces in preventing armed attacks on Israelis (which he’d like the Israeli government to acknowledge publicly, so long as the PA is equally generous about Israeli good-will measures, such as treating Palestinian patients in its hospitals), Ross does not include in his plan increased PA security action against armed militants. Nor does he explain how the PA should continue to repress Palestinian militant opposition to the occupation while also (as he recommends) focusing on ‘the rule of law’.
What then is Ross asking of the PA, with all this speaking, acknowledging, showing and abstinence from inflammatory language? He is asking that the PA take rhetorical responsibility for the state of mind of the Jewish Israeli public. Ross grasps well that much of the Israeli public feels insecure about its existence, dubious that further withdrawal from territory seized in 1967 will bring peace and security – although the two recent withdrawals he mentions, from southern Lebanon in 2000 and Gaza in 2005 were both unilateral Israeli moves, in the face of incessant armed and civil opposition to their presence. But such an approach, according to which the PA offer Israelis the reassurance they want to hear repeatedly, assumes that the Palestinians (and other Arab nations, and Islamic states) are the source of Israeli insecurity. This is a false assumption, one that does not go deep enough into the trauma that needs to be acknowledged and worked through if peace is to be first imagined, and then made real. The clue is on another page of the same issue of the New York Times, a chilling report on recent research about the Holocaust that dramatically increases the known number of Nazi ghettos, and concentration, slave labour, prisoner-of-war, euthanasia, abortion and brothel camps. Well-meaning, instrumentalist, technocratic, pragmatic ‘confidence-building’ measures cannot be the remedy for a conflict in which a traumatized people has brought trauma to another. The headline of Ross’s piece is ‘To Achieve Mideast Peace, Suspend Disbelief’. The last phrase should be ‘Stop Repeating the Trauma’.