I am continually astonished by discussions I have with otherwise well-informed people who have fixed views about the peace process formed from odds-and-ends they have read in the Western media. When it comes to comprehending the Arab position and how Israel’s leaders have systematically thwarted peace efforts, there are remarkable gaps in their knowledge.
I therefore make no apology for dedicating this two-part article to setting out where we are and how we got here.
After Israel and the Palestinians signed the 1993 Oslo Accords, I had the unique perspective of shadowing and interviewing President Yasser Arafat in his final days in Tunis before his historic return to Gaza to establish the Palestinian National Authority. Although Arafat’s lack of trust in his interlocutors’ intentions was palpable, there was a genuine sense of euphoria in expectation of a just solution to this cause that Palestinians had devoted their lives to.
Norwegian Foreign Minister Johan Holst was a principal architect of the deal: He hosted weeks of tortuous negotiations at his Oslo home, with his four year-old son bursting into the room at inopportune moments to break the ice. All this helped to cultivate a relaxed atmosphere between mutually hostile negotiating parties.
In the hours after the signing ceremony, I interviewed Holst in his home town, and met his son and wife in the same room where these negotiations had occurred. Holst was well aware of the perilous road ahead. Exhausted by these Herculean efforts, he suffered a stroke a few weeks later, leading to his premature death, and the peace process tragically lost a vital patron.
The achievements of Oslo were largely attributable to the fortitude of the Palestinians themselves, but also to Israel’s tenacious peace movement, which raised awareness about the corrupting impact of occupation.
Everything changed, first with the 1994 massacre of 29 Palestinian worshippers in a Hebron mosque, and then the 1995 murder of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, both by Jewish extremists. Israel’s rightwing seized the political initiative and Benjamin Netanyahu gained his first taste of power, exasperating the Bill Clinton administration with his tireless efforts to sabotage the peace process.
Netanyahu’s short-lived 1996-99 administration was replaced by an equally fragile coalition led by Ehud Barak’s Labour Party, which proved to be the Israeli center-ground’s last gasp of power. With the clock ticking on their tenures as leaders, Clinton and Barak made last-ditch efforts at a definitive deal during the Camp David negotiations. However, Barak’s insistence (among other things) on Israeli sovereignty over the Jerusalem holy sites was interpreted by Palestinians as a step backward.
Since 1993, splintered leadership on one side and increasingly right-wing regimes on the other have bedevilled relations between Palestine and Israel. To chart a way forward, we must understand how we got to where we are now.
This sticking point was exploited by right-winger Ariel Sharon’s provocative September 2000 visit to Al-Aqsa/Temple Mount complex. He asserted that the site must remain under permanent Israeli sovereignty. Palestinian anger exploded, with the perception that Israel was eviscerating the Oslo deal and neutralizing aspirations for a viable state with Jerusalem as its shared capital.
The resulting Al-Aqsa intifada disastrously empowered extremists on both sides. The new Sharon government re-imposed military control on much of the Palestinian Territories, divesting the Palestinian Authority of even the pretense of governance.
Sharon, while defense minister in 1982, facilitated the massacres at Sabra and Shatila Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon, during which up to 3,500 civilians were slaughtered in their homes. He was unsurprisingly seen by Arabs as the devil himself in human form. From March 2001, Sharon’s regime brutally crushed the intifada and unilaterally stole hundreds of kilometers of Palestinian land through the separation barrier and accelerated settlement building.
Right-wingers Sharon and then Ehud Olmert found themselves outflanked by Netanyahu, who had lurched even further to the right. The far-right argued that Sharon’s 2005 disengagement from Gaza allowed Hamas to seize power. Further concessions thus meant surrender to extremists.
Netanyahu’s worst instincts were stoked by his alliance with extreme-right messianic Jewish nationalists within the settler movement who preached that Palestinians should be ejected to Jordan — or simply pushed into the sea.
The Palestinian cause, meanwhile, became polarized between Arafat’s Palestinian Authority, which made futile efforts to preserve Oslo, and Hamas-led rejectionists (styling themselves as the “Islamic Resistance”) who weaponized the intifada and were just as hostile to peace as Israel’s extreme right. Extremism on one side fueled extremism on the other.
Efforts by their leaders to keep peace alive were interpreted by disenchanted Palestinians as craven weakness. The Palestinian Authority was criticized by its rivals for cracking down on militants, while simultaneously being attacked by Israel for allegedly condoning terrorism. The Palestinian leadership further undermined itself through rampant corruption.
The dangerous consequences of Tehran’s funding for rejectionists, such as Islamic Jihad, Hezbollah and Hamas, were not adequately recognized at the time. This was the era when Al Jazeera TV ruled supreme and these entities were celebrated as components of the same liberation struggle.
In fact, Iran had created a monster that split the Palestinian movement and undermined the justice of their cause through terrorist attacks against civilians, a tactic that the likes of cleric Yusuf Al-Qaradawi were happy to endorse week after week from Al Jazeera’s Doha studios.
If we have learned anything from the giants of the 20th century — Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King — it is that when state terrorism is met with terrorism, the just aspirations of all parties become fatally undermined.
In the second part, we will look at how Israel’s drift toward the extreme-right led to successive peace initiatives — by the West and even the Arab League — being shot down in flames. When people take the time to properly understand the Palestinian tragedy, few disagree that it is one of the most contentious issues of the past century, and that Palestinians urgently deserve justice and their own state.
• Baria Alamuddin is an award-winning journalist and broadcaster in the Middle East and the UK. She is editor of the Media Services Syndicate and a foreign editor at Al-Hayat, and has interviewed numerous heads of state.