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Palestine-Israel Conflict: The Language of Peace and the Reality of War

January 24, 2014 at 9:20 am

The formal Israeli-Palestinian peace process has long been characterised by a yawning gap between image and reality. For the best part of 20 years, a reality of occupation has been legitimized and consecrated by the elusive notion of ‘peace’. ‘Peace’, in a particularly brutal inversion of its traditional meaning, has become an accomplice to practices that are clearly opposed to any just and lasting settlement (of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict). Although this paradox (war as peace and peace as war) has become all too familiar to interested observers, a recent conversation (at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars) between Aaron Miller (a distinguished scholar associated with the center) and Ehud Olmert (the former Israeli prime minister) is instructive to the extent that it shines a light upon some of the misrepresentations and distortions that continue to characterise a Janus-faced ‘peace’.

Any objective observer of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict cannot fail to be struck by the extent to which ‘peace’ has become actively conscripted into the service of the Israeli political-military establishment. As a device that perpetuates the status quo whilst simultaneously allowing ‘facts on the ground’ to be altered, ‘peace’ is predominantly appreciated (predominantly by Israeli political actors) for its inherent instrumentality. Yet the unthinking conflation of ‘peace’ with ‘security’ has anticipated multiple perversities; any peace is devalued when it becomes little more than a means for the reassertion of the prerogatives and privileges that attend to power. It is bad enough when the promises of peace remain unfulfilled: it is infinitely worse when the same ‘peace’ becomes actively conscripted into the service of a brutal and dehumanising occupation.

Although Olmert has long sought to present himself, in accordance with the standard operating procedures of Israeli ‘doves’, as a moderate alternative to the more extreme sections of Israeli political opinion, it becomes apparent – once we scratch beneath the service – that his own position is defined by an inherent conservatism. His comments (over the course of the interview) evoke a wearying familiarity; if you close your eyes it could be one of any number of former Israeli prime ministers advancing the same tired ‘solutions’. As with his predecessors, Olmert’s own initiatives have failed to entirely break with established political codes of conduct; thus, despite his protestations to the contrary, it is immediately obvious that his ‘generous’ offer at the 2007 Annapolis Conference was simply the political status quo dressed in new clothes (if ‘accommodation’ consists of a set of unilateral demands, it invariably raises the question of what exactly intransigence looks like).

In inveighing upon its behalf, Israel’s apologists frequently confuse their standards of judgment; needless to say, what is generous from an Israeli perspective (or in comparison to previous Israeli governments) is not necessarily generous per se. This fundamental confusion also afflicts Olmert: in celebrating his own ‘generosity’, the former Prime Minister forces credulity to its furthest limits and unconsciously invites derision; at one point, he goes so far as to present himself as the wronged party, who is invariably let down by his unreliable political counterpart (needless to say, when Abbas makes an appearance in Olmert’s self-serving hagiography, he is dwarfed by his Herculean counterpart’s shadow). The absurdity of Olmert prostrating himself before us as a Mandela-figure hardly needs to be conveyed: this, after all, is the same man who bears primary responsibility for the wanton criminality of Operation Cast Lead. Conceived in the context of the peace process, this absurdity is hardly out-of-place or disconcerting; indeed it seems somehow appropriate to a process that long ago broke with any semblance of reality.

In any engagement with the Israeli political elite, the reader is invariably struck by the extent to which the Israeli political elite have (at least ostensibly) internalised their own distortions and misrepresentations. In distinctly Orwellian twists, aggression morphs into ‘self-defence’, ‘negotiation’ anticipates the retrenchment of unilateralism and war (almost inevitably) becomes ‘peace’. Olmert’s position is entirely faithful to such inversions: thus, while continuing to call for ‘compromise’ (which, in the context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, is invariably a call to accede to Israeli unilateralism), Olmert continues to unthinkingly reproduce demands which originate in the most extreme sections of the Israeli body politic. Thus, while Olmert has found it politically expedient to distance himself from Netanyahu’s demands, he still reasserts the latter’s extremism (most notably with regard to Jerusalem and the Jewish character of the Israeli state) as the basis for a just and lasting solution. If nothing else, Olmert’s mendacious distortions at least provide a reminder to interrogate ‘peace’ and to ask whose interests it serves.

In addition to Jerusalem, ‘security’ continues to function as a nonnegotiable precondition for the Israeli elite. As a tautology, the word necessarily implies a certain circularity of action – actions directed toward ‘security’ simply reinforce a sense of vulnerability, thus ensuring the repetition of the same set of self-defeating actions. To assert that security must be a precondition of further negotiation is a fundamental misunderstanding: by this stage of the conflict, it should have become apparent that security will be the outcome of a just and lasting settlement, not its precondition. In addition, the conflation of ‘security’ with maximalist demands represents a dangerous escalation that justifies almost any course of action.

In addition to the familiar leitmotifs of ‘peace’ and ‘security’, the peace process has also become defined by its one-sidedness. The Palestinians are not regarded as equal partners, and their concerns or objections have been repeatedly sidelined or ignored. There is a colonialist streak that is deeply embedded within the Israeli psyche which refuses to see Palestinians as anything other than a subject people who can be brought to heel through the use of force (whether military or political). The dangerous and irrational subject people are to be tamed, not negotiated with: to treat them as equals is to simultaneously diminish your own status. Just as classical colonial powers once did, Olmert takes power and hegemony as his point of departure. If there will be peace, it is a ‘peace’ that will be made at Israel’s own convenience, at a time and place of its own choosing.

This unilateralism is particularly striking when Olmert diverts his attention to the question of territorial concessions. In keeping with the accepted rituals of the formal peace process, Olmert throws his hands in the air at the Palestinian refusal to accept territorial compromise. However he is surely not unaware of the fact that UN Resolution 242 provides the basis for a territorial settlement and that it must necessarily inform future negotiations. As broader instances testify, this oversight is not an isolated occurrence and nor should it be regarded as such; quite the contrary, it is symptomatic of a generalised failure to recognize, much less respond to, Palestinian concerns or objections. On the basis of Olmert’s own myopia (although he is hardly alone in this respect), Israeli political officials predominantly appear to view the peace process as a means by which core aims and objectives can be advanced and consolidated (this tendency has perhaps been further reinforced by clear political weaknesses on the Palestinian side – most notably with regard to splits between the predominant Palestinian political actors).

This fact notwithstanding, Palestinian negotiators have been repeatedly pressurized (both by Israeli and international actors) to make the ‘necessary’ compromises, a premise which operates upon the strange assumption that more of the same will somehow beget a different result. As a corollary, these same negotiators are repeatedly prodded by a sense of imminence, by the familiar proposition that ‘peace’ is at hand if the necessary compromises are made. This, of course, is an illusion: with every humiliation, every arbitrary curtailment of fundamental rights, every expansion of the settlement regime, the prospect of a lasting settlement becomes more elusive. The notion that the occupation is an offence against human rights and dignity, that it is an indelible stain upon the Israeli state, is almost an irrelevance; instead it is apparent that any deal will be made in accordance with Israel’s strategic interests and priorities and that it will be bequeathed – as a signal of Israeli generosity – upon its Palestinian counterparts.

Instead of challenging Israeli intransigence, international actors have instead acted as a mirror, reflecting Israel’s own myths and distortions back to its conveyer. In his speech to Israeli students (during his presidential visit earlier this year), Obama parroted the orthodox political line when he stated that: ‘there is no question that Israel has faced Palestinians factions who turned to terror, and leaders who missed historic opportunities. That is why security must be at the centre of any agreement.’ The lines could be – and have been – delivered by any number of American presidents. Any hope that the Palestinians may once have invested in the current incumbent vanished long ago – from previous experience, they have become immune to noble sentiments, rhetorical gestures and hollow words.

Olmert is hardly alone in his confusion. The peace process has been successful to the extent that ‘peace’ has become a shibboleth for prominent political actors. In the absence of a more specific definition of peace, of the sacrifices and compromises that it entails, it is surely appropriate to regard this as a qualified success. An anecdote will perhaps help to demonstrate why: during the Oslo years, a number of Israeli human rights groups were among the most prominent defenders of Palestinian political and human rights. However in the post-Oslo years, when Palestinian demands diverged from the accepted orthodoxies of the peace process and began to be voiced in a distinctly Palestinian vernacular, these same groups began to shift away from their previously steadfast support. In desiring the end without the means, Olmert’s position is similarly contradictory. Peace will not prosper if it is founded upon flawed foundations. It is time for both Olmert and broader sections of Israeli public opinion to ask if meaningful peace is what they are really interested in.

The author is an Associate Research Fellow at the University of Exeter

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.