Where are the opponents of annexation?
RAMALLAH - The shisha cafe in downtown Ramallah is near capacity. It is a spartan place but the orange juice is always fresh and the tobacco aromatic.
Customers enjoy smoking or playing cards while the television broadcasts a documentary about the Oslo process. The oversized picture shows a beaming Bill Clinton orchestrating the historic handshake on that gloriously sunny, hopeful day on the White House lawn in September 1993.
No one watches the show. Life in Ramallah today has its own narrative, which has little to do with the beaming faces on the television screen.
Whatever your opinion of the generation-old Oslo accords, the sense of energy and history was undeniable. The parade of faces across the television screen – Sadat, Begin and even the stoic Hafez Assad and wooden Warren Christopher managed a smile — highlighted a bygone era when the idea of an agreement that would resolve the problem of Palestine and establish a solid peace between Israel and the Arabs commanded attention.
Those days are gone. Sadat’s visit to Jerusalem in November 1977 captured international attention almost half a century ago. The promise of the restoration of Palestinian sovereignty through Egyptian patronage after the October War and the Oslo process that followed has been squandered. Tireless efforts by a generation of diplomats have only entrenched Israel’s occupation, enfeebled the institutions of Palestinian liberation and exhausted the interest and imagination of the international community.
Time and enduring stalemate have erased the path opened by Sadat, Arafat and Rabin. For the first time since the 1970s, there is no diplomatic plan or process on the table. Former US President Barack Obama ended the “peace process” in early 2014, but it actually ended within months of his inauguration in 2009 when he failed to enforce his demand for a settlement freeze. George W. Bush, for all his glaring shortcomings, at least managed to forge a diplomatic process at Annapolis. No matter that it failed. Obama never even managed to get the players in the same room.
Emboldened by a diplomatic process that substituted form for content and gave Israel a free hand to “create facts” on the ground, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has eliminated effective opposition to settlement and annexation.
Trump’s “Deal of the Century” is the price we are paying for such failures. His serially postponed plan is a parody of the real deal. Forget Jerusalem and the West Bank. Forget settlements and an end to the Gaza siege. Solve the refugee diaspora with the wave of a wand. Even if the Trump team has an idea, they have offered no indication that they can manage and operationalise a diplomatic engagement of the complexity and commitment required to undo the consequences of Israel’s single-minded pursuit of dispossession.
Borrowing a concept from the twilight years of the Obama presidency, attention is now focused on an “outside in” deal that begins — and ends — with an Arab-Israel rapprochement based on common security threats, real and imagined.
No one can escape responsibility for creating and sustaining this situation. But Palestinians, who have the most to gain from the creation of a sovereign state, bear the primary burden of realising it or the ultimate responsibility for failure. One need not be Svengali to see that Palestinians have often squandered their few assets.
The Hamas-Fatah split looks unbridgeable — a gift to Israel that keeps on giving. The sclerotic leadership of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) has been reduced to managing the West Bank under Israeli rule. Hamas won the last Palestinian elections over a decade ago but has failed to convert this mandate into the kind of sovereignty that expands Palestinian horizons and promotes rather than strangles the prospects of a new generation.
Israel’s occupation is both ever-present and invisible — like the sunrise and sunset, an unremarkable part of the scene. Young people, in particular, accommodate the institutions created by Oslo – the Palestinian Authority (PA) and its security agencies, the ministries and most significantly the separation barrier that defines their horizons figuratively and literally. Given this, preoccupations in Ramallah focus inward — on the succession to Mahmoud Abbas, the PA’s changes to local retirement savings and the firing of Palestinian security guards from what was formerly the US Consulate. Gaza is completely off the table: The PLO, lamented one PA official to me, “is now a West Bank only liberation organisation.”
Israel’s occupation machine continues to devour the West Bank and Jerusalem. An ever-expanding road network to serve settlements is everywhere; isolated settlement outposts on scattered hilltops claim space in the zero-sum contest that Israel is winning.
But the real energy for settlement expansion is the transformation of settlements into suburbs, with movie theatres, big box stores and university campuses. Ariel Sharon saw settlements as a way to expand Israel’s “narrow waist” along the Mediterranean coast, which is only 14km wide at its pre-1967 narrowest, and to create a winning political constituency. The Israeli right’s politically unassailable leadership illustrates the continuing success of his vision and the enduring failure of annexation’s opponents to challenge it.