Steven Friedman
Steven Friedman

Palestinian peace in our time?

If you want to know why you should not take seriously reports promising that the US “peace initiative” in Annapolis will end conflict in the Middle East, it may be useful to recall something of our own journalistic past.

During the height of apartheid, some of our newspapers had a stock headline they would trot out so often it became a standing joke — every time the government claimed it was going to make the lives of black people a little better, the papers would proclaim a “New deal for urban blacks”.

The black people who were about to receive all this bounty were always “urban” because blacks were, in the minds of the government and much of the media, divided into two sorts. “Homeland” black people needed no new deal because they already had one: they were lucky enough to belong to “states”, which were either “independent” or on their way to full statehood.

“Urban blacks” were also “citizens” of these states but, alas, showed no sign of accepting this privilege. And so the white government needed to find a way of offering them something to prevent them becoming too angry: the frequent “new deals” were its attempts to do just that.

All of this was, of course, nonsense. The “new deals” were not meant to ensure that black people claimed their due — they were designed to prevent that. Some were setbacks disguised as concessions; others hoped to get away with giving black people some crumbs in the hope that this would prevent them demanding full and equal rights.

Equally important, the media always got these stories wrong because their understanding of the problem was hopelessly flawed. They assumed that “homelands” offered their inhabitants rights, that change depended on a white government the majority had no say in choosing, and that black people would be satisfied with less than equal rights, presumably because those who demanded equality were extremist rabble-rousers who did not speak for the majority.

Those who follow the Palestinian conflict might have worked out by now where this is going. The Annapolis meeting is only the latest in a series of initiatives and conferences, all of which were meant to settle the conflict — the headlines hyping them up might just as well have been worded “New peace deal for Palestinians”. Because, like the apartheid “new deals”, the peace processes are likely to deliver little except disappointment. And the reason why the world’s media continue to talk up these doomed initiatives is that they are working with an entirely flawed view of the conflict.

The most obvious reason why the Annapolis meeting will fail to bring peace, even if those who attend emerge from it claiming a breakthrough, is that those who were most recently elected to speak for the Palestinian people will not be there: not only will Hamas, which won the last Palestinian election, be absent — the meeting may also be partly designed to exclude it permanently. Palestinians will be represented by the Fatah movement of President Mahmoud Abbas, which has been fighting Hamas and is the party favoured by the Americans and Israelis. One purpose of the meeting is to strengthen it at Hamas’s expense.

South Africans should know that any attempt to settle a conflict that excludes the leaders of one of the sides is doomed. The American-Israeli approach is roughly the same as that of the apartheid government in the 1980s, which was prepared to negotiate with any black leader except those who black people wanted to lead them. In the end, it had to negotiate with the real leaders — so will the Americans and Israelis. And, until they realise this, there will be no peace.

A second reason is that the Israelis (and Americans) are certain to demand that Abbas and his movement suppress violence in the occupied Palestinian territories. Besides the fact that they lack the power to do this, the demand has the problem back to front: violence ends because conflicts have been settled — you don’t settle a conflict by demanding that one of the sides abandon violence. This is equivalent to the apartheid government’s demand that the liberation movements abandon violence before it would talk to them. But they abandoned violence only after it agreed to talk. Violence in Palestine will end when a real peace process convinces people that they don’t need it any more. Until then, peace initiatives that ignore this are bound to fail.

Third, the Israelis are adamant that they will not negotiate with anyone who refuses to accept Israel’s status as a “Jewish state”. But this is precisely what many Palestinians and their leaders have been fighting against for decades. They too believe that they have claims to the land, which they would forego if they accept that what is now Israel belongs only to others. And so this demand is the equivalent of insisting that the South African liberation movements recognise South Africa as a “white state”. Clearly this could never have brought peace here and it won’t do so there.

So, given all this, why do the world’s media buy into these false promises of peace? Because, like the “New deal for urban blacks” headline writers, they have a flawed view of the conflict. For them, the issue is whether the “moderates” (Western governments, Israel and anyone prepared to do what they want) can defeat the “extremists” (Hamas and some other militant groups) and so bring peace.

But the “extremists” are a freely elected government that, from the time it won the election, has been signalling its willingness to negotiate with the Israelis. The “moderates” have rejected the election result, refused to talk to the winner and tried to starve it out of power, and have cheered on the attempt by those Palestinians who will cooperate with the Israelis and Americans to defeat those who will not.

Far from promising peace and democracy, the Western governments, the Israelis and their allies are doing everything they can to prevent it by ensuring that the Palestinians can have any leaders they like as long as the West likes them too. There is no better way of setting back the cause of democracy for decades than by reacting to one of the few free and fair elections in the Middle East by refusing to negotiate with those who were elected — particularly when they are willing to negotiate with you.

As long as commentators and the media fail to recognise these realities, they will continue to misunderstand the conflict — and to greet each new phoney peace initiative with acclaim, only to succumb to disappointment when it fails.

South African blacks, urban or otherwise, won their “new deal” when they forced those who were denying them rights to negotiate without conditions with their real leaders. The Palestinian conflict will promise peace only when something similar happens there. Until then, treat the headlines proclaiming peace much as we did those promising new deals for urban blacks — as a cruel joke, not a serious promise.