Langston Hughes famously asked, “What happens to a dream deferred?” As Hughes might have predicted, young Palestinians’ long-deferred dreams of self-determination exploded this fall in a new intifada — an uprising against both the Israeli occupation and the Oslo “peace process” that has done so little to remove it. Israel’s repression has been severe: More Palestinians died in October-November 2000 than during the entire first year of the previous intifada. As Rema Hammami and Salim Tamari write in this issue, the presence of the Palestinian Authority (PA) in the Occupied Territories has severely limited the grassroots organizing that sustained the 1987-93 struggle. Heavy media emphasis on the religious dimension of the uprising has encouraged popular notions — in Israel, in the Arab world and in the US — that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a Jewish-Muslim conflict: eternal and insoluble. Nevertheless, the fresh wave of resistance to the occupation creates pressure for a comprehensive political solution.
There are familiar frustrations for those watching the uprising from afar. Congress voted to send $2.82 billion in new aid to Israel just as the UN and international human rights groups condemned Israel’s excessive use of force against civilian demonstrators. As CIA director George Tenet brokers Israeli-PA “security cooperation” talks and former senator George Mitchell plans the US-led fact-finding mission, US policy obdurately refuses to address the political roots of the conflict. Despite the disproportionate death toll and the palpable discrepancy in power between Israeli soldiers and stone-throwing youths, editorial pages persist in beseeching “both sides” to “stop the violence.” The corresponding surge of protest against the Israeli occupation has produced some empowering moments, as when 1,000 Bay Area activists — Arab-Americans, Jewish Americans and others — shut down Binyamin Netanyahu’s planned address in San Francisco on November 28, forcing him to cancel two others.
Earlier that day, Prime Minister Ehud Barak called spring elections in Israel. His political survival probably depends on showing the electorate concrete progress in the “peace process.” Yet as always, the pertinent questions are: What kind of peace process will there be and to what end? The current uprising alerts all concerned that the skewed terms of previous negotiations can only be reimposed with extreme coercion. In this sense, Oslo is dead. But for the time being, it may be more important that Oslo lived. Key players — Labor and the Zionist left, the US, the PA — staked a great deal on its success. Lulled by the false promise of security without recognition of basic Palestinian national rights, the Israeli public remains unprepared for the actual compromises that Israel will have to make to achieve lasting peace. The US prods Yasser Arafat to crack down on the protesters, because “peace is only achieved at the negotiating table.” For now, the PA follows the lead of Fatah’s tanzim, whose calls for continued struggle capture the mood of the street. The street’s militancy — and Israel’s bombing of PA installations — have stiffened Arafat’s rhetoric. Still, as Graham Usher argues in this issue, the PA cannot afford too serious a challenge to its leadership from militant elements. Two months and counting into the second intifada, Israel and the PA face the same three choices they faced at the beginning: They can suppress the uprising, at great cost in human life and international support, they can refrain from decisive action, hoping that a “Lebanonized” war of attrition eventually fizzles, or they can recast the framework of negotiations around principles of international law. Their record to date does not inspire confidence.
UN Security Council Resolution 242 — calling for Israel’s full withdrawal from the Occupied Territories, including East Jerusalem, removal of the settlements and the right of return for Palestinian refugees — was largely abandoned during the last seven years. The Oslo formula had a narrower vision of trading Israel’s security for a truncated, fragmented PA statelet. But the message of the current uprising is clear: 242 and the other relevant principles of international law must be the basis for a just and lasting peace. Half-measures will only defer another explosion.