There is a natural inclination among political scientists, as well as politicians, involved in peacemaking, to look at the past and memory as an obstacle for peace. Liberating oneself from the past is recommended by such people as prerequisite for peace. This view is entrenched in a wider context of reconciliation and mediation policies that emerged in the United States after WWII. This school of thought was based on a business like approach that treats the past as an irrelevant feature in the making of peace.
This means the peace makers consider only a contemporary situation – with its balance of power and realities on the ground – as a starting point for a reconciliation process. It also means that even when a blatant failure is registered in such a peace effort, the renewed effort restarts from a similar point of view; namely, one that neglects to take into account the lessons of previous failures. Noam Chomsky who noticed such a tendency in the Middle East peace process concluded that the result was a never-ending ‘peace process’ which was not meant to bring peace, but rather provided jobs and preoccupations for a large group of people belonging to the peace industry.
This philosophy has informed the peace process in Palestine ever since 1948 and in particular after 1967. Before 1967, and in the years following the ethnic cleansing that took place in Palestine, there were very few international efforts to solve the problem. Only in the first two years after the Nakba, there was some energy left in the United Nations that produced a diplomatic effort to pacify the country, which culminated in the convening of a peace conference in Lausanne, Switzerland in the spring 1949. It was a conference based on the UN Resolution 194 which also did not refer to the past as a feature in the making of peace. The events of the present were dramatic enough to draw attention to the refugees as the major issue at hand. In the eyes of the UN mediation body – The Palestine Conciliation Commission – the body that drafted Resolution 194, the unconditional return of the refugees was the basis for peace in Palestine. It avoided totally the colonialist nature of Zionism or the loss of Palestine as a homeland, space and civilization. But at least it dealt directly with the human tragedy unfolding in Palestine. This was the last time the international effort focused on this issue. Loyal to a concept that disregarded the past and its evils, every peace effort since has been based on the balance of power and the more hidden interests and agenda of the peace makers (in most of the cases American diplomats).
It was in fact mainly the balance of power that determined the nature of the peace proposals. More concretely, it was the Israeli side that produced the common wisdom of the peace efforts; its guidelines formulated by what became known as ‘the peace camp’ in Israel. The essence of the peace proposals were thus programs that catered to that camp, namely the one that presented ostensibly the more moderate face of the Israeli position towards a prospective peace in Palestine.
These guidelines were formulated in a clearer form after 1967 and were born in response to the new geopolitical reality that emerged after the June war. It crystallized in a process that paralleled the internal debate inside Israel between the right wing, the Greater Israel people, and the left wing, the Peace Now movement. After these guidelines were adopted by the American apparatus responsible for shaping US policy in Palestine, they were described with the very positive adjectives such as ‘concessions’, ‘reasonable moves’ and ‘flexible positions’. But these guidelines catered for the internal Israeli scene and as such totally disregarded the Palestinian point of view – of whatever nature and inclination.
The first guideline was that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict began in 1967 and hence the essence of its solution is an agreement that would determine the future status of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. In other words, as these areas constitute only 22 per cent of Palestine, such a solution is confined to these 22 per cent, over which a compromise should be found according to a business-like approach.
The second guideline is that everything visible in those areas is divisible and that such divisibility is the key for peace. Therefore the peace plans, including the most recent one (the Road Map), were based on the idea that the area, its people and its natural resources should be divided. No wonder that under such an assumption an Israeli withdrawal from Gaza or 80 per cent of the West Bank was and is seen as warranting the complimentary adjectives mentioned above.
The third guideline is that anything that happened until 1967, including the Nakba and the ethnic cleansing, is not at all negotiable. The implications of this guideline are clear. It removes totally the refugee issue from the peace agenda and moreover treats the Palestinian right of return as a ‘non starter’. This position was articulated first in the Israeli official papers prepared for the Camp David summit in the summer of 2000 and later as an American position, in the wake of the Sharon-Bush summit in April 2004.
The last guideline is a total equation between the end of Israeli occupation and the end of the conflict. Diachronically, there were some minor changes in the presentation of this guideline. Ever since 2000, the end of occupation was linked to the creation of an independent Palestinian state. This became part of the guideline since it was accepted by the Israeli peace camp and even by the political center. This seemingly conceptual change within the Zionist polity has very little to do with ideological shifts in Israel, and much more with the slight fluctuations in the local balance of power. Its formulation ensures that the state would be a Bantustan with no independent policies, no territorial integrity, on just half of the West Bank, within huge walls surrounding its fragmented cantons, no viable economic or social infrastructure and no capital. Under such circumstances it was possible to equate the end of occupation with the creation of an independent Palestine. It meant that past chapters in the conflict, among them the formative history of the 1948 ethnic cleansing, were not to be included in the effort for peace and reconciliation.
As noted before, these guidelines fit a more general American outlook on peace making, of which the salient feature is the absence of any reference to past failures in the making of peace. Hence the obvious failures of the peace process in Palestine until today are not an integral part of the contemplation accompanying the next stage in the same process. The reasons for the total collapse of the Rogers and Yarnig initiatives of 1971, the Kissinger proposals in 1972, the Geneva conferences of 1974 and 1977, the 1979 Camp David initiative, the Oslo accord and all the last gambits are clear. They all stem from the attempt of the peacemakers to remove the ethnic cleansing in 1948 from the peace agenda and absolve Israel from its responsibility for the Nakba. But the absence of a learning process ensures that this obvious reason would not be calculated in the attempt to analyze the failure – the tendency is rather to cast the blame on the Palestinians and depict them as warmongers and intransigent people who do not wish to end the conflict.
What all these guidelines have in common is a consensual Israeli insistence in eliminating the refugee issue and the Nakba from the collective memory of peace making. In other words, the principal victims of the conflict, whose misery and predicament fueled the conflict ever since 1948, are totally absent from the peace agenda.
The reason for this bewildering absence is rooted in the political psychology as much as it is caused by the politics of power behind peace making in Palestine. The Israeli position on the conflict and its solution, the one that has determined the peace agenda hitherto, is fed by fears, psychoses and traumas much more than by ‘security’ interests and concerns which are presented by the Israelis as the basis for their opening gambits in every round of negotiations.
At the heart of that fear is the knowledge that despite years of denial, a peace process that would put the right of return of the refugees at the center of the reconciliation effort would open a Pandora’s Box. Out will come inevitable questions about the moral foundations of the Jewish State and the essence of the Zionist project. These would be accompanied by a host of questions relating to restitution rights – from financial compensation to war crimes tribunals. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa has shown that there are ways to avoid retributive justice and concentrate on a restorative approach and that the symbolic act of recognition coupled with actions such as the return of the refugees could be enough to cope with the past. In such a case, Israelis and Palestinians do not become slaves of the past, but rather people who use the past to liberate themselves from the appalling present in which they live. This is guaranteed formula for a successful peace solution.
For this to work, there is a need not to underestimate or ignore the apprehensions of the powerful side in the equilibrium of forces. At the same time, these fears should not be allowed to dominate the peace agenda, as they have until today. It should be part of the overall search for a political structure in Palestine and Israel that could carry the necessary solutions for ending the conflict in the land. But even before this search commences, anyone seriously involved or interested in advancing the peace process should locate the refugees and their rights of return and restitution at the center of a peace process that could only properly begin with the complete end of the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.
Ilan Pappe is professor of history at Haifa University and co-director of the Emile Touma Center in Haifa. This article first appeared in Haq al-Awda (May 2004).