The Institute for Middle East Understanding

Of tunnels, Goldstone and the 'peace process'
George Giacaman,, Oct 14, 2009

This article was originally published by and is republished with permission.

A Masked Palestinian man works in a smuggling tunnel running under the Egypt-Gaza border in Rafah. (Hatem Omar, Maan Images)

In late September 1996, a tunnel was dug under the Aqsa Mosque, the third holiest site in Islam. Protests in Jerusalem and the West Bank almost immediately flared once the news was out. A mini-intifada ensued. The demonstrators accused the Israeli government of attempting to undermine the foundations of the mosque, threatening its collapse. The Israeli prime minister then was Binyamin Netanyahu.

In early September 2009, Palestinians discovered that a new and wider tunnel is being dug under the Aqsa Mosque. Then, in the first week of October, Israeli right-wing groups called on supporters to go and "visit" the mosque. The Israeli police let them in and several days of protests by Palestinians ensued. Even the government of Jordan felt impelled to intervene lest things get out of hand. These incidents also happened on Netanyahu's watch, now prime minister again.

The US administration also intervened, asking the Israeli government to calm things down for fear that this might provoke wider protests, even a third intifada, possibly already waiting to happen. But by then, demonstrations were taking place against the Palestinian Authority and Mahmoud Abbas personally for asking the PLO delegate in Geneva to support postponement of a vote on the Goldstone report by the UN's Human Rights Council, when, according to several close observers of council meetings, a clear majority was ready to approve the report. Abbas was vilified personally and calls for his resignation were made.

These are two separate factors that may lead to an uprising against both the PA and Israel.

The US administration's concern is clearly any possible "peace process" that it is laboring to resume. So far, George Mitchell, the US envoy in charge of renewing Palestinian-Israeli negotiations, has visited the region seven times. No major results have been achieved and on the question of freezing settlement construction, it seems that Netanyahu has won out. Reports suggest that the US administration is now dropping the whole issue in favor of going directly to negotiations.

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The Palestinian side fears a repeat performance of previous failures, including the Annapolis process that ended with no result toward the end of 2008. It is therefore insisting on agreement first on the starting point of any talks, such as that negotiations are premised on agreement that the 1967 borders are the reference point, rather than from point zero, which the Netanyahu government wants.

The performance of the Obama administration has so far been weak while results have been miniscule. Barack Obama's Nobel prize was clearly not for results, but for his declared intentions, to bolster his efforts and in the hope that he might achieve something substantial, including a stable and just settlement to the conflict in Palestine.

These hopes are diminishing, at least as far as the conflict in Palestine is concerned, but have not completely vanished, certainly not on the part of the PA - even in the face of Israeli intransigence and the continued theft of Palestinian land. The very existence of the PA depends on the continuation of the "peace process". That is partly the reason why it accepted to postpone voting on the Goldstone report. After all, Netanyahu had threatened publicly that there would be no such process if the report was voted on and accepted.

But time is running out, and Obama has already declared a two-year deadline to achieve a settlement or agreement for a settlement. His reputation is also at stake and maybe his second term chances, even if domestic achievement in the US is more important to US voters. But this is not the perspective of the Nobel prize grantees, nor is it the perspective of the peoples of the world who cling to the hope that Obama seemed to promise.

It will be tragic indeed if he fails. It will be even more tragic if self-serving Israeli politicians make him fail in the Middle East.


George Giacaman is a professor at Birzeit University and contributes on a regular basis political analysis for Arab and international media.

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