If one thing has become clear in the period that has elapsed since the conclusion of the limited autonomy agreement, it is that the new world order ushered in by Madrid and Oslo is every bit as ugly as the old. The recent election of Binyamin Netanyahu, the leader of the Likud, to the post of prime minister promises that it will get even uglier.
The political process that began to unfold at the conclusion of the 1990 Gulf War appears to have ground to a halt. While many believed initially that the demise of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War would enable the United States to playa more even-handed role, and even minimize the role of Israel as the guarantor of Western interests in the region, events so far have not substantiated these hopes. Israel in its hour of victory has not extended a generous peace. Janus-faced, it is, at one and the same time, triumphalist and paranoid. If anything, the persistent Israeli campaign to annul and change the Palestinian National Charter is indicative of this need, not only to achieve victory in war and in peace, but also in its symbolic dimension, to have the Palestinians erase their own history. It is as if the persistence of the Palestinian claim, in and of itself, poses a threat that conjures up fear and insecurity.
It is difficult to affirm whether the high Palestinian expectations that were ushered in by Madrid were delusional or consciously self-deceptive. The rhetoric of those Palestinians who were close enough to the PLO leadership, and consequently able to enroll their names on the quotas of returnees, seemed divorced from the mundane and humiliating procedures that accompanied the return, and the limitations imposed upon them. The facade of liberation, power, sovereignty, and emancipation seemed to mark the new returnees, in sharp contrast to the attitude of the local inhabitants of the occupied territories who welcomed any change in the nature and dimension of the occupation, without necessarily equating this with the fulfillment of the promise of self-determination and statehood.
Peres tried to appear both as dove and hawk. Despite all the fancy rhetoric about the dawn of a new age in the region, he will be remembered as the butcher of Qana. His political ineptitude came through in his decision to allow the Mossad to go ahead with the assassination of Yahya Ayyash, which brought such retribution from the suicide bombers of Hamas in its wake. In this he was imitating the late Yitzhak Rabin who, only a week before his assassination, engineered the murder of the leader of the Islamic Jihad, Fathi Shikaki, in Malta. Rabin himself was felled by an assassin's bullet. Testimony to the persistence of the prophecy: Those who live by the sword, die by the sword.
Indeed, it has been a strange peace which Israel's government unleashed on the Palestinians since the signing ceremony at Oslo. For their part, the Palestinians had terminated the Intifada, and the PLO had gathered its weary troops from far and near, hastily transforming them in the process into the virtual, if not actual, guardians of Israel's borders. In order to secure its own survival, the PLO leadership has acquiesced to sever itself from the body of the Palestinian people in the countries of refuge, has agreed to abandon the call for the dismantling of settlements, has to all intents and purposes accepted the fait accompli of the annexation of the Arab part of Jerusalem, and perhaps more significantly, has assumed the new role of guardian of Israel's security.
The Israelis are also doing their share. Jerusalem has been completely severed from the West Bank. The Gaza Strip and the West Bank have been detached from each other. After a wage-dependency which has been nurtured for 29 years, the Palestinian labor force is forcibly prevented from seeking its livelihood within Israel proper. Land expropriations and the building of roads linking the settlements and by-passing Arab population centers are proceeding at a feverish pace. The absence of Palestinian control over land, and the restriction of the autonomy to the inhabitants of specific urban and rural locations are further highlighted by the siege which the Labor government successfully implemented for the first time in the history of the occupation, and which transformed the West Bank into hundreds of autonomous Palestines. The Gaza Strip, only partially under Palestinian control, was transformed into one big prison cell, with the keys of the gates at the Erez crossing firmly in the hands of the Israeli military. Thousands of Palestinian prisoners have not been released from Israeli incarceration. At the same time, Israeli occupation forces continue their task of hunting down and arresting Palestinians suspected of carrying out violent acts in the territories occupied by Israel and within Israel proper. The attempt to eradicate any flicker of resistance to the unfolding Israeli political and military hegemony, which is a necessary accompanying part of the ongoing peace process, has led to the use of the military fist, not only in the areas under Israel's control, but further afield, as in Lebanon. This is reminiscent of Israel's behavior vis-a-vis its Arab neighbors since its very inception, going as far back as the massacres at Qibya, Al-Samu', Bahr Al-Bakar, Irbid, Beirut, Hammam Al-Shat, to recall some of the major stations in Israel's biography. Indeed, it seems that the current peace process is in essence nothing less than war by other means.
For its part, the Palestinian National Authority (PNA) has been busy trying to assert its authority and show the Israelis, the donor countries, the Palestinians under its control and the whole wide world that it is firmly in control. Notwithstanding the holding of elections to the Legislative Council in January 1996, authority remains firmly in the hands of a handful of powerful figures within Fatah who hold positions of power within the PLO, and in the executive arm of the autonomy apparatus. The elected Legislative Council, where Arafat enjoys an automatic majority, has been deliberately sidestepped and marginalized. Indeed, it is as if the whole election exercise was meant as a sop to an outside world, to whom democracy is formal, procedural, institutional, and not at all substantive. The actual influence of the elected council on the current political process is minimal. In many ways this is similar to the situation in Jordan, where the executive authority can, with the connivance of a built-in majority in the elected representative body, ignore it with impunity. The new dawn has produced meager pickings.
The Palestinian political scene is one of total disarray. Within the ranks of the PLO the demarcation between loyalists and oppositionists is at best fuzzy. The session of the Palestine National Council held in Gaza, with the specific aim of annulling the National Covenant, was attended by senior figures from both the Popular Front and the Democratic Front, in effect giving legitimacy to its proceedings. At the same time, their delegates boycotted the sessions devoted to rescinding the covenant! For their loyalty, they were rewarded by an increase in their numerical allotment within the council. The formation of the executive council of the autonomy held more surprises. The Peoples Party (ex-Communists) who have been one of the severest critics of the agreements and of the behavior of the PNA since its arrival in Gaza, accepted a portfolio in the new cabinet. Another surprise was the participation in the cabinet of the popular ex-mayor of Al-Bireh, long associated, in the public eye, with opposition to the PLO bureaucracy, and since the days of his membership of the PLO executive committee in Beirut, to Arafat personally.
The picture within the Islamic Movement is just as confusing. For a few months, conflicting messages have been coming from the direction of Hamas. On the one hand, repression, both by the Israelis and by the PNA's security forces, have dealt them a severe blow. This has been accompanied by what seems to be an open fissure between their spokespersons within the occupied territories and on the outside. Reported peaceful overtures to the PNA in the wake of the wave of suicide bombings that rocked the country have tended to sow confusion in the public mind over the political agenda of the Islamic Movement. The statements of Sheikh Ahmad Yassin publicized by the Israeli authorities from his prison cell, and the unexpected failure, perhaps inability, of the movement to play an interventionist role in the recent Israeli elections have served to sow further doubts. If the Islamic forces are willing to facilitate the unfolding of Arafat's agreement with the Israelis and the consequent expansion of the autonomy, then what is it that they are opposed to? Is it that they merely want to become partners, but are making a bid for a larger share than Arafat is willing to give them? Their radical stance, and the bloody campaign of terror unleashed by them on the Israeli public, are not commensurate with their perceived political agenda.
To an overwhelming degree, Israel has succeeded in implementing its political and military agenda in the region. Its decision to enroll the Palestinians in its efforts to ensure a hegemonic presence in the Arab world has tended to create yet further divisions within Arab and Palestinian ranks. To be sure, Israel's strategy is not preoccupied with matters Palestinian or with the borders of Mandatory Palestine. Since 1948, Israel's main adversaries have been the neighboring Arab states, Egypt and Syria, standing in for an Arab world, fearful and wary of this new foreign implant. Israel waged a struggle against this wall of Arab refusal and rejection. Major landmarks are the full-scale wars waged in 1956 and 1967, but there was a continuing and persistent war going on all the time, directed, not against armies and states, but against ordinary people in Egypt, Syria, Jordan, Lebanon and further afield. The aim was to ground them into submission. There is no denying that current political developments are witness to the success of Israel's strategy. But the spirit of resistance has not been completely eliminated. There are still voices saying No. They are reminiscent of the famous picture of the lone individual standing in front of a row of tanks during the Tiananmen Square popular outburst in Peking. There are still arms raising the high banner with the legend We Are Not Going to Let the Wretches Grind Us Down, boldly inscribed across it.