"Suddenly everything's turned around. At first we thought the war against Iraq would build a new Middle East, because that was one of the excuses to have the war. Now it seems that a new Middle East will be an excuse to justify, retroactively, the war against Iraq." This statement was made by a Jordanian journalist, who was less than euphoric about the Sharm el-Sheikh and Aqaba summits.
"Has anything genetic changed in the Middle East in a way that would give a real chance to the peace process between Israel and the Palestinians? Or between Israel and the Arabs?" he asked. "Some of us get drunk, but they haven't invented the term 'hangover' in Arabic yet. Perhaps, now we will get to know it, when we awaken from these summits."
The Palestinians and Israel did not need the war against Iraq to start a peace process between them. Madrid, Oslo, the Wye agreements, the Hebron agreement, Camp David and Taba, the recommendations of Mitchell and Tennet, all took place long before anyone dreamt of a war against Iraq.
There was no lack of pressing American involvement before Iraq either. You can ask former president Bill Clinton how much spare time he had left after taking on the Middle East peace process. George W. Bush had no desire whatsoever to mess with this difficult-to-understand conflict. He also remembered how Reagan's peace initiative and the attempts of his father the president ended up.
Ahmad Abu Al-Suchar, the oldest prisoner released last week as part of Israel's goodwill gestures to the Palestinians, recalls that suicide attacks are also not an innovation of the intifada. Abu Al-Suchar was arrested and tried in 1976 for setting the booby-trapped refrigerator in Jerusalem's Zion Square.
Indeed, it is easy to dismiss the Sharm and Aqaba summits as two more superfluous productions - an American payback to those who opposed the war in Iraq and to those who supported it. But that would be too easy. Perhaps, after all, buried in these two productions is some larva that will develop into a butterfly.
It could be buried in the fact that for the first time, even since Oslo, there is an Israeli and American - and hence international - recognition for a Palestinian state. This is an unconditional recognition, at least on the American side. Whoever reads the Oslo agreements may be impressed by the immense rhetorical effort put into evading the term "an independent Palestinian state." Now, out in the open, a state. Not a "final settlement," not "an independent authority" and not even "legitimate Palestinian rights."
On the face of it, this is merely another rhetorical landmark. For without an agreement with Israel, there will be no state, and it is not yet known what its borders and powers will be, how it will provide its citizens with a living and what inner forces will strengthen it or destroy it. But, in fact, this is an essential change. In 1999, Benjamin Netanyahu announced proudly that he managed to "persuade" Arafat not to declare a Palestinian state when the Oslo agreement expired. Now a cabinet in which he is a member, headed by Ariel Sharon, states almost out of historic understanding, even if under pressure, that a Palestinian state is a reality.
This statement is enormously important: In a war being waged for almost three years with no winners, this statement is a political achievement for the Palestinians and hence a possibility to present the intifada as a war that was not for nothing. In this, the intifada may resemble what the Yom Kippur War was to Egypt: not a war for its own sake but one that led to achieving a goal which could be considered a victory. Not stopping a struggle due to helplessness but because it achieved everything that can be achieved in such a struggle.
The important question now is not the extent of pure truth in the terms "victory" or "defeat," but what extent of victory will satisfy the Palestinians? And what will be the extent of generosity that Israel will show them?
In other words, the question is how each side will interpret the term "a viable state" and what dreams will be stored in each side's national archive. Maybe then it will also be possible to put off translating the word "hangover" into Arabic.
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