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Hope in the face of an impossible peace

Mark LeVine's new book is essential reading for anyone seeking a new way forward for peace in the Middle East, says Clare Woodford

April 23, 2009
7 min read

Impossible Peace: Israel/Palestine since 1989, Mark LeVine (Zed Books, 2009)

So Obama is in the White House and Hillary Clinton has arrived in Israel. As I write, we are waiting to discover how the US attitude to the Middle East is going to change, and we can only hope, after New Year horrors in Gaza, that the change will be for the better.

For those like me, still confused about why the theatre of suffering continues in Israel, Mark LeVine’s new book Impossible Peace offers an accessible entry point into the complicated world that is the politics of Israel/Palestine. Part of the ‘since 1989’ series from Zed books, it traces the way that the politics of the Middle East has been affected by the post-Cold War ‘new world order’ but also shows how the roots of the conflict go right back through the colonial era to the days of the Ottoman empire.

LeVine argues that the Israel/Palestine ‘peace’ process, officially dated from the Oslo accords of the early 1990s but rooted in the 1979 Camp David peace agreement, was doomed from the very beginning. He shows how the increasing entrenchment of Jewish settlers, in contrast with a continual chipping away at the Palestinian infrastructure, economy and society, was neglected by the accords, which instead served to further strengthen the Israeli state at the expense of the Palestinian people.

LeVine argues that ‘instead of grounding the peace process in an honest assessment of the historical processes that produced the current situation, Israelis, Americans, and to a certain extent, the PLO elite that negotiated the accords and benefited from them operated within a series of myths – about the ability to escape history, about the ability of economic processes to render political and territorial issues ‘irrelevant’, about the viability of “ending” a conflict without fairly addressing its underlying causes’. He argues that this preponderance to ignore the facts has led to an agreement worth little more than the paper it is written on

LeVine assesses the various fronts of the conflict, focusing on the three key topics of land settlement; economic development and separation of the Israeli and Palestinian economies, and the growing power of socio-religious movements in the two societies. He concludes with an assessment of the developing role of civil societies, NGOs, and the discourse of violence in the attempts to forge a path towards peace to show what possibilities for peace may exist already and could be developed.

As regards the issue of land, LeVine argues that ‘an Israeli matrix of control has slowly been unfolded over the Palestinians and the land of Israel/Palestine to create several overlapping layers of control over all aspects of Palestinian movement. The first layer is actual physical control comprising settlements, and their extended master plans, bypass roads, military installations, industrial parks, closed security zones and control of nature reserves and aquifers. The second layer is the bureaucratic and legal systems that entangle the Palestinian population in a tight web of restrictions that makes it difficult to buy, build on, develop or even have access to their lands. Finally, the third layer involves the use of violence to maintain control over the matrix, particularly the military occupation itself, and the large-scale imprisonment and violence that go with it’.

Secondly, this physical encroachment is accompanied by the separation of the Israeli and Palestinian economies. LeVine argues that the market place has become a symbolic space into which the Israel/Palestine battle can be advanced. He shows that by separating the economies it has become possible for a controlled squeezing of the Palestinians’ economic space in order to further weaken them and prevent resistance.

Thirdly, LeVine traces the role of socio-religious movements in both Israeli and Palestinian societies to show how factional politics on both sides has led to stalemate and impotence in the face of the increasing challenge to peace.

It is only in this section that LeVine for the first time begins to turn the spotlight on the Palestinian people too. Obviously they have suffered much injustice and been continuously weakened over the decades. Yet I became increasingly aware, as I read, of the lack of accountability on the Palestinian side and their failure to stand together in the face of the Israeli onslaught. LeVine notes the inability of the Palestinian elite to represent the Palestinian majority, the problems of corruption in the PA (Palestinian Authority) and the factions within the Palestinian sides – for example, growing tensions between the PA and the PLC (Palestinian Legislative Council) and between both of these and the NGO community.

It seems that whenever peace is to be negotiated the Palestinian people are let down again by the few who want to prove themselves, at the expense of the many. There still seems a lot to be done on the Palestinian side to come together as a united force, particularly with regard to women’s rights. Although LeVine does briefly touch on this subject and devotes space to explaining the internal difficulties of the Palestinian ruling bodies, it would have been useful to have more information on Palestinian power structures and society and more detail on their responses to Israeli policies as well.

Despite my curiosity on this point, LeVine’s book does successfully show the many reasons why the Oslo peace process was never really able to get off the ground. He manages to unravel the complicated tangle of broken promises, internal wrangles, violence, corruption and economic warfare in such a way as to paint a clear and detailed picture of the challenges that have plagued the peace process and will likely continue to do so.

Most enlightening and worrying, however, was the assertion that Israel/Palestine must be acknowledged as a country of apartheid and ethnocracy, more entrenched every day by the growing separation wall. This is a shocking fact that is rarely articulated in such a stark way. If the ongoing violence and suffering has so far failed to convince, this chilling fact of physical apartheid makes us realise that there are no grounds whatsoever upon which the Israel/Palestine conflict can be tolerated by the international community any longer.

Overall LeVine’s book offers an approachable and detailed account, which succeeds to argue that the peace process was over before it began. In making this argument he succeeds in tracing the continuing changes through which the Jewish population has become further entrenched whilst the non-Jewish population has found itself increasingly marginalised.

So where to now? LeVine’s book is essential reading for anyone discussing the attitude of the Obama administration to the Middle East. It shows that if a peace is to be forged it is necessary to face up to the past as honestly as possible, with both sides admitting their mistakes. It will also be imperative that the economic factors are taken in to consideration with the development of the Palestinian economy recognised as a crucial factor, as well as the acknowledgement that the inherent violence and division of neo-liberal economic policies in both the Israeli and Palestinian economies, can only wreak more damage, and must be replaced with more sensitive, fair, and far-sighted models.

In LeVine’s words, ‘If there is ever to be a just and lasting peace in the Holy Land both Israelis and Palestinians will have to escape from the burdens of their shared yet conflicted histories and imagine new identities and new forms of citizenship that can provide a decent life, with dignity, security and hope for the future for both peoples. Until that happens, Oslo’s legacy will be more blood and tears.’

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