Debunking Myth of Barak's 'Generous' Peace Offer

by Justine McCabe
Originally published in the Danbury News Times

Myths are important. Wrapped around traces of objective reality, myths are a compelling means by which we humans form ourselves as individuals and societies, and construct the "realities" we envision-- including political realities.

Yet, however much they are human constructions, myths are serious business. As W.I. Thomas reminds us, "If men define situations as real, they are real in their consequences."

There is a pervasive myth has has become one of the U.S. media's mantra-like responses to the ongoing violence in Palestine-Israel: In the Oslo final status talks at Camp David/Taba, Israel's Ehud Barak made a generous offer for a Palestinian state to Yasser Arafat who rejected it, holding out for a better deal.

With dissenters to this view rare in the mainstream media, the blame for the failure of these talks and the ensuing violence continues to be placed on Palestinians - who are reputedly not interested in peace, only in Israel's destruction.

But to scholars who have examined the history of the Oslo process and its demise, this telling is a corruption of what occurred, a myth and a dangerous one at that. For example, there is Harvard political economist Sara Roy, a Jewish-American child of Nazi concentration camp survivors and the author of a widely respected and exhaustive study of the economy of Gaza under Israeli occupation "The Gaza Strip: The Political Economy of De-Development."

Echoing the analysis of many other researchers, Roy recently wrote in Current History: "Perhaps the most critical feature of the Oslo process was the abandonment of the entire body of international law and resolutions pertaining to the conflict that had evolved over the last 53 years in favor of bilateral negotiations between two actors of grossly unequal power."

Putting it more bluntly, anthropologist Roger Normand, director of New York's Center for Economic and Social Rights, wrote: "As a result (of Oslo), the entire framework of international law and . . . . years of U.N. applications of law to the conflict, was jettisoned in one fell swoop."

Significantly, these scholars underscore that the United States was the primary culprit in this move. As the main sponsor of the peace process, the United States insisted -beginning with the Letters of Assurances and Memoranda of Understanding - on eliminating international law as the framework for resolving the conflict. In so doing, equal protection for the two parties under law was dismissed. Instead, relative military strength ruled the day, or as Ehud Barak smugly proclaimed on Aug. 13, 1999: "The starting point for any peace process is the strength and might of the State of Israel."

The significance of this U.S. move cannot be overstated. It meant that with an inherent bias favoring the demonstrated wishes of the world's fourth largest military power to keep the occupied land, over the desire for independence of a weak, "occupied" people, the process eliminated by design any possibility that a viable, sovereign state of Palestine could emerge - government and media spin notwithstanding.

Alarmingly, the U.S. media have failed to report that with U.S. support, Barak's offer was quite consistent with Oslo's pre-eminent goal to institutionalize Israel's 34-year-old illegal mechanisms of control over Palestinians, their land and water.

For example, most Americans would be surprised to know that Israel's offer demanded that Israeli sovereignty would continue - right in the midst of an "independent" Palestine - over 160,000 Jewish settlers, over 250 miles of Jewish-only roads, over all external borders, and over the would-be Palestinian capital, East Jerusalem.

In fact, with U.S. support and billions of our tax dollars, Israel's offer was intended to permanently define the relationship between Palestinians and Israelis as neo-colonial and unequal. The whiff of truth in the myth of Barak's "generous" offer is that it did include a first-time discussion of sharing Jerusalem and the status of Palestinian refugees.

But these issues have long been resolved under international law, including the Fourth Geneva Convention, and accepted as such by the entire international community - except for Israel.

In truth, Barak's offer may have been generous relative to earlier Israeli stances, but it was irrelevant. Occupation - brutal or benign - is occupation.

Under international law, land acquired by force is inadmissible and illegal, as is settling or altering such land in any way. Thus, it doesn't matter whether Israel offered to give the Palestinians 80 or 90 percent of the West Bank, or to keep 60 or 80 percent of the settlements. These confiscated lands were not Israel's to give in the first place.

Of course, American, Israeli and Palestinian leaders cannot -even by negotiation - nullify people's rights under international law. However, the demonstrated intention to do so by the United States and Israel - nations self-identified as paragons of democracy and defenders of equal rights before the law - makes the "New World Order" simply a recycle of the 19th century's ethos of "might makes right."

It also sends a blatantly hypocritical message to those emerging democracies that are so often criticized by the United States for their disrespect for the rule of law.

Impoverished and occupied as they are, Palestinians in Jenin, East Jerusalem and Gaza know international law is on their side. They know that despite the vast material and military imbalance between Palestinians and Israelis, their mutual right for self-determination under the law is the only guarantee that disparate peoples everywhere will be on an equal footing.

It is the world's failure to enforce international law in this conflict that is a significant source of Palestinian rage and despair, as well as Israeli insecurity.

The United States must act now to reaffirm international law - not a "balance of power" as the starting point and bedrock for a just resolution between Israelis and Palestinians.

It is the remaining source of hope for both peoples, for all peoples in the 21st century.

Justine McCabe of New Milford is co-chair of the Connecticut Green Party

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