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Barak to the future?

James Heartfield reports from the occupied West Bank on Israeli premier Ehud Barak's new deal for Palestinians

'What has Arafat done? Build himself a few palaces?' There are plenty of Palestinians who are critical of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) leader's 'liberation' of just three percent of occupied Palestine, but this is Severine, a chic young French aid worker with the Swiss non-governmental organisation (NGO) Terre Des Hommes. Like many NGO workers, Severine is outraged that the Legislative Council voted on a bill requiring NGOs to register with the Palestine Authority. 'They have no legitimacy', she protests. 'They were only elected for five years and their term is up.'

What right the unelected NGOs have is another matter, but still they have worked hard to delegitimise the Palestine Authority (PA), raising questions over human rights abuses and 'corruption' - despite the fact that the NGOs spend more than the PA without any obvious checks. It is this kind of calculated criticism from the NGOs that makes Salami, a student at Birzeit University, shrug his shoulders and say, 'we've heard enough about human rights for a lifetime - what we need is a state'.

The charges of corruption and human rights abuses have hurt the Palestine Authority. At Hebron University Professor Nabil Abu Zenaid, a PLO supporter, bends over backwards to say that corruption should be rooted out. Yet when pressed, he protests that the PA was not created out of a victory, but in a compromise in which Israel's main sponsor, the USA, held all the cards. The intrinsic weakness of the PA is that it has inherited responsibility for policing the Palestinians without the means to develop Palestinian society. As a result, the Palestinian police collaborate both with the Israelis and the CIA to suppress militants.

Just as the Palestinian police have their hands tied, so too are basic governmental functions like welfare and justice undermined by the NGOs. Human rights lawyer Gaith Al-Omari explains that 'opposition is the role of political parties while service provision is the role of government. If NGOs continue to play these roles they would be offering a very convenient excuse against the development of political parties, and for the government abdicating its duties'.

Now, with the new Labour government under Ehud Barak, it appears that there might be some movement in the peace process. After years under the hawkish Netanyahu, Barak has caught everybody's attention with a charm offensive upon the Arab world, starting talks with President Assad of Syria over the Golan Heights. Yasser Arafat even welcomed him as 'a friend' - a compliment that the military man Barak was reluctant to return. Barak's attitude to the Palestinians falls short of affection. Instead the government is offering a business-like attitude, and a return to the policy of 'land for peace'.

In fact, the Israeli government has little option but to deal with the Palestinians. Dependent upon US sponsorship since its inception, the Israeli state has been pressured by America to support the 'peace process'. Netanyahu's resistance to US pressure depended upon a constant mobilisation of Zionist militancy that threatened to destabilise Israel. The political elite is grateful to Barak for calming things down - and so are the Americans, who have released $1.2 billion of aid as a reward for talking to the Palestinians.

Barak's strategy is to lower the political temperature. His government still presides over an apartheid-like society, in which Palestinians are corralled into refugee camps in Gaza, or behind military checkpoints on the West Bank, and Israeli settlers still demand military backing for their occupation of Arab lands. But Barak is working to de-politicise the oppression of the Arabs.

Justice minister Yossi Beilin has promised to lift the state of emergency that has been renewed in each of Israel's 50 years, saying 'that will be much less convenient' but 'we must exploit these moments of government to relinquish power'. But Beilin's 'relinquishing of power' in emergency regulations is accompanied by a commitment by the new internal security minister, Shlomo Ben-Ami, to put more police on the streets to tackle crime, 'especially in Arab towns and villages'. In fact, the Israeli state has no intention of relinquishing power, but it is trying to remove the question of power from public debate, replacing political orders with police regulations.

The clearest sign that Barak is trying to de-politicise the Israeli state are his actions against militant Zionism. He has already snubbed the military hawks by appointing an Arab, Hashem Mahameed, to the Defence Council. In a challenge to the settler movement, Barak indicated that he would be prepared to give up some of the occupied Golan Heights to Syria, even if that meant clearing the Israeli settlements there.

A conveniently timed report on the state of Israel's environment warns of a catastrophe because of over-irrigation and building. The Zionist promise to make the desert bloom is now portrayed as an ecological disaster. The finance minister has put a freeze on cash for new developments. Israel is in no position to dismantle the settlements without risking its existence: the entire state is built upon the forcible occupation of Arab land. But Barak is aiming to demobilise the settler movement to win himself more room to manoeuvre in reorganising Israeli society, just as the peace process has succeeded in demobilising the Palestinians.

Reproduced from LM issue 123, September 1999

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