The end of a false marriage

With the election of Netanyahu, the illusion that there is any future to the peace process has been exploded, writes Robert Fisk
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The Independent Online
The marriage is over. The show has long ago drawn to a close. The divorce decree was made final the moment Bibi Netanyahu became Prime Minister. But there was Yasser Arafat in London yesterday, still pleading for more money for the Palestinian state he will never rule, demanding investment for lands he will never control, still urging "Bibi" to honour the peace agreement the Israelis finally killed off last week.

In retrospect, John Major might have been kinder to Mr Arafat this week had he smiled less and told him the truth: that the handshake on the White House lawn was as cruelly illusory as the hopes and dreams which the Israeli-American peace fostered among Europeans and the West's "friends" in the Arab world.

Yet, even in Washington, the White House's desperate attempts to explain away an Israel that was supposed to want peace for land, but no longer wishes to honour her agreements with the Arabs, has led to a fantasy. Fast taking hold among pro-Israeli commentators, State Department spin doctors and CNN's obedient Washington correspondents is the line peddled almost at once by President Bill Clinton - that Bibi may not be all that bad.

Had he not promised to continue the "peace process"? Should we not help Bibi control his "right-wing", as if he is not himself as right-wing as they? And - most mischievous of all - had not a Likud predecessor, Menachem Begin, kicked off the Middle East peace by withdrawing Israeli troops from Egyptian Sinai?

President Mubarak has grasped at this wilful delusion. Even the British are reminding an ever more sceptical audience that Begin, initiator of the 1982 Lebanon catastrophe and whose soldiers watched the Sabra and Chatila massacre, may have been a true peacemaker. And if so, why not Bibi?

Do such illusions fall under the definition of tragedy, or deception? Even if the "peace" was not doomed the moment the PLO emerged from Oslo with their unguaranteed promises of half-statehood, surely now, many Arabs say, it is time to admit total failure.

The solemn and official agreements signed by the PLO and Israel turn out to be of no interest to the new Israeli government: Israel's withdrawal from Hebron has not been honoured. Final-status talks, which were supposed to decide the future of Jerusalem and the Jewish settlements still expanding across the occupied West Bank, have become an irrelevancy. Israel has changed its mind. Jerusalem will remain for ever Israel's capital and that of no other. No settlements will be dismantled. Only President Assad got it right: events, he observed after his meeting with Mr Mubarak in Cairo, "did not inspire optimism".

Indeed not. All the Western promises of aid, all the new pledges of friendship, the rewards cast upon Israel and the PLO for making peace, turn out to be wedding gifts at a false marriage. Israel and the PLO, for example, were allowed to open new embassies in Dublin on the basis of their peace. Now Israel doesn't want that peace any more. But of course, the embassies will stay. The wedding gifts are not going to be returned now that the marriage is over. The Jordanians have no option but to stick to their promises. King Hussein will be even more desperate to protect his country while a Likud government tears up its treaties with the PLO next door. The Arab states of the Maghreb and the Gulf which flirted with the "new" Israel may be able to withdraw with some decorum. Syria, the virgin bride that never accepted the marriage proposal, remains intacta; which is why Syria, along with Lebanon, is likely to be the next target.

Mr Arafat and King Hussein made peace with Israel because they were weak enough to make peace. After their support for Saddam Hussein in 1990, they were in no position to resist the American-Israeli peace bulldozer. Syria, having supported (up to a fine point) the United States in the 1991 Gulf war, was too strong to make peace, or so the Israelis came to suspect. Is Syria now to be made weaker in order to persuade President Assad to do what he will never do - make peace for peace and leave the Golan in Israeli hands?

Europeans will watch these developments with ever greater despair. Unable to find the courage to formulate a common foreign policy - their failure in Bosnia was there for every Arab and Israeli to see - the European Union will none the less not wish to join a crusade against Middle East "terror" or Islamic "fundamentalism".

If President Assad did not want peace, as one EU official observed in the Middle East, "what in heaven's name does the Israeli election say about the Israelis?"

The crucial difference between the relationship of Europe and America towards the Middle East is simple: for the Europeans, the Arab world and Israel are neighbours and they will always be neighbours. The United States will never be a neighbour. And Europe cannot afford to watch American- Israeli policy provoke insurrection across the Muslim world whose northern frontier lies along the southern rim of Europe.

The first, tentative signs of this European concern came last month, when France insisted on a role in the Israeli-Hizbollah ceasefire. Still- born though the truce inevitably turned out to be, President Jacques Chirac - who had just made promises of undying love towards France's former Lebanese mandate - sent his Foreign Minister, Herve de Charette, to Beirut, Damascus and Jerusalem to demand a peace. After the Israeli massacre of refugees at Qana, Mr Chirac called Mr Peres in Jerusalem and, when told he was in a cabinet meeting, demanded he be brought to the telephone to be told that his military adventure in Lebanon must end immediately.

These are only early, tentative signs of what could turn into a gradual but real European distancing from the American-Israeli policy in the Middle East.

The collapse of the "peace process" has only brought home the need to continue this dislocation. Further violence will cause EU ministers to discuss how, without criticising Washington, it can make counter-proposals for peace. That these should be based upon Security Council resolutions 242 and 338 - the basis of the Madrid 1991 peace conference, which called for the return of occupied land for peace - appears inevitable. But it will be a long time before any Likud government will contemplate such a return to basics - maybe as long as it will take Mr Arafat to realise he is finished.