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A specter is haunting the Middle East: the specter of “democratic occupation.”

Neve Gordon

Abbas and Sharon shake on the latest peace agreement.

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It is not surprising that, following the Sharm El-Sheikh summit on Feb. 8, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas used almost the same language to announce a cessation of hostilities between the two peoples. Reading from a prewritten script, they both stated that the Palestinians would stop all acts of violence against Israelis, while Israel would cease all military activity against Palestinians. The director of the show was not Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, the host of the event, but newly appointed U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. To be sure, neither Rice nor any other American was present at the summit, but the Bush administration’s spirit was ubiquitous. 

Many reporters and analysts applauded the meeting, claiming that it will pave the way for a resumption of dialogue and cooperation. They seemed to suggest that Israelis and Palestinians are on the doorstep of a new era. All of this begs the question: Will the Bush administration manage to stop the seemingly endless cycle of violence and rekindle the so-called Israeli-Palestinian peace process?

The answer is a resounding yes — on the condition, of course, that one believes in magic. 

President George W. Bush would have to succeed in casting at least one of two spells in order to create fertile ground for negotiations. He would need to charm Abbas into renouncing the three most essential demands that have informed the Palestinian struggle since the late 80s: Israel’s full withdrawal to the 1967 borders, the establishment of a Palestinian capital in East Jerusalem and the recognition of the rights of Palestinian refugees. Or alternatively, Bush would have to enchant Sharon and get him to abandon his plan of creating Palestinian Bantustans in the Gaza Strip and in approximately 50 percent of the West Bank, with no Palestinian right of return and no sovereignty over any part of Jerusalem.

But even if Abbas were to fall prey to the spell, his renunciation would be worthless, because the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not a clash of civilizations, despite the ongoing attempt of the mainstream media to present it as such. Instead, it’s a struggle between two unequal rivals over land, self-determination and basic human rights. And basic human rights are not a commodity that a leader can easily bargain with or exchange.

It is also difficult to imagine Sharon being so enthralled that he would actually change his position. After all, he was the proponent of the Jordan is Palestine solution” for many years and currently considers a withdrawal from Gaza and parts of the West Bank as a major concession. 

But if the magic won’t work, then how is the Bush administration planning to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? Why is Secretary Rice so optimistic? 

The answer lies in Iraq and Afghanistan, where a unique Middle Eastern model is being enforced. Bush and his aides have managed to resurrect a distinct political practice rarely used in the history of humankind, and for this at least, they deserve credit. For lack of a better term, one could call this practice democratic occupation,” a neologism recently formulated by former Israeli Knesset member Tamar Gozansky. The strategy is straightforward: gaining and maintaining control of the land, while bestowing a democratic face on the occupation. 

Even though Western commentators praised the elections that were recently carried out in Iraq, Afghanistan and the occupied Palestinian territories, the correspondents seemed to have overlooked the essential fact that popular power and authority don’t rest with the people in any of these entities, even after the elections. If, for example, a referendum were carried out in any of these regions asking the residents whether they wanted the foreign troops to leave, imagine how many would answer positively. But would the forces actually leave these ostensibly democratic areas? 

Another way of testing these democracies is to ask a series of forthright questions: Will the newly elected Iraqi parliament really rule the country? Does President Hamid Karzai control Afghanistan? And who is in command of the occupied Palestinian territories — Mahmoud Abbas? 

Considering that the Bush administration is unwilling to pressure Israel to dismantle all of its settlements and to respect its recognized international borders — the necessary conditions for true negotiations between the two parties — it seems that the Sharm El-Sheikh summit was convened because the administration wants to replicate the democratic occupation” model in the Israeli-Palestinian context. 

This is not to say that Bush lacks talent as a magician. Indeed, since the true goal of his administration is to control and dominate the Middle East, the fact that he has managed to convince the majority of Americans that he is promoting freedom and democracy in the region is no less than fantastic.

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Neve Gordon teaches in the Department of Politics and Government, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, in Israel. One can read about his most recent book, Israel’s Occupation, and more at www​.israel​soc​cu​pa​tion​.info.
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