Bitterlemons down but need remains

The closure of well-known zine Bitterlemons, providing fresh perspectives on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, poses the question: is there is still a need for voices from the region and writers with expertise on the topic? To that, I would answer an emphatic “yes.”

Allison Good
31 August 2012

I cannot say that I am surprised by the decision of Bitterlemons founders and editors Yossi Alpher and Ghassan Khatib to halt production of their weekly online magazine. Established in 2001 - amid the Second Intifada and the breakdown of the Oslo Process - Bitterlemons was a crucial source of thoughtful analysis about the peace process for academics and politicos worldwide. Earlier this week, both Alpher and Khatib wrote that the conversation is no longer relevant, and for good reason.

Alpher cited “local fatigue” as his reason for shutting down the site, as “There is no peace process and no prospect of one.” According to Khatib, “we are … at the lowest point in the arc of the pendulum,” which is swinging towards a one-state solution. Almost twenty years after the signing of the Declaration of Principles, which provided for the establishment of an independent Palestinian state, “Palestinians and Israelis are barely conversational.” Recent headlines about Israeli settlers’ price tag attacks on Palestinian property, the Palestinian Authority’s increasing inability to govern, the exploding political influence of Israel’s religious right, and the total absence of a formal Israeli-Palestinian dialogue indicate that Khatib and Alpher are right – it’s time to stop harping on about a dead process that has no hope for a tangible solution.

The donors who made Bitterlemons possible may believe there is no need for a platform to host voices from the region, but this is an irrational conclusion. Bilateral talks have broken down, but the dialogue concerning several of the current issues at hand -which are more or less related to Oslo – must continue. Take the “war” over Area C in the West Bank, for example. This swathe of land encompasses 62 percent of the territory and houses most of the Israeli settlements as well as some 150,000 Palestinians. Though Israel’s total civilian and military control over Area C was designed to be temporary, the abandonment of the political process has turned it into a battleground.

As Israeli journalist Danny Rubinstein recently wrote, Area C not only “holds potential” for agricultural and minerals development, but also contains “vast expanses of vacant land” ripe for urban development and industrialization, as well as crucial water resources. This land is the crux for a sustainable Palestinian future. In July, however, the Israeli government ordered the demolition and evacuation of eight Palestinian villages in Area C to make room for an Israeli Defense Forces training ground. These demolitions have become routine in Area C, where it is nearly impossible for Palestinian residents to get permits for planning and building. Meanwhile, reports Al Jazeera, the numbers of both “legal” Israeli settlements and settlement outposts, which Israeli law deems illegal, are steadily increasing.

As there seems to be no political accountability in either Israel or the Palestinian territories for this kind of activity, or for the alleged financial abuses of the Oslo-created Palestinian Authority and a myriad of other controversies, we must count on voices from the region to provide us with non-partisan facts from the ground. Arab-Israeli conflict expert Jeremy Pressman agrees that this is a no-brainer. “Even with the end of Bitterlemons, voices from the region still exist and remain central to the emergence of a productive political pathway,” he said in an emailed statement on Tuesday.

Whether there is a need for academics with expertise on Oslo and the peace process, on the other hand, is a more difficult question to answer. There is, of course, a camp that maintains that Israelis and Palestinians are simply at an impasse, and for whom talking about the peace process is still relevant. In Washington, former State Department adviser Aaron David Miller, who has written extensively about Oslo process negotiations, told me that current apathy is just a phase. “The peace process will never die,” he said in an emailed statement this week. “What seems to have expired is the kind of leadership in Jerusalem, Ramallah and Washington willing and able to pay the price for an Israeli-Palestinian agreement.”  

Regardless of whether the peace process is dead or at a stalemate, there is still a void to be filled by scholars who know it backwards and forwards. The most glaring example is the gossip surrounding Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s willingness to get on the peacemaking track. After Netanyahu gave a speech in June 2009, in the beginning of his second term as premier, he publicly accepted the two-state solution for the first time. Subsequently, he tried to restart negotiations with the Palestinians, this time over a settlement building freeze. There was copious speculation that he was finally going to make a breakthrough at the expense of his right-wing Likud base, but those who studied the Oslo process were not surprised when these talks -- despite incentives from the White House reminiscent of the formal defense treaty President Clinton offered Netanyahu in 1998 in return for complying with Oslo -- ultimately failed.

As I wrote in July, looking at the Prime Minister’s records on the implementation of the Hebron Agreement in 1997 and the Wye River Memorandum in 1999 served as indicators that the super coalition he formed in May would not last. It was not a masterstroke, as portrayed by the media, but a complete mess. The unity government with Kadima never yielded a replacement of the unconstitutional Tal Law or a halt to settlement expansion, but rather the coalition dissolved as Netanyahu proved once again that he is a creature of habit when it comes to pleasing his constituency. The patterns and undercurrents of 2012 necessitate a complete and complex understanding of the events of the 1990s.

I personally believe that the peace process and the bilateral political process in general are dead, but this does not mean that talking and writing about the Oslo period and its aftermath should be seen as irrelevant. There is still a need for objectivity from the ground, and academics can use historical indicators from that period to predict tomorrow’s outcomes. Maybe one day, policymakers will also use them to avoid future mistakes. For now, unfortunately, that remains a pipedream.

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