The Palestinians need an end to occupation, not bogus statehood.

George Bush and Tony Blair's burst of enthusiasm for Palestine is a transparent attempt to stretch the sticking plaster of a Middle East settlement over the gaping wound of the Iraq crisis. The notion of "linkage" between the two regional conflicts, hotly denied during the first Gulf war, has now seemingly become official Anglo-American policy.

 

That would not be such a bad thing if the much-vaunted "road map", due to be unveiled by George Bush this week, were capable of leading to a real resolution of the Palestinian-Israeli crises. Instead, international Middle East peacemaking has effectively been forced to adopt the agenda of the Israeli right.

 

Its basic assumptions are as follows: the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not the primary source of insecurity in the area. Democracy, or rather the lack of it, is. So democratisation needs to come before any lasting peace. Since Arabs and Muslims are, as we know, largely immune to democratic contagion, a long-term transitional phase will be necessary. During that period, Israel must be ready to quell Palestinian national aspirations by force, while the Palestinians and other Arabs should be put through their democratic paces, until they prove worthy of whatever crumbs of freedom and independence can be proffered without real cost or inconvenience to Israel.

 

The centrepiece of the road map is Bush's "vision" of a Palestinian state. But the prize that such a state could represent for Palestinians has been completely devalued. The "state with provisional borders" envisaged in the road map is a purely Sharonist construct, one that Sharon himself has long proposed as part of his strategy of containing and ultimately bending the Palestinian national movement to his will.

 

Sharon's view of the Palestinian state - which he and Likudnik circles have sold to President Bush - is meant to relieve Israel of the international and domestic burden of occupation. Israel would remain free to dispose of the large bulk of the West Bank and Gaza as it sees fit, while the Palestinians would have to provide for the security of Israeli forces, settlers and settlements.

 

But the Palestinians have already had their provisional entity with provisional borders. It was called the Palestinian Authority, born out of the failed Oslo experiment. Statehood for the Palestinians was meant to end the conflict and bring deliverance from Israeli occupation and colonisation. Now we are asked to view the state as yet another provisional hoop through which we must jump in yet another transitional leap into the unknown, with no agreed out come and no clear picture of a final status settlement.

 

A state with "provisional borders" and severe limitations on its sovereign powers in the 40% of the West Bank envisaged by Sharon would be hemmed in by the constraints of state-like behaviour and the realities on the ground, including the ever-spreading settlements and the new "separation wall". Sharon's bet is that the "provisional borders" will ultimately become the final ones, no matter what the road map may suggest. Meanwhile, issues such as the future of Jerusalem's Arab quarters and Muslim holy sites, and the millions of Palestinian refugees, will be deferred indefinitely, with potentially explosive consequences for both the new state and the region as a whole.

 

The crushing weight of 36 years of occupation, in which thousands of Palestinians have been killed and hundreds of thousands detained, beaten and humiliated, where Israeli colonies have lacerated the countryside, and the naked power of Israeli military might has been exercised with little restraint over the past two years, has created a Palestinian sense of anger and despondency that cannot be addressed by the "vision" of an incomplete and cantonised "provisional" state.

 

For the vast majority of Palestinians such statehood will be all but meaningless. This may seem out of tune with official PA policy that has clutched at the road map as a political and diplomatic lifeline. But the PA leadership has little option but to applaud the road map while convinced that its fate will be no better than that of all its failed and incremental predecessors.

 

Before embarking on statehood, what we need is a final and irrevocable end to occupation and colonisation. Israeli troops and colonisers must withdraw from Palestinian soil. A serious international move would be based on providing a separation and protection force to keep both sides from each other's throats, introduced as the Israelis withdraw. Statehood can wait until we are free from occupation. In the meantime, anyone who believes that the road map and Bush's vision of Palestine are good enough cause to support the war on Iraq should think again.