Wednesday, 14 July 2010

Face-to-face talks – a problem or two

Improbable as it may have appeared over the past six months – given the succession of events that have tested the peace process almost to its limit – direct talks between the Palestinian Authority and Israel are becoming more likely by the day.

Following the visit of Israel's Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu to Washington last week, the US administration has, it appears, been putting PA President Mahmoud Abbas under intense pressure to agree to move from the proximity phase of the negotiations to face-to-face discussions. Abbas has been cautious about entering direct talks until now. Following a successful visit to Washington last month, though, the Palestinian President may now be more willing to enter direct talks, feeling greater confidence that US backing will mean this round of talks will produce results.

And indeed in Ramallah a few days ago Palestinian Authority officials said that direct talks with Israel were not ruled out, but that the PA was waiting for US special Middle East envoy George Mitchell – who is scheduled to return to the region shortly – to see if he has replies to a number of questions presented to him by the Palestinians. These include whether Israel would be willing to freeze construction in all West Bank settlements and in east Jerusalem, and to recognize the "4 June 1967 lines" as the future borders of a Palestinian state.

As for the settlement freeze, during his visit to Washington Netanyahu was asked repeatedly whether he would extend the 10-month building moratorium that expires on 26 September. All his responses indicated that he wanted this issue to be on the table as an element in direct negotiations, but that he did not intend to provide an unequivocal answer in advance.

The other substantive issue in the minds of PA President Abbas and his officials is whether the borders of the future sovereign state of Palestine – and therefore of the future Israel – are to be a return to the status quo on the day before the Six-Day War, which began on 5 June 1967.

The phrase "the line of 4 June 1967" has been part of the Arab-Israeli peace process lexicon for over five years. During a visit to Bahrain on 4 February 2010, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said: "we believe that the 1967 borders, with swaps, should be the focus of the negotiations over borders."

This was an error in terminology that she subsequently corrected. For the fact is that in 1967 there was no recognized international border between the West Bank and Israel. What existed was the 1949 Armistice Line – basically where Israeli and Arab forces found themselves at the formal end of Israel's first battle against the combined Arab armies that surrounded it.

On the Egyptian and Syrian fronts there had been a history of international boundaries between the British Mandate and its neighbours. But along the Jordanian front the armistice line was the position on the ground when the fighting stopped. In fact, Article II of the Armistice with Jordan explicitly specified that the agreement did not compromise any future territorial claims of the parties, since it had been "dictated exclusively by military considerations."

As Dr Dore Gold, the renowned expert on Middle East affairs, has pointed out, after the Six-Day War the architects of UN Security Council Resolution 242 insisted that the old armistice line had to be replaced with a new border. Thus US Ambassador at the time, Arthur Goldberg: "historically, there have never been secure or recognized boundaries in the area"; adding that the armistice lines did not answer that description.

"Which is why," Dr Gold writes, "Resolution 242 did not call for a full withdrawal from all the territories that Israel captured in the Six Day War; the 1949 Armistice lines were no longer to be a reference point for a future peace process."

President Lyndon Johnson made this very point in September 1968: "It is clear, however, that a return to the situation of 4 June 1967 will not bring peace. There must be secure and there must be recognized borders."

This issue, interesting historically though it is, is far from an insuperable difficulty to achieving a final PA-Israeli peace agreement. The Arab call for a return to the pre-Six Day War situation is as much an emotional attempt to erase the humiliation inflicted on the combined Arab forces at the time, as a requirement to be scrupulously observed. Although the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative refers to the 1967 lines, and the 2003 Road Map speaks of ending "the occupation that began in 1967," all sides acknowledge that a final agreement will incorporate land swaps aimed at ensuring secure borders for both Israel and the future Palestine.

When might the direct face-to-face talks begin? Chief PA negotiator Saeb Erekat has confirmed that President Obama has urged the PA to agree to direct negotiations, but said he was unaware of reports suggesting that they could commence by the end of this month (July). Other reports, also unconfirmed, have said that Obama wanted to kick off the talks at a trilateral meeting between him, Netanyahu and Abbas on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly meeting in New York in September.

Netanyahu is travelling to Sharm-el-Sheikh this week to discuss the question of direct talks with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. President Abbas is expected to meet with the Egyptian leader shortly afterwards. Abbas has made it clear that,just as occurred before the start of the proximity talks, he would require backing from the Arab League foreign ministers before agreeing to launch direct negotiations with Israel. The question of Arab League approval will doubtless feature high on the agenda in Netanyahu's meeting with President Mubarak.

So despite setbacks, obstacles, the odd problem or two, we continue to inch our way forward.

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