Sunday, 31 October 2010

October reviewed

Israeli-Palestinian peace talks in suspended animation

A strange and untoward calm descended on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process in the first week of October, and has persisted throughout the month. The appearance of inactivity, however, is deceptive. Much has been going on beneath the surface, and the results may become apparent quite soon in November.

To recapitulate: what might be termed this “October phase” dates back to the ending on 26 September of the 10-month freeze on construction in Israel’s West Bank settlements. This building moratorium was instituted by prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu in November 2009 as a confidence building measure, at the instigation of President Obama. The aim – to induce the Palestinian Authority to resume the peace negotiations broken off at the start of Israel’s Operation Cast Lead in Gaza.

And indeed, after a wearisome journey along a convoluted path, with many a twist and turn on the way, and only at the very end of August, PA President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu did finally attend the launch of direct face-to-face peace discussions. And there they both expressed complete confidence in their ability to reach an agreement within one year which would lead to peace and the establishment of a sovereign Palestine alongside Israel.

Aware that the building freeze was reaching its end, as 26 September approached Abbas declared that he would find it difficult to maintain the peace process unless it was renewed. Netanyahu found himself in precisely the contrary position. His government is a fragile coalition heavily dependent on right wing parties, especially Yisrael Beiteinu, and he faced political meltdown if he did not formally allow the building moratorium to end at its predestined time. What he could – and probably did – do, was assure the Palestinians that heavy restrictions would be placed on permissions to construct in the West Bank.

This was clearly not good enough, and at a meeting of the Arab League on 8 October, Abbas sought backing to abandon direct peace talks with Israel unless the building freeze was renewed. Following its meeting, the League announced that it supported Abbas's decision, but agreed to give the US one month to find a compromise which could save the talks, and said that they would reconvene early in November to discuss certain "alternatives" mooted by Abbas.

Senior Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat told Reuters that these “alternatives” included asking the United States “to recognize the state of Palestine on the 1967 borders", and studying the possibility of a similar UN recognition through a Security Council resolution.

These may not be mere empty words, although Erekat probably set out the possibilities in inverse order. It would be most unlikely for Washington suddenly to reverse its stance, however recalcitrant they might consider Netanyahu, and agree to a unilateral declaration of independence on the part of the Palestinian Authority. The United Nations is, however, another kettle of fish.

The first purpose of Erekat’s statement might have been to apply pressure on Israel to impose a new West Bank building freeze, which would allow Abbas to return to the negotiating table without losing face. And indeed, Netayahu did announce in a speech at the opening of the Knesset's winter session on 11 October that he would be prepared temporarily to renew the settlement moratorium on the West Bank – but his price for doing so was recognition by the Palestinian Authority of Israel as a Jewish state.

This threw an extra ball into the air, which Abbas promptly batted away. “The Palestinian Authority will never recognize Israel as a Jewish state,” said senior Palestinian Authority officials. Behind the Palestinians’ intransigence on this issue lies the complex matter of the “right of return” of Palestinians to the family homes they occupied before the founding of the state of Israel. The PA fear is that to acknowledge Israel as a Jewish state would in some way downgrade the rights of former Palestinian inhabitants. These rights would inevitably form an important element in any final peace accord. The fact of the matter, however, is that the “right of return” would probably be transmuted for those who cannot go back to their previous family residences into some form of financial compensation, or perhaps some guarantee of development aid. So like most issues that lie on the table, it is probably susceptible of a solution satisfactory to both sides, given only an easing of suspicion and a modicum of goodwill.

So it is in the United Nations that any bid for unilateral recognition of a sovereign Palestine might be made. The Palestinians would easily be able to secure a majority for recognition in the General Assembly, given the certain backing of non-aligned and Muslim states. But they need more than that. They need a totally assured and legally watertight allocation of territory based on the situation immediately prior to the Six-Day War which started on 5 June 1967. For that they would require a resolution from the UN Security Council, an outcome so unlikely, given the veto powers of the USA, as to be virtually impossible.

All the same, the Palestinians are pushing ahead with a campaign to be recognized internationally as a functioning state. Towards the end of October they approached the International Criminal Court at The Hague to urge recognition of the Palestinian Authority as the equivalent of a fully-fledged state government. Recognition by the international court would, as Middle East commentator Leslie Susser has pointed out, not only open a crack for the possible prosecution of Israeli civilian and military leaders, it also would hand the Palestinians a major PR victory in their quest for internationally recognized statehood. The Palestinians would be able to cite the court's recognition as legal backing for their case.

Meanwhile, at his weekly Cabinet meeting on 24 October, prime minister Netanyahu said: "We are in close contact with the American administration with the aim of restarting the peace process. Our aim is not only to renew the process, but to renew it in such a way that it won't collapse in a few weeks or in two months, but that we will go into a full year of serious negotiations on the core issues in an effort to reach a framework agreement on the way to a peace deal. Any attempt by the Palestinians to circumvent this process by going to international organizations,” he said, “is not realistic, and will not in any way advance a genuine peace process."

He is probably right, but the PA undoubtedly has the potential for putting a cat among the pigeons. Sympathy for the Palestinian cause is widespread. Should they make a unilateral bid for recognition in the UN General Assembly, many governments, possibly including the European Union, would support them, and even recognize their territory as contained within the pre-1967 “border” between Israel and Jordan. Given that scenario, and with Israel still in control of the occupied territories, all the ingredients for a major brouhaha would be in place.

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. Which is why UN Resolution 242 did not call for a full withdrawal from all the territories that Israel captured in the Six Day War; it recognised that 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."

If the Palestinians were to implement the unilateral option the current peace process, and the Oslo process on which it is based, would almost certainly be over. But in fact Israeli, Palestinian and US leaders all say publicly that a negotiated peace deal is much preferred to unilateral action that would almost certainly provoke a sharp response from the other side.

For now, however, Israel is focusing its efforts on putting direct Israeli-Palestinian peace talks back on track. Netanyahu's special envoy, Yitzhak Molcho, is currently in Washington working with his American counterparts on the details.

"Peace will only be achieved through direct negotiations," said Netanyahu last Sunday (25 October), "and I hope we will return to this avenue in full force very soon."

The question is whether the intense activity by the US and Israel aimed at putting the talks back on track will yield results before the month allowed by the Arab League has run out. November 8th is not too far away.

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