Monday, 31 December 2012

An Israeli-Palestinian meeting of minds

We hear a great deal about the issues that separate Israel and the Palestinian Authority (PA). A question asked less often is: how much overlap is there between them?

If the vast range of opinion within the Israeli body politic were to be taken into account, the question would become meaningless. Within Israel one can find strands of political opinion well to the right of Ghengis Khan and well to the left of anything Mahmoud Abbas has yet articulated. The only practical approach is to assume that Israel’s position is that currently adopted by its democratically elected government − the government led by prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu. If opinion polls have any validity, this seems likely to remain the situation after the forthcoming general election.

The position of the PA must be taken as that publicly stated by its current President, Mahmoud Abbas, to non-Arab audiences. There is no denying that like his predecessor, Yasser Arafat, he has made directly contradictory statements for domestic consumption, and the gap between his two positions is wide indeed − so wide that he would face a problem in carrying Palestinian public opinion with him in any substantive peace negotiations. Nor is there much point in referring back to the founding charter of Fatah, Abbas’s party, where the ultimate objective is clearly the elimination of Israel. History has its place in the overall scheme of things, but politics is a game for the here and now.

It is equally of little value to place too much emphasis on the total rejectionism of Hamas, the extreme Islamist de facto government of the Gaza strip. The apparently irreconcilable split between Hamas and Fatah certainly weakens Abbas’s position on the world stage, but curiously it is also one of the factors binding the PA and Israel together. Both parties would like nothing better than to see the PA re-establish its authority in Gaza, although neither is prepared to do very much about it. Cooperation has so far been confined to countering attempts by Hamas to gain a foothold in the West Bank. To go further would involve Abbas in a damaging loss of credibility with the Palestinian man-in-the-street. Indeed, he pays lip service to the concept of a reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas, but the two are chalk and cheese as regards an acceptable strategy towards Israel. Hamas refuses to recognise Israel’s right to exist; Abbas has taken to asserting it.

It is an undoubted fact that both Israel and the PA are publicly committed to the two-state solution. Netanyahu declared his support for the concept in a speech at Bar-Ilan University in 2009, as well as when he addressed the US Congress in May 2011. He reiterated his position in a letter he sent to Mahmoud Abbas a year later, following the establishment of his national unity government.

Speaking to the joint meeting of the US Congress, Netanyahu said:

“Two years ago, I publicly committed to a solution of two states for two peoples − a Palestinian state alongside the Jewish state. I am willing to make painful compromises to achieve this historic peace. This is not easy for me. I recognize that we will be required to give up parts of the Jewish homeland in Judea and Samaria. The Jewish people are not foreign occupiers. This is the land of our forefathers, the Land of Israel, to which Abraham brought the idea of one God. No distortion of history can deny the four thousand year old bond between the Jewish people and the Jewish land. But there is another truth: The Palestinians share this small land with us. We seek a peace in which they will be neither Israel's subjects nor its citizens. They should enjoy a national life of dignity as a free, viable and independent people in their own state.”

For his part, Abbas was widely quoted following his interview on Israeli TV in November 2012: “Palestine for me is the 1967 borders with East Jerusalem as the capital…the West Bank and Gaza is Palestine, everything else is Israel.”

Before the end of the month, he was addressing the UN General Assembly, asking for Palestine to be recognised as a non-member state. He said: “We did not come here seeking to delegitimize a state established years ago, and that is Israel; rather we came to affirm the legitimacy of the state that must now achieve its independence, and that is Palestine. We will accept no less than the independence of the State of Palestine, with East Jerusalem as its capital, on all the Palestinian territory occupied in 1967, to live in peace and security alongside the State of Israel, and a solution for the refugee issue as per the operative part of the Arab Peace Initiative.”

The differences between the stated positions of Israel and the PA seem paper thin. Why then has the peace process been in the deep-freeze for so long? Perhaps because both leaders are well aware that peace is a dangerous game, and that there are lunatic extremists in both camps. After all, each has a chilling reminder of predecessors who moved too far or too fast. It would require exceptional courage on the Palestinian side to stand up and do what the late president of Egypt, Anwar Saddat, did – to say 'It’s over, enough with the bloodshed.' And no doubt Netanyahu also has the fate of his predecessor as Israeli Prime Minister, Yitzhak Rabin, in mind from time to time. So, yes, caution is to be commended, but caution to the point of immobility has brought us to the present impasse.

Paralysis of the peace process may suit the leadership of both parties, but opinion polls reveal that the majority of Israelis and Palestinians favour an end to the conflict and the chance to live in peace, side by side. The result of two parallel polls released this morning indicate that two-thirds of Israelis would support a peace agreement with the Palestinians, if a referendum on such an accord were held by Israel's government.
There is the true meeting of minds.

Published in the on-line Jerusalem Post magazine, 31 December 2012:

Monday, 24 December 2012

The UK and Israel in 2013

Israelis tend to regard the UK − or “Anglia” as they persist in calling it in Hebrew (a politically incorrect term in the UK these days to describe the nation) − with a jaundiced eye, for historically the relationship between Britain and Israel has been bitter-sweet.

For some the bitterness outweighs the sweetness: Britain’s failure to fulfil its League of Nation’s mandate to establish a Jewish National Home in the inter-war years, its failure to affect the course of the Holocaust as it progressed, even to the extent of refusing to bomb the Auschwitz crematoria, its heartless treatment of Jewish refugees seeking to enter Palestine after the war.

Some take a kinder view. They recall that Britain, a global super-power in 1917, was first to acknowledge the Jewish people’s historic connection to the Holy Land, and to declare to the world that it was in favour of establishing a national home for them in Palestine. They remember Lord Allenby for his conquest of Palestine and his capture of Jerusalem, and also, with affection, the Christian Zionist General Orde Wingate, a founder of the Israel Defense Forces, known to the Jewish troops he commanded as “The Friend”. They remember the “kindertransport” − the rescue mission during the nine months prior to the outbreak of the Second World War, when the UK took in nearly 10,000 Jewish children fleeing Nazi Germany.

The problem with Britain’s relationship with the Zionist movement, and later with Israel, has always been Britain’s need, in its own self-interest as it saw it, to maintain good relations also with as much of the Arab world as possible – and especially with the oil-rich Arab states. The resultant balancing act has led to many a wobble.

What are Israel’s prospects for a strong supportive UK in 2013?

Judging by remarks made by Britain’s prime minister, David Cameron, earlier this month, they are − with just a few reservations − excellent. To deal with the reservations: Britain’s primary need in 2013 will be to trade its way out of recession, and this may well lead to stronger economic ties with a range of Middle Eastern states. For example, only last week Britain announced a multi-billion pound defence deal with Oman; other such deals are in the offing as Gulf states become increasingly nervous about Iranian ambitions and the rise of extreme Islamism on the back of the Arab Spring. As regards the Arab Spring, the UK seems as hypnotised as the USA with the idea that somehow democracy will leap, fully-fledged, from the flames of revolution. That the white-heat of rebellion might result in the accession of extremist Islamist governments – like the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt − is, for the moment at least, largely discounted.

The good news is to learn that the UK’s prime minister said – as he did on 11 December − “I’m not an acquaintance of Israel. I’m not a colleague of Israel. I am a passionate friend of Israel – and that’s the way it’s going to stay.”

David Cameron was unrestrained in his admiration for Israeli achievement in a whole variety of fields.

“Israel is growing faster than Russia – and almost twice as fast as Brazil. It’s got more start-up businesses per head than any other country. The big question is: how do they do it? Yes, it’s about Israel getting its debts down, investing in education, signing free trade agreements, but it’s more than that – it’s about the aspiration and drive of its people. These are people who have innovated around every problem that life has thrown at them. The land is dry - so they come up with new water technology. There’s little oil – so they find other energy alternatives. So we want to work much more closely with Israel – on innovation, on technology.”

It seems, therefore, that in 2013 Britain will be seeking ever closer ties with Israel in terms of trade and of scientific and technical innovation. As an earnest of that intention, Cameron announced the appointment of the UK’s first technology envoy to Israel, Saul Klein − someone, he said. “with huge experience in early-stage investment.”

Turning to the search for peace between Israel and the Palestinians, Cameron believes that the only way to secure long term peace and security is the two-state solution.

“To me it is clear what needs to happen. We need the US administration to give this priority. We need Europe to act even-handedly. We need the Palestinians to understand there is only one path to statehood, and that is through negotiations with Israel. We made that clear with that UN vote a couple of weeks ago. We said that Britain could not support a resolution that set back the prospects for peace and that did not commit the Palestinians to return to negotiations without preconditions. So we did not vote for it.”

On the other hand, it might be observed, the UK did not vote against it, either. Balancing, as ever, on the wobbly high wire, the UK abstained.

On Iran, Cameron believes that the regime must be prevented from acquiring nuclear weapons, but that the policy of sanctions is working, that the Tehran régime is cracking. Nevertheless, he said : “if Iran makes the wrong choice, nothing – and I mean nothing - is off the table.” 2013 might be the crunch year for military action.

Cameron concluded: “I look forward to the day when the relationship between Britain and Israel is about prosperity more than about security, to the day when the Jewish people can see the future not with uncertainty but with hope, and as a friend of Israel I will work with you till that day comes.”

Not a bad prospect for UK-Israeli relations.

Published in the on-line Jerusalem Post magazine, 26 December 2012:

Monday, 17 December 2012

The Arab Peace Plan - not quite clinically dead

At the end of November the London-based Arab daily, Al-Sharq il-Awsat, reported that the king of Saudi Arabia, King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz, following complicated back surgery, was clinically dead. So far, the story has not been confirmed − and one might hope that reports of the king's death are greatly exaggerated and that he is making a good recovery − but mention of Abdullah inevitably brings to mind that he was the instigator of one of the most surprising episodes in the long-drawn-out Arab-Israeli dispute.

A summit conference of the Arab League had been arranged for March 2002 in Beirut. At that time Abdullah was Saudi’s Crown Prince, although he had been effectively ruling the kingdom on behalf of his ailing father, King Fahd, since 1996. On the 20th of March, a few days ahead of the summit, he electrified the assembled Arab foreign ministers by floating a peace plan for Palestine-Israel.

Basically, he called for peace with Israel in return for Israel withdrawing from all territories captured in the 1967 war. There was a significant condition: a "just settlement" of the Palestinian refugee crisis based on UN Resolution 194 (a sort of "right of return" or, for those who do not want to go back, agreed compensation). However, Abdullah did not specify whether refugees, now perhaps including third or fourth generation descendants of those who left the region in 1948, were to be "returned" to Israel or to the Palestinian state that would be created. The plan was discussed for a week, amendments were incorporated (notably a clause which prevented the 350,000 or more Palestinians living in Lebanon claiming Lebanese citizenship), and it was adopted on the 28th of March 2002. The Arab League has since readopted the Initiative on several occasions, notably at the Riyadh summit in 2007.

The quid pro quo for Israel’s agreement to the plan would be that all 22 Arab States would consider the Arab–Israeli conflict over, sign a peace agreement and establish normal relations with Israel.

Israel has never made an official response to the proposals, but reactions have divided as might be expected between right- and left-wing political opinion. Following the Riyadh summit, Benjamin Netanyahu, then leader of the opposition, rejected the plan outright; previous prime minister Ehud Olmert expressed reservations, but welcomed the initiative as a "new way of thinking. The willingness to recognize Israel as an established fact,” he said, “and to debate the conditions of the future solution, is a step that I can't help but appreciate."

Perhaps the median view was set out by Israel's president, Shimon Peres. He applauded the "U-turn" in the Arab attitude towards peace with Israel as reflected in the Saudi initiative, though "Israel wasn't a partner to the wording … it doesn't have to agree to every word."

In March 2009, shortly after President Obama took office for the first time, and optimism was the order of the day, George Mitchell, the US special envoy to the Middle East, announced that the new administration intended to "incorporate" the Saudi initiative into its Middle East policy. That intention has never been clarified, and if it has indeed been implemented, it has been done without much of a fanfare.

Now we learn that Palestine Authority President Mahmoud Abbas is urging the Arab League not to withdraw its 2002 peace plan, since he himself is planning to call for renewed negotiations with Israel for six months, on condition that Israel freezes construction in West Bank settlements and east Jerusalem during that time. How he intends to reconcile this initiative with his other stated intention to seek a reconciliation with Hamas, the de facto government in the Gaza strip, he does not specify. In fact it is a circle that is impossible to square. As Hamas’s leader, Khaled Mashaal, made perfectly clear during his visit to Gaza, the destruction of Israel remains his goal. Negotiations, peace initiatives, recognition of Israel − all are anathema to Mashaal and the terrorist organisation he leads.

Abbas cannot both run with the hare and hunt with the hounds. His apparent attempt to do so leads to the inevitable conclusion that this is yet another of his moves calculated to generate favorable world media attention, but actually designed to circumvent any genuine effort to reach an accommodation with Israel.

The Arab Spring was initially seen by the West as the Arab masses clamouring for democracy and throwing off the shackles of dictatorship. The reality has proved rather different. Jihadists and other Islamist extremists like the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) have used the various national rebellions to stir the pot of disaffection and advance their particular cause. The MB, still holding the reins of power in Egypt, is at one with its progeny, Hamas, in its basic objective regarding Israel – namely it seeks Israel’s ultimate elimination. It is perhaps significant that while the advance text of Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi’s address to the United Nations on September 26, included an endorsement of the Arab peace plan − that section was omitted from his speech. Instead he simply endorsed Palestinian statehood without stating whether his vision would accommodate Israel or not.

And yet, if there is a pinprick of light in the dark tunnel in which Israeli-Arab relations now find themselves, it is perhaps Abdullah’s bold initiative in 2002 − for audacious, even its greatest detractors must allow it to have been. The fact that it is still referred to, by friend and foe alike, proves that it is not yet totally dead in the water.

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line magazine, 17 December 2012:

Sunday, 9 December 2012

Construction in the West Bank - how illegal is it?

World opinion, led by the Obama administration, is in no doubt.

“These activities set back the cause of a negotiated peace,” was US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s immediate reaction when the Israeli government authorised the construction of 3000 new homes in East Jerusalem and the West Bank, following the Palestinians winning their bid in the UN General Assembly to become a "non-member observer state".

She did not use the world “illegal”, but Britain’s foreign secretary, William Hague, was less inhibited in his condemnation.

"I am extremely concerned by reports that the Israeli cabinet plans to approve the building of 3,000 new housing units in illegal settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Israeli settlements are illegal under international law... The UK strongly advises the Israeli government to reverse this decision.”

Hague summoned to the Foreign Office Israel’s ambassador to the UK, Daniel Taub, to convey the government’s displeasure in person. Hague’s move in calling in the Israeli ambassador was followed by France and Sweden. Australia and Brazil followed suit.

That the West Bank and Gaza are Palestinian land, that Israel has no legal right to any of it, and that all settlements built on land that Israel did not occupy before the 1967 war, including east Jerusalem, are illegal in international law − all this is now taken for granted by a kind of generalised world consensus. On its website the BBC, obligated by its Charter to impartiality, sets out the case both for and, in somewhat mealy-mouthed fashion, against:

“It is widely accepted that under international law, the Jewish settlements in the territories occupied by Israel in 1967 are illegal. Article 49 of the Fourth Geneva Convention relative to the protection of civilian persons in time of war states: ‘The occupying power shall not deport or transfer parts of its own population into the territories it occupies.’ Within the international community the overwhelming view is that Article 49 is applicable to the occupation of the West Bank including East Jerusalem, the Gaza Strip and the Golan Heights…Israel is a party to the Geneva Conventions, and bound by its obligations.

“But its government argues that the international conventions relating to occupied land do not apply to the Palestinian territories because they were not under the legitimate sovereignty of any state in the first place… Israel therefore denies the formal, de jure, applicability of the 4th Geneva Convention in the occupied territories.”

As for these territories belonging to the Palestinians, Israel would argue that no Palestinian state existed in 1967, nor does it today, despite the recent UN General Assembly vote. What does exist are the Oslo Accords, negotiated between Israel and the Palestinian National Authority (PA) as the “sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people”. Under the Accords the issue of settlements was to be decided in the permanent status negotiations. None of the agreements signed between the parties contain any limitation on building by the parties in the areas under their respective jurisdictions.

One legal opinion holds that while Article 49 of the Fourth Geneva Convention prohibits "individual or mass forcible transfers" of civilians, this has not happened, and is not happening, in the territories under Israeli administration. Further, under Article 49 the Occupying Power is obliged not to "deport or transfer parts of its own civilian population" to territories under its control, and that there has been no such active or forcible deportation or transfer of Israeli civilians. On the other hand, it is opined, Article 49 does not oblige Israel to prevent voluntary settlement by its civilian population.

More broadly, the case has been made by international lawyers that Judea and Samaria legally belong to Israel and the Jewish people under international law. Professor Talia Einhorn, for example, is on the record as saying that Judea, Samaria and the Gaza Strip are all incorrectly categorized by the world community as “occupied,” because prior to Israel’s liberation of those areas in 1967 no sovereign power legally controlled them, while the original Mandate for Palestine − never revoked and still valid − designated those areas as part of the Jewish national home.

“From the standpoint of international law,” says Einhorn, “there is no essential difference between the areas on the two sides of the Green Line.” The last legally binding document to be adopted regarding the areas in question, she says, remains the 1920 San Remo resolution, which deeds full sovereignty to the Jewish people.

It has also been pointed out that Article 80 of the United Nations Charter, by recognizing the continuing validity of rights granted to all states or peoples under already existing international instruments, including those adopted by the League of Nations, protects Article 5 of the Mandate ("The Mandatory shall be responsible for seeing that no Palestine territory shall be ceded or leased to, or in any way placed under the control of, the Government of any foreign Power."}

It is time for a clear ruling, one way or the other. Either construction in the occupied areas under Israel’s jurisdiction is illegal, or Israel’s position on Article 49 of the Geneva Convention is valid. Where can an authoritative legal opinion be sought?

The International Court of Justice (ICJ), established under the UN charter, is composed of fifteen judges, each from a different nation. One of its main functions is to provide advisory opinions on legal questions. To clear the fog of confusion that surrounds this issue, there is surely a case for Israel applying to the ICJ for an opinion on whether the provisions of the Mandate survived the demise of the League of Nations, and on the legality or otherwise of its construction policies in the occupied territories.

Published in the on-line Jerusalem Post magazine, 11 December 2012: