Friday, 21 November 2014

Recognizing Palestine - anomalies and ambiguities

The interminable Israel-Palestine dispute is replete with paradoxes. 

At the most basic level, there is no doubt that Arab opinion as a whole resents the presence of the state of Israel in its midst.  Palestinians regard Israel’s Declaration of Independence in 1948 as a disaster, and mark it annually with their own Nakba Day (“Day of Catastrophe”).  Mahmoud Abbas, the President of the Palestinian Authority (the PA), leads a Fatah party whose charter states quite unequivocally that Palestine, with the boundaries that it had during the British Mandate – that is, before the existence of Israel – is an indivisible territorial unit and is the homeland of the Arab Palestinian people.  Each Palestinian, it declares, must be prepared for the armed struggle and be ready to sacrifice both wealth and life to win back his homeland.

A first glaring anomaly, therefore, is the fact that Abbas has spent the past ten years nominally supporting the “two-state solution”, and pressing for recognition of a sovereign Palestine within the boundaries that existed on 5 June 1967 – that is, on the day before the Six-Day War.  Given the founding beliefs of his party, this tactic – inherited from his predecessor, Yassir Arafat – obviously represents only the first stage in a strategy ultimately designed to gain control of the whole of Mandate Palestine, an objective explicit in what he says in the Arabic media, but which he never expresses in his statements to the world.

This underlying reality of the Israel-Palestine dispute explains why every attempt to negotiate a resolution has failed.  No Palestinian leader, whatever position he adopts to placate world opinion, dare sign up finally to a two-state solution, since to do so would be to concede that Israel has an acknowledged and legitimate place within Mandate Palestine – and that would instantly brand him a traitor to the Palestinian cause. 

This is why the plethora of dates strewn across the recent history of the Middle East mark well-intentioned, but ultimately doomed, efforts to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – the Madrid Conference in 1991, the Oslo Accords of 1993 and 1995, the Wye River Memorandum in 1998, the Camp David Summit in 2000, the Road Map for Peace in 2003, the Annapolis process in 2007, the Obama administration’s direct peace talks of September 2010 followed by its second, intensive effort, led by US Secretary of State John Kerry, over 2013-2014.

However close the Palestinian leadership may have reached over the years in negotiating a two-state solution – and some deals offered them virtually all they asked for – in the final analysis they always baulk at signing on the dotted line, because to do so would be to acknowledge Israel’s place, as of right, in Mandate Palestine, thus betraying the core principle they have inculcated into the Palestinian narrative.

As a matter of historical fact, all those abortive initiatives might have been superfluous. A sovereign Palestine could have been up and running alongside Israel some twenty-five years ago, before the PLO gained control of Palestinian policy.  For preceding them was the top-secret accord reached between Israel and Jordan in 1987, at a time when Jordan controlled the West Bank and East Jerusalem, having annexed them in 1950, and was in a position to negotiate a binding peace agreement. 

Top-secret at the time, today the deal is a matter of public record. Shimon Peres, then Israel’s foreign affairs minister, negotiated with King Hussein of Jordan what became known as the “London Agreement” − signed on 11 April 1987 during a secret meeting held at the residence of Lord Mishcon, a leading UK lawyer and a prominent member of the Jewish community. Also present were Jordan’s prime minister, Zaid al-Rifai, and the director general of Israel’s foreign affairs ministry, Yossi Beilin. When it was signed on behalf of Jordan and Israel, it can confidently be assumed that the terms of a comprehensive peace deal had been virtually agreed between them. 

The sting was in the tail of the document.  “The above understanding is subject to the approval of the respective governments of Israel and Jordan.”  With the king as signatory, the approval of the Jordanian government was a foregone conclusion.  The problem was that in 1987 Israel was ruled by a fragile and uncertain “national unity government” in which ministers were attempting – often unsuccessfully – to suppress diametrically opposite political beliefs in the interests of providing the nation with effective government.  The prime minister, Yitzhak Shamir, led the right-wing Likud party; Shimon Peres represented the left-wing Labor party in the cabinet.  Chalk and cheese.  Although Shamir permitted his foreign minister to undertake the secret negotiations and travel to London, he did not approve of the outcome, fearing that Israel would be forced into a solution that would be unacceptable to his party and prove divisive in the country.

Consequently he opposed the agreement, and Peres failed to get the cabinet’s endorsement. King Hussein, disappointed, disengaged from the peace process, and Yassir Arafat, then Chairman of the PLO, launched the first intifada in December 1987.  In July 1988 Hussein withdrew Jordan’s claim to sovereignty over the West Bank, and the course of the next quarter-century was set a course which saw the PA nominally engage in numerous attempts to reach a two-state solution, while ensuring that each and every attempt ended in failure.

It was before the conclusion of the latest futile attempt at peace negotiations, in April 2014, that Mahmoud Abbas decided on a new tactic. While never renouncing his nominal adherence to the two-state solution, he determined to by-pass peace negotiations in favour of seeking international recognition of the State of Palestine and international de-legitimization of the State of Israel.  So far he has not been unsuccessful.  During October 2014 not only was the State of Palestine formally recognized by 135 of the 193 UN member states, but Sweden became the first EU state officially to do so, while a non-binding vote in the British parliament recognized “the state of Palestine alongside the state of Israel, as a contribution to securing a negotiated two-state solution." The Spanish government did something similar last week, and the French government plans to do the same later in November.

Ambiguities lie at the heart of this profusion of recognitions.  First, do these well-meaning parliamentarians appreciate that a two-state solution cuts across core Palestinian beliefs?  Then, with well over a million Palestinians living in the Gaza strip, the “Palestine” that is being recognized should include Gaza. Although Abbas is heading what is nominally a “national unity government”, in fact Fatah and Hamas are at daggers drawn and his writ does not run in Gaza.  Hamas, which governs Gaza and could well emerge victorious in any future Palestinian elections, rejects the two-state solution and is intent on defeating and eliminating Israel through terror and armed conflict.  How do the well-meaning states intent on recognizing a State of Palestine “as a contribution to securing a negotiated two-state solution” square those particular circles?

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 23 November 2014:
http://www.jpost.com/Experts/Recognizing-Palestine-anomalies-and-ambiguities-382598
Published in the Eurasia Review, 23 November 2014:
http://www.eurasiareview.com/22112014-recognizing-palestine-anomalies-ambiguities-oped/

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