Wednesday, 17 February 2010

Why are we waiting?

And still we wait.

It was on 29 January that I first reported on the emergence of the idea of "proximity talks" as a possible second-best approach to renewing negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority (see "The Kissinger Touch"). Broken off in December 2008, and delayed for one reason or another throughout the following year, George Mitchell's reappearance on the Middle East scene brought with it the prospect of a resumption of the stalled face-to-face negotiations.

But Mahmoud Abbas, the PA president, has been reluctant to risk the outright hostility of Palestinian public opinion and resume the discussions without the substantial concession by Israel of a complete freeze on all construction work in Israeli settlements on the West Bank, and also in East Jerusalem. This was a requirement laid down by President Obama shortly after he assumed office, and it was repeated by his Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, soon afterwards.

Since then Israel's prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, has come out openly in favour of the two state solution, and last November ordered a 10-month freeze on all settlement building in the West Bank. Although these concessions were welcomed by the US administration as steps in the right direction, they were not sufficient to induce Abbas back to the negotiating table.

And on Monday, to strengthen Abbas's hand, Hillary Clinton positively refuted the idea that the US had reneged on its demand for Israel to halt activity in West Bank settlements.

"Our position," she told the TV station Al Jazeera, "is that settlement activity is illegitimate, and that the final resolution of borders has to be worked out that will give both sides, the Israelis and the Palestinians, the secure borders that they deserve to have. It will be based, as I have said many times, on the 1967 lines, with the agreed swaps, and taking into account subsequent developments. Those are the very clear parameters that the United States believes that the parties should negotiate over."

The statement was intended to strengthen Abbas's hand in re-opening discussions, but there is more than sufficient wriggle-room in that statement to fill many months of hard negotiating between the two sides. She says that the final resolution will be "based on the 1967 lines". In other words, the position when the ceasefire agreement was signed after the Six Day War will be the starting, not the finishing, point for settling final borders. But the Arab League peace plan of 2002, for example, requires Israel to withdraw from all territories captured in the 1967 war.

"…and taking into account subsequent developments" could mean anything, but certainly implies some hard bargaining along the line.

By referring to "the agreed swaps", Clinton implies that these are agreed and understood by all parties. Exchanges of territory between the two sides as part of a final agreement have certainly been postulated – notably in the non-governmental and controversial Geneva Accord – but they have never been endorsed by either party.

There have been five major – and a clutch of minor – peace plans over the years.

The Oslo Accords, signed in 1993 in the presence of Yasser Arafat, Yitzhak Rabin and President Clinton, were not much more than a framework for future negotiations. They would have established a Palestinian National Authority and required the Israel Defense Forces to leave Gaza and parts of the West Bank, but they left the big questions like future borders to be settled later.

The exact terms of the 2000 Camp David Summit proposals have never been formally published, but the Israeli prime minister, Ehud Barak, is purported to have offered Yasser Arafat approximately 95% of the West Bank and the entire Gaza Strip, as well as Palestinian sovereignty over East Jerusalem, provided 69 Jewish settlements were ceded to Israel. The offer, however, according to some versions, included indefinite "temporary Israeli control" over another 10% of the West Bank which includes many of the remaining Jewish settlements. Arafat rejected this offer and made no counter-proposals.

The "Road Map" of July 2002, endorsed by the "quartet" of the United States, the European Union, the United Nations, and Russia, outlined a step-by-step approach to a settlement of the dispute, but made no specific proposals about borders or the exchange of territory.

The Arab League peace plan requires a return to the pre-1967 war borders. There is no reference to a swap of territory.

The "Geneva Accord", formally launched on 1 December 2003, is not an official, but a private initiative headed on the Palestinian side by former Palestinian minister of information, Yasser Abed Rabbo, and on the Israeli by Yossi Beilin, former justice minister. The on-going talks are funded in part by the Swiss government. The Accord
does indicate a proposed border incorporating modifications to the 1967 line. In particular, the Temple Mount on which stand the Al Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock, would come under Palestinian sovereignty; an international religious authority would control the major religious sites in the Old City of Jerusalem, while the Jewish Quarter, Jewish neighbourhoods in East Jerusalem and two settlements (Gush Etzion and Ma'ale Edumin) would fall under Israeli sovereignty.

Meanwhile Abbas is still sitting on his hands, calling for "clarification" from Washington about the suggested proximity talks. He may be hoping for political cover from other Arab states before re-engaging with the peace process. But even if he agrees to participate in the suggested proximity talks without that cover, explicit Arab political support will be essential when, and if, it comes to making the concessions necessary to reaching a deal.

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