Wednesday, 17 March 2010

Groundhog Day for Israel-Palestine

This pattern, too, seems inevitable, invariable, inexorable. No sooner do the two sides in the seemingly everlasting Israeli-Palestinian struggle approach the possibility of negotiation, seem on the brink of agreement, than some form of extremist action from one side or the other, undertaken with the express purpose of derailing the process, succeeds in doing so. It's a dreary tale of hopes raised and hopes dashed, not once but time and time again.

And now, once again, events seem to be following the time-hallowed sequence. The present stand-off with the USA was no accident. It was a committee of Israel's Ministry of the Interior that sparked it off by announcing approval of a plan to erect 1,600 new homes in the East Jerusalem neighbourhood of Ramat Shlomo. The Interior Minister is Eli Yishai, leader of the religious Shas party, and he knew precisely what he was doing. I believe Benjamin Netanyahu – though many would not – when he says he did not know the announcement was about to be made. To me, this seems a classic case of the left hand not knowing what the (literally) right hand was doing.

The fact is that, within the context of a final peace settlement, the issue of Jerusalem is insoluble given Netanyahu's present shaky coalition, dependent as it is on extremist right-wing religious support.

But as I set out in the piece entitled "Jerusalem" (13 January) the answer to the Jerusalem issue is no mystery. It's staring us in the face. The ceding of East Jerusalem to a Palestinian sovereign state has long been included in the various peace plans that have come and gone over the years. It wasn’t all that long ago that Israeli Minister Ehud Barak said in an interview on Al-Jazeera TV: "We can find a formula under which certain neighbourhoods, heavily-populated Arab neighbourhoods, could become, in a peace agreement, part of the Palestinian capital that, of course, will include also the neighbouring villages around Jerusalem." And indeed, as prime minister in 2000, Barak led Israel's delegation at the Camp David peace talks, which included just such a vision.

It all depends on how you define "Jerusalem". The municipal boundaries of Jerusalem, which Israel lived with from 1948 to 1967, were radically redrawn after the Six Day War, and have been subject to a number of revisions since. A solution to the conundrum lies in redefining the boundaries one last time – and, in doing so, defining the boundaries of a new municipality, Al-Quds. An agreed redrawing of boundaries would indeed enable Israel to claim Jerusalem as its undivided capital, while the new sovereign Palestinian state would acquire its own sister capital, Al-Quds.

Such a solution does not seem a viable option, given the shape of the present Israeli government.

Another pattern may be repeating itself. The last time that Netanyahu headed a government his intransigence infuriated Bill Clinton and his White House aides. The subsequent deterioration in US-Israel relations was certainly one factor in "Bibi" (as he is known in Israel) losing the subsequent election. What mainly exasperated the Clinton administration was Netanyahu's foot-dragging over the Oslo accords, which he had opposed from start to finish.

Since then Netanyahu's previously firm stance on territorial concessions has certainly relaxed on a personal level. He has not only declared himself in favour of the two state solution, but he succeeded in establishing a ten-month freeze on West Bank (though not East Jerusalem) settlement construction. All the same, he is in hock to those in his cabinet with views as extreme and deeply-held on these issues as ever.

The present débacle has undoubtedly provided the Obama administration with an opportunity to brighten its image – somewhat tarnished since the President's Cairo speech last June – in the Arab world. The unprecedentedly harsh rebukes to Israel emanating from Washington in the past few days are likely to have boosted Arab confidence in America as an effective peace broker if, or when, the parties get to sit down together around a negotiating table.

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