Saturday, 9 October 2010

Palestinian sovereignty hangs by a thread

A sovereign state of Palestine – the prize is too great to be cast aside in a fit of pique, or recklessly, or without cool hard-headed deliberation. Those must be the sorts of consideration underlying the conclusions of the Arab League last Friday (8 October).

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas had arrived in Libya the day before. His intention: to seek Arab League backing to abandon direct peace talks with Israel unless Israel’s temporary freeze on construction in West Bank settlements 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. League representatives added that they were hopeful the US would continue to pressure Israel to agree to a renewal of the construction moratorium. In addition Arab foreign ministers, hoping to head off a collapse of the talks launched by US President Barack Obama just five weeks ago, said they would reconvene in a month to discuss "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.

"I cannot specify all the alternatives that were presented by President Abbas,” said Erekat, “but the president will keep working with the American administration to achieve a full cessation of settlement activities in order to restart talks."

So the League’s statement spelled yet another reprieve for a Middle East peace process that Obama has made a centrepiece of US foreign policy. Washington welcomed it.

"We appreciate the Arab League's statement of support for our efforts to create conditions that will allow direct talks to move forward," said Philip J Crowley, assistant US secretary of state for public affairs. "We will continue to work with the parties, and all our international partners, to advance negotiations toward a two-state solution and encourage the parties to take constructive actions toward that end.”

In the days leading up to the League meeting there had been well-documented reports of a hitherto unprecedented US offer to Israel of a host of assurances, in return for a 60-day extension of the freeze on building in West Bank settlements. According to the reports President Obama pledged that, inter alia, the US would not ask for additional extensions on the partial ban on settlement building; would commit to using the US veto to prevent UN recognition of a unilaterally declared Palestinian state, should the peace talks fail; accept Israel’s security needs as defined by the Netanyahu government (code for a long-term Israeli military presence in the Jordan Valley); and sell Israel a second squadron of state-of-the-art stealth F-35 fighters and space cooperation, including access to US satellite early warning systems.

The US offer followed intensive negotiations in Washington between Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak and an American team led by veteran Middle East adviser Dennis Ross, with the aim of keeping alive the direct Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. The idea was to include the offer in a letter from President Obama to Netanyahu, in an attempt to persuade him and pro-settlement members of his government to go along with a new temporary freeze. There is some evidence that Netanyahu is in favour of clinching the deal. But it is not up to Netanyahu alone. He needs the approval of his 29-member Cabinet, or at least his 15-member Security Cabinet, and he does not have enough votes yet in those bodies.

As distinguished Middle East commentator, Leslie Susser, points out in a recent article, if Netanyahu were to lose the support of the hard-line right-wing parties that form part of his coalition – Yisrael Beiteinu, Shas, Torah Judaism, Habayit Hayehudi and Likud – the prime minister would have the support of fewer than 40 members of the 120-member Knesset. Netanyahu’s greatest political fear, says Susser, is of a repeat of 1999, when after making concessions to the Palestinians at Wye Plantation, he lost his right-wing political support base and was roundly defeated by Barak in the ensuing election.

So there appears to be a temporary stalemate.

Word has, however, emerged from Israel of the possible basis for some sort of compromise between the prime minister and his main hard-line minister, Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, leader of the Yisrael Beiteinu party. The World Jewish Congress recently reported that Netanyahu has given his backing to a proposal which would require any non-Jew taking Israeli citizenship to swear allegiance to Israel as a "Jewish and democratic state". The current oath simply reads: “I declare that I will be a loyal citizen to the State of Israel, and I obligate myself to respect its laws.” The proposal has angered Israel's Arab minority, which makes up a fifth of Israel's population. The new law would mainly apply to Palestinians married to Israelis who seek citizenship on the basis of family reunification, to foreign workers, and to a few other special cases.

The Cabinet is expected to back the proposal, and it then goes before the Knesset, the Israeli parliament. The proposed wording of the oath of allegiance is: "I swear that I will be a loyal citizen to the state of Israel, as a Jewish and democratic state, and will uphold its laws." Lieberman’s party made the oath the centrepiece of its campaign in the 2009 election, which eventually led to it becoming the second largest member of the governing coalition after Likud.

Ministers of the Labour Party, who oppose the bill, said that if it went through, they expected a new freeze on settlement building in the West Bank to follow as a quid pro quo.

"I hope that Mr Netanyahu's support is a payoff to Mr Lieberman,” reported an Israeli newspaper, quoting an unnamed minister, “so that the prime minister will be able to extend the freeze without breaking apart his coalition."

Both Netanyahu and Yisrael Beitenu, however, have denied any deal involving an extension of the partial settlement freeze on Jewish settlements in the West Bank.

As the BBC website reports, the loyalty oath issue has fragmented the Israeli press. It is likely to become an issue of the most intense controversy within Israel. Whatever the rights and wrongs of attempting to introduce it at present, one underlying aspect is undeniable – the status of Israel as the sovereign state of the Jewish people. On that point, the Preamble to Israel’s Declaration of Independence*, signed on Friday 14 May 1948, is unequivocal.

*Preamble to Israel’s Declaration of Independence
The Land of Israel was the birthplace of the Jewish people. Here their spiritual, religious and national identity was formed. Here they achieved independence and created a culture of national and universal significance. Here they wrote and gave the Bible to the world. Exiled from their land, the Jewish people remained faithful to it in all the countries of their dispersion, never ceasing to pray and hope for their return and for the restoration in it of their national freedom. Impelled by this historic association, Jews strove in every successive generation to re-establish themselves in their ancient homeland. In recent decades they returned in masses…

In 1897, at the summons of the spiritual father of the Jewish State, Theodore Herzl, the First Zionist Congress convened and proclaimed the right of the Jewish people to national rebirth in its own country. This right was recognized in the Balfour Declaration of the 2nd November, 1917, and re-affirmed in the Mandate of the League of Nations which, in particular, gave explicit international recognition to the historic connection between the Jewish people and the Land of Israel and to the right of the Jewish people to rebuild its National Home.

The Nazi holocaust, which engulfed millions of Jews in Europe, was another clear demonstration of the urgency of the re-establishment in the Land of Israel of the Jewish State, which would open the gates of the homeland wide to every Jew and confer upon the Jewish people the status of a fully privileged member of the comity of nations.

On November 29, 1947, the General Assembly of the United Nations adopted a Resolution calling for the establishment of an independent Jewish State in the Land of Israel, and called upon the inhabitants of the country to take such steps as may be necessary on their part to put the plan into effect. This recognition by the United Nations of the right of the Jewish people to establish their independent State is irrevocable. This right is the natural right of the Jewish people to be masters of their own fate, like all other nations, in their own sovereign State.

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