No term in the Israeli-Palestinians political lexicon has been so abused or so denuded of meaning as the “peace process”. It was set up after the Oslo Accords in 1993, to settle the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians by peaceful negotiations, but has led nowhere.
Yet it is still ongoing, its latest manifestation launched in August 2013, when US Secretary of State John Kerry put forward an ambitious plan to resolve all the major issues that have bedevilled the conflict within the space of nine months. The result he envisaged was a “final-status agreement” over borders, security, Jerusalem and refugees, which when resolved, would supposedly end the conflict for good.
Now close to the deadline proposed by Kerry, it is clear that no settlement is in the offing. Desperate to salvage the process, Kerry has come up with the idea of a “Framework Agreement” that sets out basic principles for the two sides to negotiate on in future. This, he hopes, will keep the “peace process” going for longer.
Yet Israel’s policy has been the exact opposite. In December 2013, Israeli ministers voted eight to three to annex the Jordan valley, and from the start of this year, West Bank settlements were set to be expanded by 2,553 new housing units. A law preventing the Israeli prime minister from discussing the status of Jerusalem or the refugee issue at the peace talks without prior majority approval from the Israeli parliament, was proposed in January.
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The Israeli prime minister subsequently assured his Likud party ministers and other Israeli political figures that he would reject any mention of a Palestinian capital in East Jerusalem in the Framework Agreement. Israel has also reiterated its refusal to permit any return of the Palestinians refugees within its borders, and Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman has been pushing for a transfer of Arabs living in the Triangle area of the Galilee to Palestinian Authority rule. To all these conditions has been added the requirement to recognise Israel as a Jewish state.
In an attempt to deter the US secretary of state further, senior Israeli officials have been accusing him of being an anti-Semite. The final straw came last week when Israel refused to release 26 Palestinian prisoners, the last of a total of 104 long time prisoners whose release was agreed on as a condition for the Palestinians’ participation in the revived peace negotiations, last summer. Fearing that they would now pull out as a result of this Israeli breach of its commitments, the US has been making frantic efforts to prevent such an outcome, proposing an extension of the talks beyond the April 29 deadline. Israel has responded by offering to release the prisoners but only if the Palestinians agree to the talks’ extension.
These absurd political manoeuvrings only serve to obscure the fundamental reality. In trying to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Kerry’s task is impossible to realise. This is not, as is often misleadingly asserted, because the issues are complex or because “painful compromises” are needed from both sides. The issues, in fact, are so embarrassingly simple it is an insult to the intelligence to have to set them down.
In plain English, one side has stolen land and resources belonging to the other and refuses to give them up. The thief is supported by powerful external agencies, while the losing side has no equivalent support. In this situation, it would be normal to call on an independent force or arbiter to compel the thief to return the stolen goods, and “compromise” would not be applicable.
But in the peace process as configured by those on the side of the thief, there is no independent agency, only an “arbiter” whose starting point is one of total commitment to the thief’s welfare. How then, to solve the conflict that has arisen because of the robbery, but without penalising the robber or forcing him to return the booty? That, in essence, is where the problem lies for Kerry and his predecessors.
The “peace process” has all along been predicated on these lines, that Israel’s welfare is paramount. What this has meant in practise is that pressure can only be applied to the Palestinians, and the ineffectual Arab states. Since Israel long ago won the battle to keep 80 percent of Palestine, the area behind the 1967 border and referred to as “Israel proper”, it is the 20 percent that remains which Israel is fighting to keep.
Kerry’s negotiations are concerned with how to divide that 20 percent in Israel’s favour while giving the Palestinians something too. Since whatever he proposes requires Israel’s agreement, the only room for manoeuvring he has, is to minimise the offer to the Palestinians even further to ensure Israel’s acquiescence. On the other hand, if the offer is too inadequate, the Palestinians will not accept it. This dilemma has forced Kerry to draw up an interim agreement and to propose a time extension for further negotiations.
Dividing up the 20 percent
His Framework Agreement has not been published yet, as all peace talks have been conducted in total secrecy, but from various leaks and reports it would seem that it deals with all the major questions. Israel would retain its major West Bank settlements, annexing up to 10 percent of the land.
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The Palestinians would receive 5.5 percent of as yet unspecified Israeli land in return. Israel would have to give up the Jordan Valley, to be subsequently policed by either NATO or combined Jordanian-US troops, or some combination of troops from friendly Muslim states, with Israeli oversight of the Jordan border and the right of veto over entrants. Gaza would be connected to the West Bank by bridges or tunnels. Israel would evacuate its forces from the new demilitarised Palestinian state over a period of five years, and NATO could take their place.
The Palestinian capital would be outside Jerusalem’s municipal boundaries, in the villages adjoining East Jerusalem like al-Ram, Abu Dis, or al-Aizariyya, and a multi-national committee would be in charge of the holy places in the old city. The right of refugee return would be dealt with through an international compensation fund for refugees and offers of immigration to Australia, with a token number of returnees to Israel. If all that is agreed, it would constitute the end of the conflict. Kerry is reported to be pressing both sides hard to accept these ideas, many of which have been aired before and already largely accepted by the Palestinian leadership. It is Israel that is likely not to agree, and herein lies Kerry’s problem.
Intimidation and redemption
Kerry’s plan contains many of the features of previous peace proposals. None of them answers to international law, Palestinian rights or elemental justice. As a Haaretz article candidly put it on January 6, to succeed, Kerry’s plan demands no less than a total and abject Palestinian surrender to Israeli and US diktat. And for that reason, it should be rejected outright without extensions or delays. The Palestinians should immediately join all the UN bodies open to “Palestine” as a non-member state and especially the International Criminal Court where they must initiate proceedings against Israel’s breaches of international law. They must call for an international conference to discuss a settlement of the conflict and the resolution of all their fundamental rights.
That none of this has happened so far is testament to the intimidation practised by Israel and its allies on the Palestinian leadership. They have been persuaded that pragmatism and real politik is the best option. Israel is too powerful to fight and so they should settle for what is possible. This pernicious idea has been the guiding principle of the Palestinian negotiators, with the inevitable consequence that they have been forced to concede more of their rights with each round of talks.
To this sorry state of affairs has now been added an explicit US threat, that if the Palestinians reject the Kerry peace plan, they will face a political and economic blockade. All US and European aid will stop and they will be isolated. No Arab state has so far stepped in to make up for these threatened Palestinian losses, and most are, anyway, involved with conflicts inside their own borders.
At this moment in history the world appears weary of the Palestine problem and wants to see it end. But it is imperative that the Palestinians do not respond to this situation by selling their case cheap. It is true they are weak, but they have one strength: to say “No”. No peace plan can go ahead without their assent, and Kerry and his proposals will come to nothing if they refuse them. They have alternatives and it would be irresponsible not to use them. Applying to accede to 15 multilateral treaties and conventions as the Palestinian president has just done on behalf of “Palestine” is a good start, but it is not enough. The Palestinian leadership, for too long timid and self-serving, finally has a chance to redeem itself.
Dr Ghada Karmi is the author of Married to Another Man: Israel’s Dilemma in Palestine.