A Middle East Peace That Wreaks Havoc
With the odds stacked so strongly in Israel's favor, Palestinians rightly view the US talks with dread
What an irony that the Palestinians' arch-enemy, Israel, should also be their savior. There is a real danger that the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks due to start on September 2 in Washington could yield a botched deal that falls far short of the needs of international law or elemental justice, and sets back the cause of Palestine for decades, if not for ever. Fortunately this will not happen as long as Israel's obduracy can be relied on to save the Palestinians from such an outcome.
Time and again, when Israel was thrown a lifeline by Arab neighbors that could have ensured its legitimacy and security, its folly and greed lost it those opportunities. But, since they came at great cost to Palestinian rights, Israel's obduracy had the perverse effect of safeguarding those rights. All peace proposals after 1967 were based on maintaining Israel as a regional power and forcing the Palestinians to settle for less than they were entitled to. They were repeatedly offered paltry settlements that legitimized Israel's hold on most of their land and undermined their right of return. Had Israel agreed, the Palestinian cause would have been lost long ago.
When in the 1979 Camp David negotiations Egypt sought to give the Palestinians of the West Bank and Gaza a basis for a future independent state, Israel refused. It spurned a succession of Arab peace proposals, most recently the Saudi plan of 2002, offering Israel peace and recognition in return for a Palestinian state. And when, in the 1993 Oslo Accords, the PLO finally capitulated and accepted Israel's occupation of Palestine's remnants so long as it would enable the establishment of an independent state on this morsel, Israel responded by taking more land.
Decades of Israeli rejection and the reality of Israel's western support finally persuaded the Palestinian leadership to get what it could. Where once Palestinians fought against dispossession and for their right to reparation and return, today's browbeaten leadership has settled for a set of aspirations that bear little relation to rights or justice. It is this defeated leadership, reportedly under US pressure to attend or have Palestinian Authority funding withdrawn, which will take part in the talks.
The aim is a two-state settlement, which will supposedly end the conflict. The parameters are familiar from past (and, failed) peace proposals, and grossly unfair to the Palestinians. Historic Palestine will be partitioned roughly along the 1967 lines into a Jewish state on 78% of the land, plus an undefined area of the West Bank also to become Israeli, and a Palestinian state on the remainder - less than 20%. How much of East Jerusalem will go to the Palestinians has not been determined, and there will be no return of refugees.
Israel's prime minister has set conditions before the talks. Israel will keep the Jordan Valley, Jerusalem will remain Israel's undivided capital, and the Palestinian state must be unarmed, with its borders and airspace under surveillance. Nothing will happen unless the Palestinians first recognize Israel as Jewish and guarantee its security.
Despite such preliminaries, the indications are that Israel is not serious about a deal. Its moratorium on settlement building, which in any case excluded East Jerusalem, will end on 27 September. Israeli commentators are skeptical about Binyamin Netanyahu's intentions. Moty Cristal, a former Israeli prime ministerial adviser, believes he "is buying time, looking for ways to stay away from action on the ground". Nonetheless, President Obama, with mid-term elections looming, lacking a foreign policy success and focused on Iran, is determined to see a result.
How could that be achieved, within the constraints of an Israel that cannot be pressured and a weak, unrepresentative Palestinian leadership that excludes Gaza and Hamas? And since Israel's position rejects all the main Palestinian requirements - land, Jerusalem, refugees - progress, if any, can only be made by demanding more concessions from the weaker side. This will mean less land available for the putative Palestinian state, reducing its viability. Hence Jordan's and Egypt's presence at the talks to work out a deal that provides an extension for the West Bank into Jordan, and Gaza into Egypt. No other permutation is possible. Israel will lose very little, but even this may be too much for its "greater Israel" proponents.
If some version of this scenario were to happen and the Palestinian side were bamboozled into agreeing, it would destroy the Palestinian cause and wreak havoc within Palestinian ranks. Such an outcome haunts many Palestinians, who neither trust nor respect the negotiators and think they might sign away Palestinians' rights. This may be unfair, but they can rest assured that if there is any possibility of a peace deal emerging from Washington, the Israeli side - if not theirs - will never let it happen.