Monday, May 16, 2011

Israel/Palestine 101

PEACE in the Mideast, and the pursuit of it, has been renewed so many times that each revival has become less sincere, effective and credible. It’s had more facelifts than Joan Rivers, more comebacks than Cher and been through almost as any periods of rehabilitation as the Sheen family. And to the fountain of youth it returns once more.

This Thursday, President Obama is due to speak on the future of talks between Arabs and Israelis as to coincide with a visit from Benjamin Netanhayu. Bibi, incidentally, is due to address a joint session of Congress on May 24, an opportunity which will in all likelihood be used to make clear again an unmoved Israeli stance.

A resolution at this point may seem a little fainter on the horizon that at any time since the al-Aqsa Intifada, though we are at least a little clearer on what a peace might eventually look like. The Palestine Papers revealed many things we already knew – the Palestinian Authority is spineless and incompetent; Israeli high command by contrast is stubborn and obstinate – but they also made evident that the issues which separated the two sides in 1948, 1967, 1993 and 2000 remain so in 2011.

Borders: The call of Palestinian high command since the Oslo Accords in 1993 has been for the creation of an independent state along the Green Line: the line of ceasefire which existed before the commencement of the Six Day War. The international community seeks this too, and in a manner of speaking so do most Israelis. Their position, however, has been complicated by the construction of settlements and the Security Barrier on the West Bank, in some places penetrating miles deep inside the West Bank.

As such, the 1967 borders are more an outline to be traced around. Current negotiations centre about the Clinton Parameters, which recommended in 2000 that Palestinians receive 94-96pc of the West Bank and 1-3pc of Israeli land. The Olmert Plan, which added some meat to these considerations, gave Palestine 94pc of Cisjordan, and swapped the land annexed by Israel around settlements for territory east of the Gaza Strip and south of the West Bank in the Judean Desert.

Settlements: Avi Shlaim stated in a 2010 lecture at the LSE that the obstacles to peace can be surmised in three words: settlements, settlements, settlements. In 2009, some 304,569 Israelis lived in West Bank settlements, with growth rates topping out at 4.5pc in places like Modi’in Ilit. Estimates suggest too that around 192,000 reside in East Jerusalem.

These settlements are illegal under international law; nonetheless, any concord would provide for the incorporation of most of these towns into the Jewish state. The Clinton Parameters specify that parts of the West Bank annexed by Israel would include 80pc of settlements in blocs. Indeed, Olmert’s plan provided for the incorporation of all major localities in the Seam Zone, the patch of land between the Green Line and the Security Barrier: Gush Etzion, a collection of villages south-west of Bethlehem; Ma’ale Adumin east of Jerusalem, and Ariel in the north near Salfit.

Jerusalem: The conflict in microcosm, this divided city and how best to partition it was the issue that made Yasser Arafat jack it all in at Camp David in 2000. The Palestinian position is that East al-Quds would become the capital of the new state, including the Muslim and Christian quarters of the Old City. The current Israeli Mayor Nir Barkat however has made clear that he would not accept a cantonised Yerushalayim, claiming that no city split into two has ever lasted the course.

Differing interpretations of the Olmert plan provided for either a unitary city under Israeli governance, or a rump East Jerusalem sliced and diced by the loss of land in the north around French Hill and the south around the settlements of Har Homa and Gilo. Of these, the latter is the more likely outcome. A solution for the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif has never been achieved. Camp David 2000 provided for ‘custodianship’; Olmert left the matter to further negotiations; Saeb Erekat in 2009 merely implied that ‘creative ways’ could be found to deal with it.

Right of Return: What the ‘right of return’ constitutes for those Palestinian refugees who fled during what the Arabs call al-Naqba (the catastrophe) has never been properly defined. As the Palestinian historian Rashid Khalidi has stated, the right to return to what exactly? Sixty-three years on, the Naqba still smarts and remains a cornerstone of Palestinian unity, but several generations removed from 1948 any notion of going back to the villages of the Mandate is purely notional. Any treatise would demand Israel pay restitution, assist in the finding of homes for those in absentia in Palestine, and admit a limited number of refugees to Israel as recompense.

THERE remain other matters to iron out of course: how will Palestine be governed? and by whom? Will they be permitted to maintain an army? When will the IDF leave? and will the Israelis use force to remove settlers from disengaged areas? Such delicate matters cannot be dealt with through sweeping ‘take it or leave it’ programmes like the Clinton Parameters, but will have to be dissected over a number of months by negotiators and international mediators.

Such details notwithstanding, Israel, the Palestinian Authority and the global community are well aware of how a most basic peace might be fashioned out. It is this that makes the previous forty or so years of terror, combat and impasse all the more perplexing and frustrating. Bitter religious and nationalistic sectarianism has barricaded the path to peace, to the detriment of those living in the Land of Israel.

The events of Naqba Day have shown the Palestinian hand, that of deep-seated rage, a yearning for autonomy and, in the case of Hamas, contempt for Israel’s right to exist. Netanyahu in turn has rarely been dovish, and his coalition is certainly prepared to wait indefinitely for a palatable peace. This week will reveal whether Obama can branch the chasm, and gift to the world the peace we all yearn for.


Saturday, January 29, 2011

The Palestine Papers: an Assessment

The publication by Al Jazeera, and simultaneously in print by The Guardian, of the so-called Palestine Papers, sent ripples through the region and abroad in the earlier part of the week. That is, before the events in Tunisia, Egypt and Jordan rightly overtook these leaks in the never-ending and unrelenting news-cycle of doom. Media was for a time virtually on heat, as these juicy tidbits were splurged out into the great wide world, to be masticated over and digested, with the expected conclusion being much horror and outrage.

By virtue of titular emulation, it is evident that Media wished to make comparisons between their cache of documents and the Pentagon Papers: a set of government communiqués leaked by Daniel Ellsberg to The New York Times in the early 1970s, which demonstrated beyond a reasonable doubt that “the Johnson Administration had systematically lied, not only to the public but also to Congress” about the reasons for entry into the conflict in Indochina.

The Pentagon Papers completely blew apart perceptions that existed amongst large fragments of the American public with regard to the Vietnam War, since that proved that president after president had lied to the people persistently. The Palestine Papers have, at best, confirmed or perhaps set in stone a bunch of stereotypes we already had about the Levantine leaders, and some suspicions we held with regards to the peace process.

Did we not already know that the Palestinian leadership was weak and ineffectual? Yes, we did, though perhaps not quite that insipid, that desperate, that ready to kowtow and debase themselves in front of the Israeli hierarchy. One of the worst moments of slavishness came when a senior Palestinian negotiator appealed to Tzipi Livni, “I would vote for you.” “You don’t have much of a dilemma,” she rightly shot back.

Awful too was this sentence uttered by chief negotiator Saed Erekat: “We are offering [Israel] the biggest Yerushalayim in history.” This shameless use of the Hebrew term for Jerusalem gave an explicit endorsement to the idea that Israel has a right to some kind of dominance within the municipality, when it is clear that any peace agreement would require an even-handed division of the city. It is as if the leadership had conceded defeat before the negotiations had even begun.

The most humiliating moment though came in the form of this remark from Mahmoud Abbas, who was recorded as noting “with pleasure the face that [Ariel] Sharon considered him a friend, and the fact that he too considered Sharon a friend.” The same Ariel Sharon who was culpable for allowing the Lebanese Christian Phalangists into the Palestinian refugee camps at Sabra and Shatila, which resulted in the massacre of up to 3,500 innocents during Operation Peace for Galilee.

Israel has long asserted that peace was an impossibility in the Land because she did not have a serious partner in the Palestinian Territories. This was true certainly for the best part of the state’s existence, including all the way through the life in Yasser Arafat, including the moment when he walked away from the Camp David talks in 2000.

The Palestine Papers demonstrate that Israel still doesn’t have a serious partner in peace, not because the Palestinians are in any way obstinate, but because they are so ready to sacrifice the serious concerns of their own people in pursuit of Israeli approval.

If these leaked documents have any value whatsoever, it may be that they help for just a moment to redirect the world’s attentions back toward the Arab-Israeli conflict and the peace process, which has under the rule of Benjamin Netanyahu ground to a shuddering halt. Talks have stalled at present over the thorny issue of settlements, which are in the opinion of Avi Shlaim the single greatest barrier to the two-state solution.

It is the two-state solution – of two states, for two peoples, cohabiting side by side in the Land of Israel in a condition of perpetual peace – that the international community must continue to aim for. Those with the power to influence both camps – principally the United States on one hand, and the Arab League on the other – must whistle the necessary tunes into their allies’ ears, as to make them realise the need to forge a good and just concord.

For Israel, this means living up to its ideal as a good and democratic nation, by instituting an end to settlements, to land grabs, and to the occupation of lands internationally considered and in parts recognised to be Palestinian. But, it is too the role of the Palestinian leadership to buck up, man up, refocus, and stop fawning pathetically over people like Ariel Sharon. Their role in this story is not to do as Israel wants, but to represent the best interests of the Palestinian people, in finding a peace, and building a state.