Bibi goes to Washington: What he said and what it means
Here follows a glance at Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech which he delivered in a joint session of Congress earlier today. Suffice to say, his statements garnered much appreciation from the attendees, and at times he appeared to own the room, even going so far as to lean jauntily on the podium as if he were at a roast for Joe Biden, brushing off a heckler with casual ease. His address offered a number of statements on peace and the Palestinian state, which are worth a closer look.
“And you have to understand this: In Judea and Samaria, the Jewish people are not foreign occupiers. …This is the land of our forefathers, the land of Israel, to which Abraham brought the idea of one God, where David set out to confront Goliath, and where Isaiah saw a vision of eternal peace.”
Netanyahu’s use of the term “Judea and Samaria” is telling: above all, this reference to the Hebraic terminology for the West Bank and his overtures to the ties between religion and land are to be read as reassurances to certain members of his coalition. Parties like Shas, and other religiously-orthodox parties who do not believe in the two-state solution, are essential to Netanyahu to keep him in power and his rightist coalition together.
“I stood before my people — and I told you it wasn’t easy for me. I stood before my people, and I said, “I will accept a Palestinian state.” It’s time for President Abbas to stand before his people and say, “I will accept a Jewish state.””
One of two instances whereby Netanyahu defined the preconditions for fresh talks, it signifies a further shifting of the goalposts. Previously, it had always been required of the Palestinians to accept Israel’s right to exist. This was achieved in 1993, when as an addendum to the Oslo Accords, Yasser Arafat wrote to Yitzhak Rabin in a letter: “The PLO recognizes the right of the State of Israel to exist in peace and security”. Now, Netanyahu demands (again, as an act of appeasement) that the PA recognises the right to exist as a Jewish state. This had not been required prior to his premiership.
“The vast majority of Israelis who live beyond the 1967 lines reside in neighbourhoods and suburbs of Jerusalem and greater Tel Aviv. Under any realistic peace agreement these areas, as well as other places of critical strategic and national importance, will be incorporated into the final borders of Israel.”
This is a poorly-veiled code for the desire to see annexed into the State of Israel, once the borders are defined, the major Israeli settlements in the West Bank that lie close to the 1967 borders. For ‘suburbs of Jerusalem’, read Ma’ale Adumim in particular, and places like Har Homa and Gilo. ‘Greater Tel Aviv’ likely refers to Ariel and the towns in the northern-central area. In terms of ‘places of critical strategic importance’, this refers probably to the Seam Zone, the area in between the Green Line and the Security Barrier, which Israel asserts is key to the security of the State. This would involve the incorporation of the Gush Etzion settlement bloc near Bethlehem.
“In any real peace agreement, in any peace agreement that ends the conflict, some settlements will end up beyond Israel’s borders.”
The central West Bank is dotted with smaller settlements that would be given up in any peace agreement. This statement perhaps refers to those who reside around the major Palestinian localities, in particular Hebron where violence has flared up in the past and there is clear delineation between Jewish and Arab areas of the city. Any final agreement would have to deal with some security arrangement for these settlers.
“Palestinians from around the world should have a right to immigrate, if they so choose, to a Palestinian state. And here’s what this means: It means that the Palestinian refugee problem will be resolved outside the borders of Israel.”
The right of return was referenced repeatedly throughout the speech, making it clear that Palestinian would not have the ability to return to the old villages of the Mandate. This was the position of President Clinton set down in his Parameters, which allowed for Israel to pay restitution to some refugees and assist in finding residence for them in the new Palestinian state.
“Jerusalem must never again be divided. Jerusalem must remain the united capital of Israel.”
Previous sketches of agreements have allowed for a rump East Jerusalem in Palestinian control, but this has been the position of every Likud Prime Minister since Menachem Begin, who made this very same point in a speech to the Knesset during negotiations of the Camp David Accords. And, it is the position of the city’s mayor today.
Netanyahu later stated that: “I know this is a difficult issue for Palestinians, but I believe that with creativity and with goodwill, a solution can be found”. Thus, Netanyahu wills a united Jerusalem, but would be prepared to allow for limited Palestinian sovereignty or self-governance in predominately-Arab areas of the city they call Al-Quds.
“It’s absolutely vital, that a Palestinian state be fully demilitarized. And it’s absolutely vital that Israel maintain a long-term military presence along the Jordan River.”
The desire for a demilitarised state echoes the position President Obama took in his address on the matter last week. In terms of the Jordanian border, this has been something Netanyahu has sort for a long time, however it would if implemented severely undermine the sovereignty of any Palestinian state if the Israelis were to control access of all land borders. One suggested compromise has been for a neutral force (the UN, the EU) to patrol the Israel-Palestine-Jordan border.
“I say to President Abbas, “Tear up your pact with Hamas, sit down and negotiate, make peace with the Jewish state. And if you do, I promise you this: Israel will not be the last country to welcome a Palestinian state as the new member of the United Nations. It will be the first to do so.””
The second precondition, and a further change in the Israeli position. Prior, Israel had always said that it could not negotiate with the PA, because it did not represent the will of the Palestinian people. Following the Fatah-Hamas reunion, Netanyahu is now saying we cannot speak with you, precisely because of this pact with Hamas. Abbas has sought to reassure Israel and the United States that the current negotiating team will remain and will not alter to involve Hamas. This may not be enough. Hamas would have to alter its charter radically first, as the PLO did in 1988 before negotiations can begin in earnest.
Abbas and 1948
“Sixty-three years ago,” Mahmoud Abbas’ op-ed in the New York Times opens today, “a 13-year-old Palestinian boy was forced to leave his home in the Galilean city of Safed and flee with his family to Syria. He took up shelter in a canvas tent provided to all the arriving refugees. Though he and his family wished for decades to return to their home and homeland, they were denied that most basic of human rights. That child’s story,” Abbas continues, “is mine”.
No matter what one’s political stripe, one can not help but feel empathy for the fate of the Palestinian people themselves since 1948, hostage as they were (and indeed still are) to the hot-headedness and blind incompetency of their leadership. Ethnic conflict after the creation of a Jewish homeland in the Mandate was inevitable, but the naqba, or catastrophe, as experienced by the Palestinians was a matter of their doing.
The first problem with Abbas’ narrative, however, is that it stands in direct contradiction to previous accounts of his flight from the Galilee, one of a family’s self-imposed exile. This 2007 account takes heed of the climate of terrorism and reprisal killings that suffocated life in the final years of the British Mandate. Abbas then stated that the people of Safed “realised the balance of forces was shifting and therefore the whole town was abandoned on the basis of this rationale, saving our lives and our belongings”. Moreover, Abbas of course did return to his homeland, in the Palestinian Green Zone of Ramallah, far removed from the tented existence he claimed to inhabit in those early years.
More worryingly, Abbas seems to be clinging to a stale interpretation of the Wars of Independence. With reference to the push, which this author tentatively supports, for recognition of a Palestinian state at the UN in September, Abbas writes: “It is important to note that the last time the question of Palestinian statehood took centre stage at the General Assembly, the question posed to the international community was whether our homeland should be partitioned into two states. In November 1947, the General Assembly made its recommendation and answered in the affirmative. Shortly thereafter, Zionist forces expelled Palestinian Arabs to ensure a decisive Jewish majority in the future state of Israel, and Arab armies intervened. War and further expulsions ensued” [emphasis added].
My history is a little hazy, Abu Mazen, but as I recall did not the Palestinian authority of the age refuse to accept the United Nations partition plan? And again, feel free to challenge this too, but did not Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Transjordan, Iraq and Syria simultaneously invade the newly-independent State of Israel the day after she declared independence?
In the past, I have been critical of the Israeli policy of occupation, settlement construction and creeping land grabs on the West Bank. This is one barrier to an Arab-Israeli concord, poured and hammered into the scarred earth via concrete and steel. Another obstacle however is the right of return, and this lie perpetuated by Abbas that some day, the Palestinians en masse shall make home in the long-gone villages of the Mandate. That past is a foreign country now.
When it finally arrives, the Palestinian state will become ipso facto the Palestinian homeland. Its coming however will only be delayed if the Palestinian Authority continues to deny certain historical truths and correct the lazy culture of victimhood with has for generations prevented leaders from doing right by the Palestinian people.
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.