|Al-Ahram Weekly On-line
3 - 9 December 1998
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875||Current issue | Previous issue | Site map|
The language of Wye
Every word in the Wye Memorandum reeks of blackmail and degradation directed against the Palestinian Authority (PA), once a liberation movement that embodied the struggle of a subjugated people dispossessed of their nation. The Palestinian "Authority" justified its acceptance of the agreement on the grounds that it would bring the Palestinians new gains, the most important being the liberation of more occupied Palestinian territory.
For Netanyahu to have put his signature on an accord that calls for the Israeli withdrawal from an additional 13 per cent of the West Bank represents, from the PA's point of view, a victory. Netanyahu was elected on a platform that rejected the Oslo Accords. After he came to power, he continued to reiterate his pledge never to relinquish Israeli authority over "our ancestors' land". In this respect, PA officials believe that the Wye Memorandum will be instrumental in undermining the position of the Israeli right in general, and Netanyahu's position in particular, thus clearing the way for a government that would be more responsive to the peace process.
However appealing this line of reasoning, a dispassionate reading of the accord proves it to be unfounded. Indeed, Wye may well have been construed to bring about the reverse of these expectations. For example, with respect to the issue of Israeli withdrawal, the PA's primary justification for signing the memorandum, like the Oslo Accord, mentioned not "withdrawal", but "redeployment." True, it does mention that "13 per cent of the area of the West Bank" is subject to redeployment. Of this area, however, only one per cent will be subsumed under Area A, which is subject to full PA supervision, while the status of the remaining 12 per cent will be transferred from Area C, which is under full Israeli control, to Area B, which is subject to joint control. The Israelis, however, considered that even 12 per cent was too much, and managed to shave off three per cent, designated as a "nature reserve" subject to the Israeli government. To put the situation bluntly, the "nature reserve" will remain under Israeli occupation. The only really tangible achievement is the transfer of 14.2 per cent of the land categorised as Area B under the first phase of redeployment to Area A.
At the same time, however, the wording of the memorandum with regard to the third phase of redeployment is extremely ominous. The Wye accord makes no mention whatsoever of the amount of land subject to redeployment in this phase. It simply calls for the creation of a Palestinian-Israeli committee for that purpose. Also, in order to eliminate any margin available to the PA, the agreement defers explicitly to Warren Christopher's letter of 17 January 1997, in which the US establishes Israel's right to determine independently the percentages and timings of the redeployment process from the Occupied Territories. Netanyahu has stated repeatedly that under no circumstances will Israel accept to redeploy from an area exceeding 10 per cent during the third phase.
A comparison between the stipulations concerning "redeployment" in the Wye Memorandum and in the Oslo Accords reveals an enormous discrepancy. According to Oslo, Israel must withdraw from all the West Bank and Gaza (with the exception of the Israeli settlements), as well as Jerusalem and the border areas, before engaging in the final status negotiations. Netanyahu himself admitted that the Labour Party had accepted to withdraw from 90 per cent of the West Bank and Gaza. Now the PA must enter the final status negotiations with only a fifth of the area it was to control under Oslo. Worse still, by accepting the reference to the Christopher letter, the PA has, in effect, acknowledged the authority of that letter and committed itself to its substance, in spite of the fact that the letter, addressed by the US administration to the government of Israel, was never in any way binding on the PA.
One of the fundamental defects of the Oslo Accord was that it did not oblige Israel to cease settlement construction completely in the Occupied Territories, and to pledge to dismantle the existing settlements within the framework of the final status agreement. In this respect, Wye is yet another landmark in the precipitous, seemingly endless slide of Palestinian concessions. While Oslo contained a good measure of what was described at the time as "constructive" ambiguity, Wye has left no doubt that ambiguity can only be "constructive" from the point of view of the stronger party, because that is the only party capable of turning ambiguity to its benefit. The PA, at Wye, in effect forfeited its ability to demand, on legal grounds, the restoration of all Palestinian land occupied since 1967.
If only Palestinian concessions had stopped there. When he agreed to redeploy from 13 per cent of the West Bank, Netanyahu acted as though he had cut off a piece of his own flesh and given it to the PA. The least the PA could do in return for such munificence would be to offer him something even better in return. But what could that be? Netanyahu felt the PA had to transform itself into a policing agency, following the orders of the Israeli government to arrest anyone who might pose a threat to Israeli security, with bombs or bullets, but also with words and even nuances.
To Netanyahu, Israeli security is defined not by the pre-1967 boundaries, but as the security of the Israeli people wherever they might be, even if they are West Bank settlers, now or at any time in the future. The text of Wye, and Netanyahu's subsequent behaviour, explicitly reaffirm this conception. Although Wye suggests vaguely that both sides are responsible for combating terrorism, its specific demands show clearly that the Palestinians alone are obliged to fulfil these obligations. This constitutes an admission that terrorism, acts of violence and the deliberate incitement to violence are acts committed exclusively by Palestinians. As for the violence the Israel settlers continue to visit upon the Palestinians, and the arsenals in their possession, these receive no mention whatsoever in Wye. Israel is under no explicit obligation to implement actions the IDF might undertake to counteract terrorism, or acts of violence against the Palestinians. Nor do the Palestinians or the US have any capacity to monitor such acts.
In a deliberate move to degrade the Palestinians further, Netanyahu insisted that Wye stipulate that the PA convene a meeting of all significant Palestinian institutions to reaffirm the annulment of the articles in the Palestinian Charter calling for the destruction of Israel. The PA agreed to this, too, although it has reaffirmed on numerous occasions that these articles are no longer valid and that they do not conform to the peace process. Yasser Arafat first made this commitment in a letter to Yitzhak Rabin on 9 September 1993. The commitment was reaffirmed on 25 April 1996, in the resolution adopted by the Palestine National Council to strike from the Palestinian Charter all articles that conflict with the letters of mutual recognition exchanged by Israel and the PLO. The commitment was reiterated for a third time in a letter from Arafat to Clinton on 22 January 1997. At the time, the US administration declared that this was sufficient. Netanyahu's whim, however, continues to be the final word.
Finally, Israel did not even pledge to maintain the situation on the ground in the Occupied Territories until the end of the final status negotiations, set for 4 May 1999. Since Israel claims that settlement construction does not alter the legal status of the Occupied Territories it continues to contend that settlements do not constitute a breach of any of the agreements it has signed until now.
Strangely, this agreement, which is so prejudicial to Palestinian rights, found critics in Israel, even outside the extreme right, which refuses to withdraw from an inch of the "land of the Torah". Some critics objected that, since the agreement theoretically holds both sides responsible for combating terrorism, the Palestinians will try to evade their commitment in this regard. Netanyahu therefore deferred redeployment until such time as the PA submits its timetable for counteracting terrorism and he approves it. He offered nothing in return.
A second point was that the article pertaining to the Palestinian Charter did not specify that a resolution to abrogate the section calling for the destruction of Israel should pass by a two-thirds majority. Critics also objected that if the US president were to attend a session of the PNC, it would demonstrate support for steps towards the establishment of a Palestinian state. Once again, Netanyahu obtained from Arafat guarantees that he would call for a vote on the resolution as soon as the PNC met. He also obtained guarantees from the US that it would oppose, in advance, any step that might support the unilateral declaration of a Palestinian state. Once again, Netanyahu got what he wanted.
A third contingent of critics objected that Israel's commitment to release 750 Palestinian prisoners would mean that many Hamas members would be among them. Netanyahu showed them he was no fool. Among the prisoners to be released were no more than 176 political detainees. None of them had been accused of murdering an Israeli citizen; the remaining prisoners were ordinary criminals.
The vehement opposition of the Israeli right has not been the barrier to the implementation of the Wye Memorandum. Netanyahu took the decision to sign it; he is also ultimately responsible for avoiding implementation. There were no real impediments, particularly since the Israeli left and centre had promised that the agreement would pass with a significant majority in the Knesset.
So why the procrastination? Quite simply, Netanyahu knows exactly what he wants. Those who do not take him seriously should reconsider. He is, in my opinion, the primary exponent of the spirit and ambitions of Israeli society at this stage, and the most capable of expressing them. Before Wye, he had already begun to play his cards in a way that would transform this agreement into a ceiling for Palestinian ambitions and expectations. His appointment of Sharon as foreign minister was one card in his new strategy. Clearly, Netanyahu had made a pact with 'The Butcher' and, through him, with some of the most extreme hawks of the Israeli right, enabling him to sign the modified version of the US initiative and get it passed in the Israeli cabinet and the Knesset. In return, he has committed himself to adopting more hard-line stances, particularly in the final status negotiations.
The real problem facing the PA in the near future, therefore, is not whether Netanyahu intends to fully implement Wye -- he will, sooner or later -- but the substance of the final status agreement and the future of the Palestinians. There is an undisclosed agenda related to the final status negotiations. First, Netanyahu wants to convey a clear message to all concerned that Israel alone will determine the timing for the implementation of the articles of the agreement. Specifically, I believe he has in mind the 4 May 1999 deadline for the end of the final status negotiations. Secondly, he wants to force the Palestinians to believe that what is being offered now, however paltry that might be, is all they can ever get. Sharon's call to the Israeli settlers to occupy the hills is simply a signal that the day of reckoning is at hand. Thirdly, he wants to show that the US presence on the ground in no way implies it is overstepping its bounds from the Israeli perspective. Under all circumstances, Israel is capable of countering American pressure and wielding US participation to its advantage. Fourth, he wants to coerce the Palestinians into renouncing completely the goal of establishing "an independent state of Palestine, with its capital in Jerusalem, on all the land of Palestine occupied in 1967." Netanyahu has already begun to link the implementation of the agreement with an absolute commitment from Arafat not to unilaterally declare a Palestinian state. Moreover, he has conferred upon himself the sole right to reoccupy portions of the West Bank if Arafat does declare a Palestinian state.
The route outlined by Wye is precarious, and can lead only to disaster. Do the Palestinians, Arabs and Muslims have no other alternatives but to accept what Israel offers or to wail in despair? Can they not formulate an alternative policy that would force Israel to realise that they have other options? If we are really incapable of coming up with alternatives, perhaps it would be better for us to accept the fate Israel has foisted upon us. This, at least, is the inevitable conclusion Israel wants the Arabs to draw. Netanyahu is doing everything in his power to convince us that there are no other options. The problem is that Israel's alternative will not bring peace or stability to itself, to us, or to the region as a whole.
*The writer is professor of political science at Cairo University.