Talking in circles
Provocations and misunderstandings abound, but Israel as a state for Jews only remains the heart of the problem, writes Khaled Amayreh
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On the third anniversary of the death of the legendary Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat
While on his way to Jerusalem for another round of talks with Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, the chief Palestinian negotiator Ahmed Qurei (Abu Alaa) and members of his negotiating team were held at an Israeli army checkpoint and kept waiting for nearly half an hour. The affront, which may have been deliberate, infuriated the former Palestinian Authority prime minister, who demanded that preparatory peace talks be moved to a third country.
"The Palestinian delegation is very angry. We don't go to negotiate with them in order to be humiliated. We represent the Palestinian people and the Palestinian cause. This is a humiliation we can't accept. We propose never to conduct negotiations in Israel again," he later told the Israeli state-run radio.
In fact, the incident serves as an allegory caricaturing the protracted talks between the two sides, notwithstanding the numerous bilateral meetings and several "bridging" but effectively futile visits to the region by United States Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. Rice is due to return next week to check on progress, that is if there is any.
Of course, tens of thousands of Palestinian travellers are routinely held and humiliated at the ubiquitous Israeli checkpoints and roadblocks on any given day. But the fact that a VIP like Abu Alaa had to experience, even minimally, what is a daily nightmare for the bulk of his people, may give him a clear idea of what the occupation means in real terms.
Qurei's bout of anger, however, didn't stop him from travelling again to West Jerusalem on 12 November for more talks with Livni. But the talks failed to reach even a semblance of concordance on any of the core issues that define the Israeli-Palestinian conflict ahead of the upcoming Annapolis conference, slated to be held on 26 November.
True, the two sides are in agreement on the creation of a Palestinian state in line with President George Bush's vague vision. But in terms of details, the gaps are still as wide as ever.
The PA wants Israel to withdraw from the West Bank in its entirety, with the possibility of swapping 3-5 per cent of its territory for a similar amount of land of the same quality in Israel proper.
This particular issue is very sensitive, especially for the Palestinian side. Israel, which insists on retaining the huge Jewish colonies built in and around East Jerusalem since 1967, including Maali Adomim, Pisgat Ze'ev, Har Homa, etc, has offered to "compensate" the Palestinians with some sandy swaths in the Negev desert.
The Palestinian leadership in Ramallah has never made its position clear on this issue. This week, Abbas said the PA would be willing to swap a limited area of the West Bank for a similar amount of territory. However, Jerusalem Palestinian leader Adnan Al-Husseini, who is also adviser to Abbas, said Israel would have to withdraw from 100 per cent of East Jerusalem.
Having failed to reach agreement on general guidelines governing a final-status settlement, mainly because Israel is not willing to give up all the spoils of the 1967 war, Palestinian and Israeli negotiators decided last week to re-adopt the dormant American-envisaged roadmap for peace in the Middle East. Accordingly, the two sides agreed that all subsequent talks before and after the Annapolis conference would be based on the roadmap.
But there is a huge catch-22 here. There is no unified Palestinian-Israeli understanding of the roadmap and what it exactly means and implies. For the Israeli government, the roadmap must also include President Bush's letter of April 2004 to then prime minister Ariel Sharon. In that famous letter, which was ratified by the House of Representatives by a vote of 407-9 and by the Senate by 95-1, Bush pledged to Sharon that Israel could retain major Jewish settlements in the West Bank in the context of any prospective final status solution with the Palestinians.
According to Jef Halper, an Israeli peace activist, Bush in one seemingly innocuous sentence "fatally but knowingly undermined UN Resolution 242," viewed generally as the basis of the two-state solution as well as the roadmap itself.
For their part, the Palestinians have in mind a substantially different roadmap. Abdullah Abdullah is a Fatah lawmaker and former director-general of the Palestinian Foreign Ministry. He says that the Palestinians are not bound by the Israeli understanding and interpretation of the roadmap. "The roadmap is not subject to negotiations. It must be implemented immediately, and Bush's pledges to Sharon are an Israeli- American matter and have nothing to do with the roadmap."
Abdullah told Al-Ahram Weekly that the Palestinians would never accept these pledges since they are incompatible with international law and UN resolutions pertaining to the Palestinian problem.
But then, who is the ultimate arbiter? The US? The US- dominated Quartet? Or possibly the UN, which is part of the Quartet?
An additional but extremely important sticking point is Israel's insistence that the PA recognise Israel as a "state of the Jewish people" not just as a nation state like the rest of the community of nations. On Monday, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was quoted as saying that the starting point of all negotiations with the Palestinians would be the "recognition of Israel as a state of all the Jewish people. We won't hold negotiations on our existence as a Jewish state, this is a launching point for all negotiations," said Olmert. He added that he was sure the Palestinian leadership understood this "fact perfectly."
"We won't have an argument with anyone in the world over the fact that Israel is a state of the Jewish people. Whoever doesn't accept this can't hold any negotiations with me. This has been made clear to the Palestinians and the Americans. I have no doubt that Abu Mazen and Salam Fayyad are committed to prior agreements and want to make peace with Israel as a Jewish state." Olmert said he would set a precondition for future negotiations that Palestinians recognise Israel as a Jewish state. "This will be a condition for our recognition of a Palestinian state."
But recognition of Israel as a Jewish state is viewed by most Palestinian officials as amounting to a real national suicide since it would imply granting Israel a certain right, which can be activated in the future, to expel its Palestinian citizens who constitute nearly one-fourth of Israel's population.
In addition, recognising Israel as a state for Jews implies that Palestinians would have to completely forget about the right of return for millions of Palestinian refugees uprooted from their homes and villages by Jewish terrorists in 1948.
More to the point, it is very clear from statements made by Israeli leaders, including opposition leader Benyamin Netanyahu, that Israel would eventually contemplate preventing its non-Jewish population from exceeding a certain threshold in order to prevent Israel from losing its "Jewish identity".
Such manifestly racist policy might take the form of defranchising Israeli Arabs, expelling them, or imposing a limit on how many children an Arab couple can have.
"These are impossible and manifestly racist demands. We can't possibly agree that a million and a half Palestinians who are citizens of Israel won't have a permanent right to live on their ancestral land. This is like saying that the native Americans have no permanent right to live in America."
Arab leaders in Israel are also vehemently opposed to any suggestion that the PA recognise Israel as a Jewish state. Contrary to Olmert's assertions, Ahmed Teibi, an Israeli-Arab lawmaker, said he had received "clear assurances" from PA President Abu Mazen, Abu Alaa and other Palestinian negotiators that the PA "will never ever recognise Israel as a state for the Jews."
"There is complete harmony in our respective positions in this regard," Teibi told the Weekly, adding that Israel is using this issue for "political wrangling".