A waste of time
Two-state solution negotiations are still amounting to nothing, writes Khaled Amayreh in the West Bank
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Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert (r) welcoming Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (l) and senior Palestinian peace negotiator Saeb Erakat
Another failed meeting between Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian Authority (PA) Chairman Mahmoud Abbas took place this week, generating more frustration and uncertainty, especially on the Palestinian side.
Some Palestinian commentators have described the latest encounter as "another classic meeting underscoring the futility and bankruptcy of the political process". One visibly angry Palestinian official in Ramallah privately dismissed ongoing negotiations with Israel as "a waste of time," saying that many months of intensive negotiations with the Olmert government have not produced "one iota of real substantive progress".
The latest meeting was supposed to explore the possibility of reaching a certain general concordance or "shelf agreement" on the main contentious issues, including the future of Jerusalem, Jewish colonies in the West Bank and the right of return for millions of Palestinian refugees uprooted from their homes when Israel was created 60 years ago.
It was soon clear, however, that a deep conceptual divide between the two sides will continue to preclude any genuine hope for an agreement, either now or in the foreseeable future. On the one side, Abbas concentrated on invoking "international legitimacy" and the "rule of international law". On the other, Olmert argued that the Palestinians ought to refrain from making "maximalist demands". He ignored the fact that the PA had already ceded up to 78 per cent of historic Palestine, settling for — but not yet being granted — a mere 22 per cent that constitutes the occupied West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza Strip.
Unlike previous meeting in which a certain level of harmony prevailed, the latest meeting was visibly tense, with the Israeli prime minister berating Abbas for "meeting with murderers and child-killers", a reference to the former Lebanese prisoner Samir Al-Kuntar whom Israel freed several weeks ago in return for the bodies of two Israeli soldiers Hizbullah was holding. "I didn't expect you to meet with vile murderers," shouted Olmert, as Abbas listened.
Reluctant to retort in kind to Olmert's tactless broadside, Abbas explained himself by saying that his meeting with Kuntar was unplanned. Unconvinced, Olmert shouted: "So what? If you are a man of peace, you are not supposed to meet with murderers."
That Abbas could have saved, but didn't, his own and his people's dignity by telling Olmert that Israel has the highest rate of per capita of murderers and war criminals in the world; that it is difficult to find one Israeli soldier or officer whose hands are not stained with innocent blood, appeared lost on the Israeli premier as well as on the Palestinian president. To be sure, the very survival of the PA is dependent on Israeli "good will", especially in a US presidential election year.
Following Olmert's humiliating outburst, which epitomises the condescending posture Israel adopts vis-ˆ-vis Palestinians in general, including the PA, Abbas saw it appropriate to thank the Israeli premier for releasing 198 prisoners recently, including two veteran inmates Israel considers "vile murderers". He didn't make the point then that international law protects the right to resist by all means, including armed struggle, belligerent, colonial and racist occupation.
According to PA sources, Abbas asked Olmert to release more Palestinian prisoners, including imprisoned Fatah leader Marwan Al-Barghouti, Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) leader Ahmed Sadat and, surprisingly, Aziz Duweik, the Hamas-affiliated speaker of the Palestinian Legislative Council. The Israeli army abducted Duweik two years ago in retaliation for the capture by Palestinian fighters of an Israeli occupation soldier near Gaza.
Abbas reportedly explained to Olmert that releasing these prominent leaders would strengthen his standing in the eyes of the Palestinian public and deprive Hamas of a psychological victory in case Israel agreed to release them as part of a possible prisoner swap deal with Hamas. Olmert was noncommittal, arguing that the Israeli public couldn't psychologically fathom the release of so many Palestinian prisoners in such a short duration, especially in the absence of concessions from the Palestinian side.
By "concessions" Olmert means political concessions by the PA in matters related to final status talks. Olmert's remarks prove the long-held view that Israel is using an estimated 10,000 Palestinian prisoners as a bargaining chip in negotiations with the Palestinians.
At the end of the meeting a sullen looking Abbas left Olmert's residence without talking to the press. Olmert, on the other hand — eager to present the meeting as positive — remarked that he and Abbas had agreed on the basic goal of creating a Palestinian state to live side-by-side in peace with Israel. While Olmert has been saying the same thing ad nauseam, Israeli bulldozers and settlement expansion are making that prospect more and more illusive every day.
Palestinians are now resigned to the fact that erstwhile hopes about the creation of a Palestinian state in the foreseeable future amount to daydreaming. This week, a former advisor to late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat called for an all-out Intifada, or uprising, encompassing all the occupied territories, in order to force Israel and the international community once and for all to end the occupation. Bassam Abu Sharif argued that Israel doesn't want peace and is only seeking Palestinian capitulation to Zionism.
Meanwhile, PA official Ahmed Qurei, who holds the official title of chief negotiator, continued to reiterate old "constants"; namely the need for a total Israeli withdrawal to 1967 borders and a settlement of the refugee problem pursuant to UN General Assembly Resolution 194. Qurei told reporters following a meeting with Quartet envoy to the Middle East former British Prime Minister Tony Blair in Ramallah, that the PA would never sign a peace agreement with Israel without a complete Israeli withdrawal from the occupied territories.
In light of the dim prospects for Palestinian statehood, support for the one-state solution, whereby Palestinians and Israelis would live in a single democratic state of all of its citizens covering all mandatory Palestine from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean, is gaining momentum among Palestinian intellectuals and ordinary people alike.
Growing support for this concept is foremost motivated by a deepening realisation that any Palestinian state created in the West Bank would be unviable. Indeed, with more than half a million Jewish settlers now living in the West Bank, Israel is effectively telling the Palestinians to accept a deformed state on the remainder of the territories occupied or remain under perpetual Israeli occupation and apartheid.
In this context many are seeing that the one state solution is not only the best means to ensure justice, but is the best line of defence against intransigent Zionism.