Moment of reckoning
As direct Palestinian-Israeli talks begin, few are optimistic, but all know the outcome will be decisive, writes Khaled Amayreh in the West Bank
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Palestinian women from Ramallah stopped at a checkpoint by an Israeli soldier on their way to Ramadan prayers at the Al-Aqsa Mosque
As US-brokered peace talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority (PA) get underway in Washington, most observers are reluctant to give them the benefit of the doubt given a long legacy of failure after many years of direct and indirect talks between the two sides, especially since the conclusion of the Oslo Accords nearly two decades ago. And while both sides are saying that they are going to the talks "with an open mind", it is clear that there is a little change -- if any -- in the declared positions of Israel and the PA on the basic contentious issues.
On the eve of the talks, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu continued to make largely propagandistic statements, saying he wished Israel would have a peace partner like former Egyptian president Anwar El-Sadat. This statement ignores the clear fact that the intensive building of Jewish settlements all over the West Bank, not the absence of Sadat on the Arab side, has been the main obstacle impeding resolution of the Palestinian cause.
On the Arab side, Arab League Chief Amr Moussa has voiced his pessimism about the outcome of the talks. Moussa was quoted this week as saying that he had little hope that the talks would succeed due to Israel's adamant refusal to end the occupation that started in 1967 and put an end to Jewish settlement expansion in the West Bank, especially occupied East Jerusalem.
As to PA leader Mahmoud Abbas, who seemed to have only reluctantly agreed to join the Washington talks so that the Palestinians wouldn't be blamed by the Obama administration for the failure of US-led peace efforts, he made it clear that Israel alone would be responsible for the failure of the talks if they did fail.
In a pre-recorded speech on Monday, 30 August, Abbas indicated that the decision to join the talks was a collective Arab decision. He argued that it was unimportant whether peace talks were direct or indirect as long as the goal was to end the Israeli occupation and facilitate the creation of a viable Palestinian state, which he said would ensure just peace in the region.
While asserting continued Palestinian rejection of the Israeli settlement policy, Abbas made no mention of any formal guarantees or conditions. However, he did say that he had informed the Obama administration that the talks would reach a dead end if Israel resumed settlement activities, partially frozen since spring of this year.
"In these critical moments in the history of the region, we understand Israel's need for security, as well as our own need. But the need for security is not an excuse to expand settlements and steal land."
While the settlement-expansion issue may be viewed as a maker-or-breaker of the talks, the continuation of the talks, let alone their success, will depend largely on the sides' ability and willingness to successfully tackle the main outstanding issues of the conflict. These include security, borders, water, settlements, Jerusalem and the refugee problem. This is in addition to the plight of thousands of Palestinian prisoners languishing in Israeli detention camps, some for decades, without any realistic prospect of freedom.
Yet these issues have been thoroughly discussed in intensive negotiations between Palestinian and Israeli negotiators. In some cases, partial agreements or understandings were reached. However, it is uncertain if the Netanyahu government will abide by agreements reached with the PA by previous governments. What is also uncertain is whether Netanyahu will stick to his erstwhile conditions for agreeing to the creation of a Palestinian state.
These conditions, revealed during a speech at Bar-Allan University last year, preclude the establishment of a viable, sovereign and territorially contiguous Palestinian state, as Israel would retain effective security and economic control over the would-be Palestinian entity. More to the point, Netanyahu has always insisted that Israel must be allowed to have sweeping security concessions from the Palestinians, which Palestinians argue correctly would rob them of any semblance of sovereignty or authority. If Netanyahu clings to his conditions, it means talks in Washington will fail, before even they start.
As to borders, it is expected that both sides will hit a formidable snag when this issue comes up for discussion. After all, this is the crux of the matter. The PA argues that it is impossible to discuss security before establishing the borders of the Palestinian state. However, agreement on borders has been virtually impossible given Israel's adamant refusal to dismantle dozens of settlements created in the occupied West Bank. A compromise, taking the form of a land-swap, has been discussed by the two sides. However, while the Palestinians would accept a possible swap that would encompass 1-4 per cent of the territories occupied in 1967, Israel insists on a much larger swap that would cover up to 10 per cent of the occupied Palestinian land.
The border issue is by far not the only explosive issue that could torpedo the talks. Israel considers occupied East Jerusalem part of its "eternal and undivided capital". For their part, the Palestinians are unlikely to accept an agreement that would leave Al-Quds Al-Sharif (the Noble Jerusalem) under perpetual Jewish control. Such an arrangement would be rejected, not only by the Palestinians, but also by the entire Muslim world, given the city's religious symbolism to Muslims. Similarly, the refugee problem is likely to be the ultimate make-or-break issue. It is widely viewed as the core of the Palestinian problem. Indeed, it was this issue that brought about the collapse of talks between former Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak and late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat in Camp David in 2000.
Israel is especially intransigent about rejecting the mass repatriation of Palestinian refugees back to their homes and villages in what is now Israel. Israel argues that this threatens the Jewish identity of Israel. On the other side, the PA is worried that sacrificing the refugees' right of return would turn millions of Palestinians uprooted from their homes in 1948 against any deal, effectively undermining it and making implementation impossible. The United States and other countries have tabled the idea of compensation for the refugees while allowing a symbolic number, not exceeding tens of thousands out of nearly five million, to return over a span of two decades or more. It is doubtful, too, that this proposal will find acceptance among the refugees.
Finally, Israel insists that the Palestinians recognise Israel as a Jewish state. Undoubtedly, this is an explosive demand that can be interpreted as an undeclared Israeli intention to deport or ethnically cleanse its large Palestinian minority that constitutes nearly one quarter of Israel's overall population. Indeed, even relatively moderate Israeli leaders, such as Tzipi Livni, have declared that Israeli Arabs' "national fulfilment" should be sought not in Israel but in a future Palestinian state.
In light of these and other facts, a fleeting look at the talks in Washington shows a terrain littered with landmines, the clearance of which would take exceptionally strenuous effort and considerable goodwill and sincere intentions. No wonder the pessimist's view is prevailing.