Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
16 - 22 September 1999
Issue No. 447
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Laying down the red lines

By Graham Usher

Six years after the Oslo Accords were signed -- and three behind schedule -- Palestinian and Israeli negotiators finally sat down on Monday to "re-launch" the final status negotiations on Jerusalem, refugees, settlements, borders and water. If most Palestinians greeted this "moment of truth" -- as described by their chief negotiator Mahmoud Abbass -- with an air of indifference, it was not just due to the fatigue of having witnessed six similar "peace" ceremonies in as many years with ever diminishing returns. It was also born of the probably accurate prognosis that while substantive final status talks are at last near, their end is likely to be distant and dim.

This perception was deepened by a veritable "war of positions" in which the two sides sparred before, during and after the Eretz ceremony. In utterly characteristic mode, it was Israeli leader Ehud Barak who sought to lower expectations and Yasser Arafat who sought to raise them.

The opening shot came from Barak in an interview with Israeli Radio on Saturday. He admitted that it might not be possible to reach a final status agreement with the Palestinians in the year now allotted to the talks. The alternative he suggested was a new batch of "long-term interim arrangements".

Arafat responded by upping the ante. In a couple of unusually principled interventions in the Jordanian press and at the Arab League meeting in Cairo on Sunday, the Palestinian leader ruled out any notion that the Palestinian village of Abu Dis would ever be acceptable as the Palestinian Al-Quds in a final status agreement. He also insisted that the only solution for the 4.5 million Palestinian refugees was the right of return as enshrined in UN General Assembly Resolution 194.

"In the name of the Palestinian people, the PLO and the Palestinian Authority, let me tell you honestly that there is no home for the Palestinians except Palestine," he told the Arab League conference.

The same polarisation was evident in Monday's Eretz ceremony. Donning his new mantle as Israel's chief negotiator, Israel's Foreign Minister David Levy soon demonstrated he had learned the script of his new political master. For the final status negotiations, "Israel's fundamental principles will be no return to the 1967 borders; a united Jerusalem will remain the capital of Israel; blocs of settlements will remain under Israeli control" and "no foreign army will exist west of the Jordan River," he said.

Abbass countered with a refreshingly eloquent rendition of the Palestinian case. "It is clear to all that we aspire to live within the borders of an independent Palestinian state in the 4 June 1967 boundaries, with holy Jerusalem as its capital, and to achieve a just solution to the Palestinian refugee problem in accordance with UN General Assembly Resolution 194 and to dismantle the Israeli settlements in accordance with Security Council Resolution 465," he said.

Given the enormous chasm between this vision and Israel's, it was no surprise that Abbass also accepted that "the road ahead of us is long and difficult and marked with obstacles". Nor was it any surprise that Barak had skipped the Eretz ceremony the better to erect a few more obstacles of his own.

Thus, even as Levy and Abbass were rolling up their sleeves to "end 100 years of conflict", Barak was chairing Israel's ministerial committee on Jerusalem to ensure that the conflict will continue for the next 100. The purpose and timing of the gathering was to demonstrate the "unity of Jerusalem and [Israel's] sovereignty over it, especially in this year of intensive discussions on the permanent status agreement". The meeting agreed to strengthen Israel's hold on the city by expanding its borders to the west, developing industry and "improving infrastructure and services" in occupied East Jerusalem -- all policies that had their origin in the government of Binyamin Netanyahu.

Nor was Jerusalem the only issue on which Barak was keen to stamp his ubiquitous "red lines". The next day he told his cabinet that Palestinian refugees would "never be allowed to re-settle within Israel's borders". He also paid his first visit as prime minister to Maale Adumim, with 25,000 residents the largest settlement in the Occupied Territories. To the undisguised glee of the settler movement, he vowed that "every house that is being built [in Maale Adumim] is part of the state of Israel forever".

Needless to say, Jerusalem, refugees and settlements are all issues that are supposed to be "negotiated" in the final status talks. Nor will the Palestinian leadership do anything other than denounce these moves. The real problem is that same leadership has just signed an agreement which grants Israel the maximum freedom of action to pre-empt these issues and the Palestinians a minimum range of responses to resist them.

Thus, in exchange for another sliver of West Bank territory, Arafat has again quietly dropped the Palestinian demand that "there can be no extension of Oslo's interim period and no final status negotiations without at least a freeze on Israel's construction", says Palestinian analyst, Khalil Shikaki. In deference to American and European wishes, Arafat has also postponed for a year the option of a unilateral declaration of statehood and, with it, the threat of a Palestinian abandonment of the "security" constraints of Oslo.

But perhaps worst of all, says Shikaki, in agreeing to Barak's idea that the two sides should strive to reach a "Framework Agreement" on the final status issues by February 2000, the Palestinians "have locked themselves into an entirely Israeli-driven process" in which not only the terms, but also the end-result of the negotiations, are in Israel's hands. It was an achievement Levy was eager to laud at Eretz. "If we can't arrive at a framework agreement within five months, it is clear that we won't reach a final status agreement by September 2000," he said.

Arafat's only response is that one year from now he will be "free" to declare a state, with Israel's permission if possible, but without it if necessary. But it will be a "state in name only", predicts Shikaki. Barak knows this, which is why he views the prospect with ever decreasing alarm. The Palestinians know this too, which is why, after the indifference, apprehension about their "final status" will become the dominant national emotion in Gaza, the West Bank and, above all, Jerusalem.

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