Al-Ahram Weekly
11 - 17 May 2000
Issue No. 481
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Issues navigation Current Issue Previous Issue Back Issues

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Accommodating Israel

By Graham Usher

Late Sunday night Ehud Barak was again in Ramallah with Yasser Arafat for what are becoming regular "crisis" meetings between them. This latest was the fruit of 72 hours of intensive diplomacy by US special envoy, Dennis Ross, aimed at preventing the final status talks from unravelling no sooner than they had properly begun at Eilat last week.

Ross appears to have succeeded, temporarily. The sole result of the Sunday soiree was that both sides would continue negotiations and "contacts" until he returns to the region on 14 May. This is one day after the "target date" scheduled by the Sharm Al-Sheikh summit in March for reaching a Framework Agreement on Oslo's final status issues. It is the second time the deadline has been delayed. It is unlikely to be the last.

In the meantime, Arafat will mull over the other proposal Barak laid before him in Ramallah. Israel would transfer to "full Palestinian Authority control" three villages that border Jerusalem, Barak assured the Palestinian leader, but only if the Palestinians agreed to "suspend" negotiations on the West Bank's third redeployment (set to be carried out next month) until after a Framework Agreement is reached. It is a trade the Palestinians have so far seemed unwilling to accept.

This may have something to do with the "borders" the Israelis have in mind for the Framework agreement. Last week, Israeli negotiators presented their envisioned map of the future Palestinian "state." It boils down to a Palestinian entity in about 66 per cent of the West Bank, divided into two "north" and "south" cantons, with no territorial contiguity between them and with one "access" road to the border with Jordan.

During a march this week in Gaza a Palestinian child stands in front of Hamas spiritual leader Sheikh Ahmed Yassin while holding a picture of her imprisoned father
(photo: AFP)
Not surprisingly, the Palestinian side rejected the map as "utterly unacceptable," suspended the negotiations while Ross was forced to shift modes from "listener" to "damage controller" and bring in Arafat and Barak. According to a Palestinian source close to the talks, Ross tried to assuage the Palestinian negotiators by assuring them that the Israeli map was less a proposal than a "concept." "It's not a concept, Mr Ross," they told him. "It's an Israeli map of the future Palestinian state," the source recounted.

Apocryphal or not, the story neatly summarises what is and has been the "American role" in the Oslo negotiations. And this is less to arbitrate than -- in the apt phrase of former Palestinian spokesperson, Hanan Ashrawi -- "interpret" for the Arabs the Israeli position. This would explain the growing Palestinian frustration with the "messenger role" of Ross even before the "crisis of the map" blew apart the pretence of negotiation. It would also explain why the Palestinians were so pleased to see in Eilat the European Union's special envoy to the peace process, Miguel Moratinos, who met with the delegation on 2 May.

Unlike the Americans -- who basically see a final deal as anything the Israelis can live with -- the EU does have a vision of the conditions needed for a just and durable peace in the Middle East. It was expressed most cogently in March 1999 in the European Council's Berlin Declaration. Aside from recognising the Palestinians' "unqualified" right to self-determination, this stated that the peace process must be grounded on UN Resolutions 242 and 338 and defined "all settlement activity" as "contrary to international law." Elsewhere, the EU has said that sovereignty in Jerusalem must either be shared or "internationalised" and that a "just solution" must be sought for the "problem" of the Palestinian refugees.

In bare essentials, the position is identical to that presented by the Palestinians at Eilat. The problem for the Palestinians is that the EU is not at the negotiations. The greater problem is that since Barak's election as Israeli prime minister last year the EU does not seem to want to be at the table. "I think there is a fear or reticence by the Europeans not to do anything that would upset the apple-cart at this particularly sensitive stage in the peace process," admitted one EU official in Jerusalem.

The "reticence" has not gone unnoticed. "I cannot say the European position toward the peace process has changed in principle" since the election of a Labour government in Israel, says PLO executive member for Jerusalem, Faisal Al-Husseini. "But their attitude has. It is now much more difficult for me to get the Europeans to take any decision against Barak, even when his policies are more extreme than Likud's."

The Palestinian worry is at what point does the change in attitude translate as a change in European policy? In March this year, 47 members of the European Parliament presented documentary evidence to the European Commission that Israel was exporting to Europe as "Made in Israel" goods actually produced in Jewish settlements in Gaza, the West Bank and the Golan Heights. This is in contravention to a 1995 Israeli-EC agreement that confers trade privileges on Israeli exports on condition that they originate from "within Israel's internationally recognised borders" i.e. the 4 June 1967 lines.

The EC has long shown reluctance to take action against this fraud. But in the past the rationale given was that it was difficult to prove with "certitude" the origin of the goods. In March, the Commissioner not only replayed the "certitude" argument but also aired a preference to seek "solutions" to the problem "that do not prejudice the positions of any of the parties."

The retort to that unusual interpretation of international law came from 20 Palestinian NGOs in a front-page letter to the EC published in the Palestinian Al-Ayyam newspaper on 3 April. "Israel's violations of its trade agreements with the EC have been inspired, and indeed necessitated, by its insistence on its right to settle and annex parts of the territories it has occupied since 1967 in contravention of applicable international law," it stated. It is therefore extremely difficult to distinguish "solutions that do not prejudice the positions of any of the parties from solutions that would accommodate Israel's illegal policies."

It remains to be seen whether the EU's "accommodating" stance to the present Israeli government will endure come the September deadline for the final status agreement or when and if the peace process explodes. In the meantime, Palestinians like Ashrawi demand only that Europe "treat Israel as a state -- with all the rights but also all the duties and responsibilities of other states. And not as a country above the law."

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