The Palestinians Should Negotiate

The Palestinians Should Negotiate

No objective observer can claim that Netanyahu’s partial freeze is anything but a cynical manoeuvre. It positively stinks of bad faith. The Palestinians might be wiser to call Netanyahu’s bluff and announce their readiness to enter into negotiations at once, notes Patrick Seale.

Israel’s 10-month partial freeze of new settlement building on occupied Palestinian territory, as announced by Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu on 25 November, has been rejected by the Palestinians as a basis for peace negotiations. They want a total freeze.

This is the stated position of Mahmud Abbas, President of the Palestinian Authority, and of his chief negotiator, Saeb Erekat. It must be hoped that this is not their last word.

On the morrow of Netanyahu’s announcement, Erekat declared: “Without a settlement freeze, there can be no credible negotiations and no credible peace process. Settlements are not only illegal under international law. They pose the greatest threat to the two-state solution and run counter to the formula of ‘land for peace’ on which the entire Middle East peace process is built. And without East Jerusalem as its capital, there can be no viable Palestinian state.”

At this particular moment in international affairs, is this a sound tactical position to adopt? The question must be posed whether, by rejecting talks on the basis of Netanyahu’s partial freeze, the Palestinians might not be in danger of missing an important opportunity.

If, however, the Palestinians hold to their present position, they will undoubtedly be blamed for blocking a resumption of final status talks. They also risk losing invaluable American and international goodwill. In ten months’ time, Israel will feel free to resume full-scale construction, claiming that it has no partner for peace.

In the circumstances, the Palestinians might be wiser to call Netanyahu’s bluff and announce their readiness to enter into negotiations at once, as the Obama administration is urging them to do.

Netanyahu’s partial freeze is, of course, only a temporary suspension of new construction on the West Bank. Building will proceed on some 3,000 housing units, whose foundations have already been laid. Excluded from the freeze are public buildings within existing settlements, such as schools and synagogues, as well as the Separation Wall and other security structures. Arab East Jerusalem is excluded altogether. Settlement building there is proceeding apace.

No objective observer can claim that Netanyahu’s partial freeze is anything but a cynical manoeuvre. It positively stinks of bad faith. It is aimed at easing American pressure on his government and at keeping his governing coalition intact — and it appears to have been successful on both counts, at least temporarily.

The United States has welcomed Netanyahu’s decision as a move in the right direction while, at home, no far-right faction has defected from his government, although he has faced some predictable howls of protest from diehard settlers.

But this is surely not the end of the matter. US President Barack Obama may have back-tracked somewhat from his initial call for a total settlement freeze; he may have made some tactical mistakes along the way; he may have been distracted from the Middle East conflict by other pressing matters such as health reform and Afghanistan, not to mention US unemployment and the world financial crisis. But it is worth remembering that he remains totally committed to a two-state solution

The US position was spelled out by Secretary of State Hilary Clinton on the same day as Netanyahu’s announcement, and was repeated word-for- word by Special Envoy George Mitchell when he met the press later that day. This is the key phrase in the Secretary’s statement:

“We believe that through good-faith negotiations, the parties can mutually agree on an outcome which ends the conflict and reconciles the Palestinian goal of an independent and viable state, based on the 1967 lines, with agreed swaps, and the Israeli goal of a Jewish state with secure and recognised borders that reflect subsequent developments and meet Israeli security requirements.

“Let me say to all the people of the region and the world: Our commitment to achieving a solution with two states living side by side in peace and security is unwavering.”

It is striking that this important statement contains a reference to the 1967 borders. Mitchell, in turn, spelled out America’s position on Jerusalem. “United States policy,” he declared, “remains unaffected and unchanged. As has been stated by every previous administration which addressed this issue, the status of Jerusalem and all other permanent status issues must be resolved by the parties through negotiations.” He added that “the United States also disagrees with some Israeli actions in Jerusalem affecting Palestinians in such areas as housing, including the continuing pattern of evictions and demolitions of Palestinian homes.”

The Palestinians should take heart from these statements. They should heed Mitchell’s words when he says that America’s goal is to re-launch negotiations on permanent status issues as soon as possible, beginning, he suggested, with a resolution of the issue of borders.

Mitchell spelled out that the United States has in mind multi-track negotiations: high-level direct talks between the parties; parallel talks with the US about key issues; and lower-level direct talks to work out details.

The Palestinians should not remain passive. They should make the most of the emergence of Obama — an extraordinary phenomenon in American politics which is unlikely to recur anytime soon. They should grasp the US initiative with both hands. At the same time, they should seek the active backing of the entire Arab world for their negotiations. The Israelis needs to be reminded on a daily basis of the tremendous benefits which would flow to them from the implementation of the Arab Peace Plan, including normalisation with all 22 Arab states.

In some significant ways, the log-jam in Israeli-Palestinian relations appears to be thawing. Israel’s Defence Minister Ehud Barak has spoken of the need “to arrive at a process that will yield two states for two people, to bring an end to the conflict, and to establish a Palestinian state without harming our interests.” Statements of this sort suggest that there is some new thinking inside the Israeli cabinet, some realisation that Obama means business.

Meanwhile, the Fatah leader Marwan Barghouti may soon be released as part of a prison swap. He is expected to make a bid for Palestinian leadership. The Gaza leader Ismail Haniya has offered to stand down in the interest of inter-Palestinian reconciliation. Hamas has moderated its stance and seems ready to accept a permanent settlement based on the 1967 borders.

Although he is challenged by enemies on all fronts, including within his own movement, Mahmud Abbas should conquer his evident depression and act. He should announce that he is ready to start negotiations with Israel immediately, under active American sponsorship.

Patrick Seale is a leading British writer on the Middle East, and the author of The Struggle for Syria; also, Asad of Syria: The Struggle for the Middle East; and Abu Nidal: A Gun for Hire.


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