By: Dr. Mohsen Mohammad Saleh.
It appears that the Arab Spring’s aftershock/counter-revolution, culminated with the military coup in Egypt, has given a strong push for the peace process with Israel; encouraging the Israeli-American party to take advantage of the historical opportunity offered by an Arab strategic environment—that is weak, fragmented, and mired in conflicts and crises—and the Palestinian weakness and division, to try to solve the Palestinian issue and reorder the region in a way that suits Israeli-American interests.
Resumption of Negotiations:
On 19/7/2013, US Secretary of State John Kerry, after six rounds in the region spanning the better part of five months, declared that the Palestinians and Israelis have agreed to resume peace talks between them, which had seen a hiatus lasting almost three years. The date for the resumption of the negotiations was set on 30/7/2013.
Since the negotiations collapsed in late 2010, the leadership of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) insisted on refusing to continue the talks except after Israeli settlement building in the West Bank (WB) ceases and a new well-defined frame of reference for the negotiations is established, based on Israel recognizing the two-state solution on the basis of the borders of 1967. The PLO then added a demand related to Palestinian prisoners in the Israeli jails, especially prisoners who were arrested before the 1993 Oslo Accords.
Practically speaking, the PLO leadership has since waived these conditions, and bowed to the Israeli dictates regarding negotiations in light of continued settlement activity, without a well-defined frame of reference that would be binding for Israel. This is while Israel has pledged to release prisoners held before Oslo in batches. The PLO leadership overhyped this “achievement” to cover up its failures over what are otherwise the core components of the negotiating process.
The PLO leadership contented itself with clarifications, or so-called “guarantees” pledged during the US campaign to push for the resumption of the negotiations. However, these are merely verbal guarantees (known as Kerry’s plan), primarily emphasizing the Palestinian people’s right to rule themselves and to achieve their aspirations, in a contiguous, sovereign state, in accordance to the two-state solution based on the borders of 1967 with mutually agreed swaps.
Success Factors in Negotiations:
Some pundits believe that there is a chance to make the negotiations a success, for the following reasons:
1. The willingness of the PLO/Fatah leadership to compromise on some Palestinian Fundamentals such as the right of the refugees to return to their lands occupied in 1948, and reaching deals that may be satisfactory to the Israeli side regarding the future of Jerusalem, the settlements, land swaps, security guarantees, and establishing a demilitarized state… .
2. The Israeli concerns about missing a historic opportunity to snap up major concessions from the Palestinians, in the presence of a weak Palestinian leadership, Palestinian division, and stalling efforts for inter-Palestinian reconciliation.
3. The presence of a favorable regional environment after the severe blow dealt to the Arab Spring in Egypt, and as a result of the faltering march of revolutions for change and reform, the decline of the “Refusal Front” (i.e., Syria, Iran, Hamas and Hizbullah), Hamas’s loss of much of its previous regional logistical support, the tightened siege on Gaza Strip (GS), and the revival of the “moderate axis,” which could secure an Arab climate conducive for the peace process.
4. The strong American-Western interest to take advantage of the state of chaos, fragmentation, and weakness, and the conflicts blighting the region, to create a new map more in line with Israeli-American-Western interests; and the American conviction that these arrangements cannot be realized except after solving the Palestinian question.
5. The Israeli realization that they have no future in the region except if their state is “normalized,” which is not possible except by achieving a peace settlement that puts an end to the conflict.
6. The Israeli awareness of the threat posed by Palestinian population growth, inside historic Palestine, to the future of the “Jewish state” and the Jewish identity of Israel.
Failure Factors in Negotiations:
Other pundits expect the negotiations to fail for several reasons, most notably:
1. It is very difficult for the Palestinian side to sell, to its own people, a final agreement based on Israeli terms with historical concessions.
2. The Israeli side itself is unprepared to make “historic” concessions for the Palestinian people. For one thing, Israel is led by an extremist government, in a society that is becoming increasingly extremist. The Israelis in general agree on what is a “no,” but not on what is a “yes.”
3. The American side is unable (and unwilling) to put pressure on Israel to make “historic” concessions or concessions that are undesirable to Israel.
4. The mistrust the Israeli side harbors for the Palestinian negotiating party, which is perceived as weak and unrepresentative of the Palestinian people, and one that may not be able to implement its commitments. Hence, there is no justification for making substantial concessions that may go in vain.
5. The Arab and Islamic climate is unstable and full of challenges, and thus its interactions cannot be controlled and its developments cannot be reassured to. Hence, any guarantees or current Arab partnerships in the peace process could lose their meanings or legitimacy with any change in the existing regimes.
6. The Israeli negotiating strategy is based on “managing the problem” rather than “resolving the problem.” It therefore has a stake in prolonging the negotiations, as much as possible, while continuing to build facts on the ground, including strengthening Jewish presence, building settlements, and confiscating lands and holy sites; until the goal of imposing its vision on the other side is achieved, after having invalidated the cards the latter holds.
Course of Negotiations:
Since 30/7/2013, more than 20 negotiating rounds were held. Their outcome was frustrating for the Fatah/Palestinian side, as the Israeli side sustained its settlement activities frantically, and did not delve into the core issues of the peace process, nor offer its vision for the final solution. Instead, the Israelis continued to put pressure regarding security arrangements and their details, and about recognizing Israel as a state for the Jewish people, and did not accept the idea of the Palestinian state based on the borders of 1967, or enter negotiations about demarcating the borders. Reports leaked that there was a request to lease the Jordan Valley region (28% of WB) for 40 years (the Americans proposed 10-15 years that can be renewed), with the settlements clustered in ten settlement blocks, and early warning stations kept in the WB highlands. There was also an Israeli desire to separate GS from the negotiating process.
The Palestinian negotiating party, which appeared to be engaged in a futile process, submitted its resignation on 30/10/2013 to Palestinian President Mahmud ‘Abbas, who insisted on continuing to negotiate until the end of the deadline set at April 2014. Concerning what the Palestinian side has offered in the “compromises market,” the leaks suggest: A demilitarized Palestinian state based on the borders of 1967, possibly starting out with temporary borders on 80% of WB, expanding gradually within three years to reach its final borders, with the possibility of maintaining the core settlement blocks through a land swap that does not exceed 2%, proportionately in size and value.
Another offer involves forfeiting the right of Palestine refugees to return to the land occupied in 1948 (i.e., Israel), with willingness to make some concessions in East Jerusalem concerning the Western Wall and the Jewish Quarter (Al-Sharaf Quarter), as well as parts of the Armenian Quarter, the Sheikh Jarrah Quarter, and the Jewish cemetery on the Mount of Olives.
Meanwhile, there is declared Palestinian rejection (so far!) of recognizing Israel as a Jewish state or as a state for the “Jewish people,” on the grounds that Israel was already politically recognized in 1993, and that Israel cannot be recognized on an ideological basis, something that was not raised in the treaties concluded with Egypt and Jordan.
There are five possible scenarios for the negotiations:
1. Historic Agreement
This scenario is based on the idea that the Palestinian and Israeli sides, and also the American and Western side, want to take advantage of the historic opportunity that may not be repeated, to conclude an agreement that would decisively settle final status issues. In essence, this agreement would approve the establishment of a demilitarized Palestinian state based on the borders of 1967, with limited land swaps, and a safe corridor between the WB and GS. The settlement blocks would remain, the right of the refugees to return to the Palestinian lands occupied in 1948 would be forfeited, and a solution would be reached giving some measure of sovereignty and guarantees to both sides in East Jerusalem.
Most Arab countries would endorse the peace agreement and normalization, on the grounds of accepting whatever the Palestinians assent to. Celebratory coverage in the media will portray this as a historic achievement of establishing the Palestinian state, supposedly rescuing most of the WB and GS from Israeli occupation and the clutches of the process of “Judaization,” despite the disadvantages and evils of this new agreement.
2. A New Framework Agreement (Oslo 2)
This scenario is based on the premise that both parties are not completely prepared to reach final agreements (especially the Israeli side). However, an agreement is made by the two sides supported by a favorable regional and international climate, focusing on the need to make an important breakthrough, without necessarily settling the issues of the refugees, Jerusalem, and the borders. This means agreeing to establish the Palestinian state within provisional borders, on 60–70% of the WB. Meanwhile, Israel continues to maintain its control over the ports of entry to the state awaiting a final solution.
This is a scenario favored by Israel, albeit it has so far been rejected by the PLO leadership, fearing for what is temporary to become permanent, and fearing for the other issues to become merely disputes between two states, as is the case with many countries of the world.
3. New Temporary Arrangements
This could happen to avoid declaring the failure of the negotiations, by expanding partially and in a limited fashion the areas administered by the Palestinian Authority, which is also given further economic incentives, in addition to releasing more prisoners, curtailing checkpoints, and reducing security measures in the WB.
4. Failure of Negotiations, Israeli Unilateral Withdrawal
This is linked to Sharon’s project, on the basis of which the Kadima party was founded. It is based on the premise that it is impossible to reach a final settlement that both sides can agree to. Therefore, as the plan envisages, the Israeli side must determine by itself the areas that it wants to withdraw from, without consulting the Palestinians. This would be offered as a “great sacrifice” for peace, and would turn the Israeli problem with the Palestinians afterwards into a mere border dispute.
However, this scenario involves great disparity in the views of the Israelis who support it: Indeed, some speak about withdrawing from 43% of the WB, while others speak about withdrawing from two-thirds, and others still about withdrawing behind the Separation Wall (approx. 88%). In any case, the whole of East Jerusalem, the settlement blocks, and water sources would remain under Israeli control.
5. Failure of Negotiations, and the Continuation of the Status Quo
It is based on an Israeli reading that does not believe the time is right to make concessions, and that the Palestinian, Arab, and Islamic situation is brittle, weak, torn, and unstable, meaning that concessions have no tangible benefits for the Israeli side. Israel also believes in the need to continue to build facts on the ground to ultimately impose the Israeli vision of the peace settlement from a practical perspective, allowing the Palestinian Authority to only manage the population at the end, while the land would remain under Israeli domination.
Any Likely Scenario?
It is not easy to determine which is the most likely scenario among these scenarios. However, it is possible to speak about a chance to achieve a breakthrough in the peace process. Since many of the demands laid on the Palestinians had been already obtained in the past—including most points related to the refugees, Jerusalem, the settlements, the security arrangements, and the demilitarized Palestinian state—progressing towards an agreement depends primarily on the extent of Israel’s estimation of the situation. So far, this estimation is not inclined to reach a historic agreement ending the conflict. For this reason, Israel might seek to bring about the second scenario, involving a new framework agreement without resolving the final issues.
In this case, the approval of the Palestinian side will make it a likely scenario, but in case it was rejected, the third scenario will become more likely. This scenario involves some arrangements that will “save face.” There is also the fifth scenario, which holds that negotiations would fail. As for the scenario for a unilateral Israeli withdrawal, this is still unlikely under the current political circumstances, which do not tend to allow a vacuum in the WB without prior arrangements, lest Hamas and the resistance forces fill this vacuum.
As for Palestinians, in such uncondusive atmosphere, and unfair rules of the game, they should pull out from these negotiations, which give a false image of the peace process and the relationship with the Israel, and provides ideal cover for the occupation and Judaization and settlement programs, holding the Palestinian national project hostage to Israeli and American dictates. It is also incumbent upon the Palestinians to give priority to reconciliation and ending the division, rally the Palestinian people’s strengths and huge potential at home and abroad, put the Palestinian house in order and reshape its independent decision, and regain the Arab, Islamic, and international dimensions of the Palestinian issue.
The Arabic version of this article appeared on Al Jazeera.net on 30/12/2013.