Occupied Palestine: no peace in sight

Wednesday, October 16, 1996

By Jennifer Thompson

A restrained state of war continues between Israel and Palestinians in the wake of the September 25 uprisings across the occupied territories. Palestine Report publisher and political commentator Ghassan Khatib described the factors leading to the Palestinian uprising: "Israeli policies of deliberately impeding any progress in the peace process, of increasing settlement on Arab land, cantonizing the Palestinian territories, and the closure policy".

Despite international pressures for a settlement, any semblance of the Palestinian statehood envisaged by the PLO when the September 1993 Declaration of Principles was signed remains unlikely. This is partly a result of the deliberate ambiguity of the 1993 "Oslo" agreement, reached after secret negotiations between the PLO and Israel following the Gulf War, which had decisively redrawn the regional balance of forces in favour of the US and its allies.

That interim agreement set out a five-year timetable which left the most difficult questions — the eventual fate of Jerusalem, the return of refugees from the 1967 war, Israeli settlements in the Palestinian territories, security arrangements, borders, relations and cooperation with other neighbours and the division of scarce water resources — to last. Notably omitted from the list of issues the Oslo agreement promised to address was the right of return for Palestinians displaced and expelled during and after the 1948 war that followed the creation of the state of Israel.

This approach allowed the process of Israeli withdrawal in the occupied territories to begin, and both sides to hold widely different views of what the final result would be, but also gave Israel the chance to prejudice the final status negotiations by changing the facts. Israel's then foreign minister, Shimon Peres, said that while the proposal lacked the "clarity of a map", it provided "the commitment of a timetable". As Graham Usher notes in Palestine in Crisis, "'The clarity of a map' was what most Palestinians had insisted the peace process was about. The core of their conflict with Israel had always been about land."

The negotiations' outcomes to date reflect the post-Gulf War balance of forces. During the secret Oslo negotiations, held simultaneously with the Madrid Middle East peace conference's bilateral negotiations between Israel and Arab countries formally at war with Israel, the PLO — severely financially strained and watching a massive acceleration in Israeli settlements and land confiscations in the occupied territories — was under pressure to reach an agreement.

Israel's attempts to capitalise on the gaps and ambiguities of the agreement didn't meet serious Palestinian resistance. Yasser Arafat's September 25, 1993, call on Palestinians to "return to ordinary life" resulted, notes Usher, in the abandonment of any strategy of mobilisation or resistance in the territories.

Israel's current refusal to give any commitments on concrete problems, like the partial redeployment from Hebron delayed since March 28 and continued threat to Palestinian institutions in Jerusalem, and renewed attempts to renege on previously signed agreements, have left Palestinians despairing. Palestinian Authority higher education minister Hanan Ashrawi said it was "very clear that the [Washington] summit ended without any concrete or tangible results in establishing a timetable for implementing old agreements ... it did not end the basic causes of the bloodshed last week, nor end the 'siege within a siege' Israel has imposed on Palestinian towns or prevent further Israeli provocative reactions".

Likud Prime Minister Benyamim Netanyahu suggested to the opening of the Israeli Knesset's winter session on October 7 that implementation of existing agreements could be suspended after the Hebron redeployment was resolved, and that negotiations immediately start on the final status issues. This is the "option" preferred in the British Economist magazine's October 5 editorial.

The Economist runs through what it considers a number of options for Israel's political leaders. Its current policy of paying lip service to the peace process while acting provocatively is judged untenable after the uprising. Disarming the Palestinian police and returning to military occupation is considered too bloody and likely to worsen Israeli "security". Making the current "interim" arrangements relatively indefinite until there is consensus on final status issues is considered too dependent on limited Palestinian patience.

What the Economist calls the "fourth and boldest choice" was that suggested by Netanyahu: move straight to the final settlement. The editorial refers as a model to the secret negotiations, revealed in February, between Labour and Palestinian negotiators. The model preserved settlements under Israeli sovereignty in the West Bank around Jerusalem and redrew the boundaries to include those areas.

Then, the Israeli daily Ha'aretz revealed, deputy foreign minister Yossi Beilin had held a series of meetings with Palestinian Oslo negotiator Abu Mazen as groundwork for final status negotiations. They developed a detailed map and discussed some Israeli concessions on Jerusalem — the February 23 Jerusalem Times indicated that Labour was prepared to "share" the "administration" of the Jerusalem municipality.

According to Middle East International's Peretz Kidron, in related preparatory guidelines drawn up by two Israeli academics with Palestinian officials, Israel would allow the creation of a Palestinian state and set aside an extraterritorial corridor linking Gaza and the West Bank; the Jordan Valley would be returned to Palestinian sovereignty after 12 years. In return, Palestinians would waive demands for the removal of the Israeli settlers; the more populous settlements would be annexed to Israel, while smaller settlements would come under Palestinian control.

International capital would like a final arrangement along these lines, as would sections of Israeli capital. Writing in the Israeli business magazine Globes, Haggai Golan expressed the view of the business sector concerned about attracting international investment to Israel: "If the economy is in fact as important to Netanyahu as he would have us believe, and if privatisation, foreign investors and liberalisation are basic tenets of his faith, then he must see the link between them and the political process".

But serious efforts towards peace seem blocked by the political problems Netanyahu faces, both by the constraints of Likud's coalition with the religious and secular right and by his faith in the wing of Zionist ideology that holds that the Palestinian territories are part of Greater Israel. The new factor is the reactivated resistance to Israeli reneging on full Palestinian statehood. n