Prospects for Middle East talks

Wednesday, August 7, 1991

By Peter Boyle

The Bush administration appears to have succeeded in convincing Israel, Syria and the Soviet Union to participate in preliminary negotiations on Middle East conflicts. However, the Israeli government insists — and the Bush administration accepts — that it be given the right to dictate who represents the Palestinians! It refuses to negotiate with representatives of, or anyone connected with, the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) or any Palestinian from East Jerusalem, which Israel occupied in 1967 and annexed in 1980. (No other country recognises this annexation.) PETER BOYLE spoke to FRANS TIMMERMAN, the editor of Free Palestine, about the prospects for a settlement.

Who stands to gain from a Middle East conference in the form proposed?

If a conference actually takes place, the Palestinians can hope to make some gains. At present, the Palestinians have nothing. They live under brutal Israeli military occupation, they have no democratic rights, they have no national rights — so anything that they can get will be better than what they've got.

The Palestinian movement is wary of being drawn into a process that might result in the denial of their national rights. This would be the Israeli agenda, if they could get away with it. They would like to create peace treaties with all the Arab neighbouring states and at the same time not return any of the territory they have occupied since 1967.

But the Israelis are also worried about being drawn into a conference where they will be pressured into giving back some territory. How much territory they are really prepared to return — despite their public position — is yet to be seen.

Do you think Palestinians will participate under the current proposal?

I believe the PLO will accept not being a direct part of at least the first stage of the negotiations because they have little choice. They have been deserted by their "Arab brothers" and betrayed by the Soviet Union. But any Palestinians who participate will have to consult in some way with the PLO.

The Israeli government is hoping that the peace talks will break down, and that if the Palestinians insist on their own representation, the breakdown can be blamed on them.

The Palestinians should have the right to choose their own representatives just like any other party to the conference. The

Israelis should not be allowed to get away with forcing de facto international recognition of their annexation of Arab East Jerusalem. But the Palestinians are on the back foot even though the Israelis are being seen by the world as intransigent. The Palestinians don't have many powerful friends, while the Israelis have the United States behind them.

If the process gets beyond who comes to the conference, what are the possible options for a settlement?

There is a wide range of options, but most will not even come up for discussion. The Israelis favour their continuing occupation of most of the Arab territories, with a small concession to Syria in the Golan Heights and perhaps some joint control arrangement in southern Lebanon.

The real issue in southern Lebanon and the Golan Heights is not Israel's security but water rights. The Zionist movement has claimed southern Lebanon since 1919, and control of water supply is their main motive. The Israelis have not only been robbing the Palestinians of their land but they have taken control of their water supplies and sell water to the Palestinians.

The Israeli government doesn't want to give the Palestinians in the occupied territories anything more than some local autonomy.

The Israelis also want to continue creating settlements in the occupied territories. These settlements have so far taken something like 60% of all the land. Just a few tens of thousand Israelis live in these settlements, while the other 40% of the territories are home to 2 million Palestinians. The Palestinians are gradually being squeezed into smaller and smaller ghetto-ised areas, demonstrating again how much of an apartheid state Israel is.

The next option would be a partial Israeli withdrawal from areas they consider of no value.

Will the Israeli government accept an independent Palestinian state in any form?

The Zionist project precludes this. They would have to give up their basic ideology, which denies the existence of Palestine. Perhaps it is possible that they could be forced to change. If you can trust the opinion polls, about 60% of the Israeli population favours trading land for peace. About a quarter to a third say Israel should withdraw altogether from the territories.

But the highly unstable coalition governments that have run Israel in recent years depend on small extremist nationalist and racist Zionist parties to form government. They have been saying to Shamir: if you don't put the most extreme position, we will pull out of the ruling coalition and bring down the government.

What settlement will the Arab states find acceptable?

The Syrian government is prepared to totally sell out the Palestinians if they can get the Golan Heights back. The Lebanese government similarly would agree to anything to get their land in the south back. But the Jordanian government, at the minimum, would want the Palestinians to be given some sort of autonomous rule because, as a result of the refugee flight during the 1948 and 1967 wars, Palestinians now make up two-thirds of the population of Jordan. If King Hussein agreed to sell out the Palestinians, he would be in danger of falling from power.

The Saudis seem prepared to lift the economic embargo against Israel as a result of their close relationship with the US government.

Will the Arab states be able to sell out the Palestinians and still present such a settlement as a "victory" to their own populations?

This would be unlikely. All the Arab states are weaker after the Gulf War. They've lost money, they've lost popular support, and they are more under US domination.

The Arab in the street feels humiliated and angry. Few ordinary Arabs supported the Gulf War. Pan-Arabism is very important to most Arabs, so they feel angry about an attack on any Arab state. They are resentful of the international double standard with regard to Kuwait and are angry at their own governments' weakness and complicity with the US and Israeli governments. They are also angry at the gross inequalities in their countries.

Is there broad acceptance among the Palestinians for some form of two-state solution, a Palestinian state existing alongside Israel?

There is very broad support for a two-state solution. The Palestinians are willing to concede the existence of Israel if they can have a state of their own.

Most Palestinians are still deeply resentful because the majority of Palestine has been taken from them permanently by the Zionist conquest. But most — especially the ones who live under Israeli occupation — are realistic enough to see that they won't get their own state without conceding the existence of the Israeli state.

What is the current strength and authority of the PLO among the Palestinians?

The PLO still has the almost total allegiance of the Palestinians. Despite some local successes by religious zealots, the secular pro-PLO elements enjoy about 80-90%

support.

Issue