Why Israel decided to negotiate


By Sean Malloy

Israel's recognition of the Palestinian Liberation Organisation and preparedness to negotiate on the occupied territories reflect contradictions and pressures within Israel and the Middle East according to Joe Stork, editor of the Middle East Report.

In an interview with Green Left Weekly, Stork said, "There has been within the leading political circles of Israel, a camp which has advocated peace, or two states, for some time. The first turning point was the Lebanon invasion in 1982 and the failure of the Likud government, at the time, to accomplish its goal of eliminating the PLO and the Palestinian national movement.

"The second point was the outbreak of the intifada in late 1987 and its continuation in one phase or another to this day. Those two events created the conditions which gave the peace camp, or the two state camp, in Israel greater weight of argumentation and greater strength at the polls. This was reflected in elections last year that brought Labour back to power. The Labour Party and its partners Meretz embodied the advocates of this peace camp."

Another factor, said Stork, was "the end of the cold war and global economic contraction". This affected Israel's relationship with the US. "I think the Israelis saw the handwriting on the wall — that this relationship was going to come in for restructuring over the course of this decade.

"All of this comes together around an important difference in Likud and Labour visions of Zionism. Labour's vision encompasses not just the two state advocates but even right-wing Labour politicians like Yitzhak Rabin. It reflects the contradiction of a Jewish state having territories with an Arab population which would greatly modify, in demographic terms, the Jewish character of that state. It was this basic contradiction and the inability to see any other way of dealing with it that pushed things to this course."

Stork said that the agreement also provides Israeli businesses with an opportunity to realise their longstanding desire to invest in Arab countries.

The agreement itself is a step forward for Palestinians, argues Stork, but shifts the Palestinian struggle for self-determination to negotiations, which will be heavily weighted on Israel's side.

"The agreement represents one very specific gain for Palestinians, and that is the long overdue explicit recognition by Israel of the PLO as the representative of the Palestinian people. Israel has accepted the longstanding Palestinian insistence of negotiating directly with the PLO.

"On every other issue of substance, large or small, the agreement displaces the conflict to the negotiating table. The conflict is by no means over, nor dealt with. The agreement is a framework for dealing with the conflict — a framework whose terms very much represent the imbalance of power between Israel and Palestinians, on one hand, and Israel plus the US, versus Palestinians plus their allies, such as they are, in the Arab world."

If the agreement is carried out, it will be an achievement for Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank, Stork says, despite the fact that the interim Palestinian governing authority is restricted to health, education, social welfare, taxation and a basic police force.

"What will the relationship be between Israel and the Palestinian entity? Israel exists as a state. Its forms, institutions and structures are longstanding and apparent to all. The Palestinian entity is a very different matter. Who is going to constitute this authority? Who are the authorised Palestinians spoken of in the agreement? What sort of structures and institutions will they be able to construct? Certainly not much in the first year.

"The institutions of the PLO itself have been racked by disarray. They have been hurt very much by the economic problems that have confronted the region and the PLO over the last couple of years."

On economic matters, Stork says, "The basic economic relationship between Israel and the occupied territories is going to continue. The question is to what extent it will be moderated or modulated.

"Israel is a country with a GNP of nearly $60 billion. The combined GNP of the territories is less than $3 billion. These abstract numbers represent concrete realities in terms of Israeli firms that already have joint venture arrangements. Exploitation of Palestinian labour isn't just Palestinian workers coming into Israel, working and then returning to the territories. Arrangements also exist with enterprises, with home workers and so on, in the territories themselves." [Middle East Report is the journal of the Middle East Research and Information Project (MERIP), based in Washington, DC, USA.]

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