Israel and Palestine – Pax Americana or Else 1.9.2010

Israel and Palestine – Pax Americana or else

Jakarta Post, Indonesia

At the eve of the opening of renewed talks between Israel and the Palestinians in Washington, former Israeli foreign minister Shlomo Ben-Ami offered a sobering situational assessment to the Council for Peace and Security, a non-aligned association of experts on national security in Israel. This is a summary of what he had to say:

While US president Obama is nowhere near the end of his term and appears willing to devote considerable resources to the peacemaking effort, both sides are entering the talks with serious shortcomings. Israel has not made a strategic decision to view the 1967 borders as a baseline for an agreement and prefers to negotiate for the best possible outcome.

The Palestinians on the other hand have made the strategic decision to settle for the 1967 borders but their PLO leadership suffers from limited legitimacy among the population after having followed a non-productive road of negotiations for the last 20 years.

Another problem is that the aim of the Palestinian National Movement has not been to create a Palestinian state but rather to seek justice and vindication after the Nakba, the catastrophe that befell the Palestinians in the wake of the creation of Israel.

It is quite clear that there is much more at stake here than land for peace: Moral legitimacy. The need for moral legitimacy has made it difficult for Palestinian leaders to cut a deal in the past.

As everybody knows, war unites and peace divides. While Israel’s democracy is likely to overcome the upheaval that will be caused by the need to resettle large population groups, it is by no means certain that Palestinian President Abbas will be able to get the backing of his divided constituency for any deal not sanctioned by Hamas.

Abbas’ PLO faction is identified with the singularly unsuccessful Oslo process and has been living of Western support for many years so any sign of an overly compromising stance will delegitimize an agreement making Abbas’ moderation purely theoretical.

On substance, while PM Netanyahu’s recognition of the two state solution is a positive step, his demand of the Palestinians to recognize Israel as the state of the Jewish people will be difficult for them to swallow as will be the Israeli demand for a demilitarized Palestine.

“Should Netanyahu decide to change the paradigm and not negotiate based on previous agreements, the talks will fail and no US bridging proposal will save the day.”

It is far more likely that the Clinton formula, a “state of limited arms” will find its way into the negotiations. With regard to the solution for the Palestinian refugees, there is basis for a way out that will permit both sides to claim that UN resolution 194 from 1948 has been adhered to.

What adds further difficulty to the negotiations is that each side enters them under different terms of reference, Israel choosing the US terms of reference calling for no preconditions to direct negotiations while the Palestinians align themselves with the terms of reference of the Quartet (UN, US, EU and Russia) which call for negotiations on the basis of the 1967 borders.

Netanyahu’s aim in the talks is to get to an end of conflict while the Palestinians want the 1967 borders and a solution to the refugee problem.

Israel will initially not be able to agree to a complete freeze of settlements since that would be asking to pay almost the full political price of a final agreement for an interim step and with near certainty bring down the government.

The US will be able to support Israel’s position provided it trusts that Israel will go through with a full freeze followed by a withdrawal in the end.

It is quite clear that the Palestinians are entering the negotiations on the basis of talks they held with former Israeli prime minister Olmert which basically means the 1967 borders as a baseline and land swaps based on 1:1 exchange of territory.

As it did in previous talks (Camp David, Shepherdstown), Israel sticks to its “no precondition” mantra which, when push came to shove never prevented Israel’s negotiators from recognizing the achievements of earlier talks.

If PM Netanyahu follows “the flow of things” and negotiations will eventually draw on earlier agreements, he will not be able to close a deal since it will bring down his government.

It can be said that the sole aim of the present negotiations is to bring the parties to a stage at which they will be ready to accept US bridging proposals to prevent failure.

The question then becomes if president Obama is willing and able to push these proposals through using carrots and sticks, with all the political price that may entail so close to the US congressional elections.

Leaving the parties alone with each other will clearly not end in an agreement. In the face of US bridging proposals, Israel is likely to undergo a change of government either through early elections or by means of a coalition reshuffle, a result that may very well be part of US intentions.

Should PM Netanyahu decide to change the paradigm and not negotiate based on previous agreements, the talks will certainly fail and no US bridging proposal will save the day.

An Israeli proposal for a temporary Palestinian state may be feasible if there is a clear commitment for final borders along the 1967 lines.

While Israel remains apprehensive of US proposals this is not warranted since plainly the worst of these will be better for Israel than the best proposals brought by the Palestinians.

As opposed to the Oslo agreements which were open-ended only determining the subjects to be discussed, here we are talking about negotiations where the end is known pretty clearly leaving almost no room for what Henry Kissinger called “constructive ambiguity”. Once an agreement is close, it may be possible to bring in Hamas at the second stage.

This will make it possible to turn them (in the eyes of the public) from a popular resistance movement to an obstacle to peace (if they don’t flow with developments) and undermine their public support. The Palestinians, after all, just like the Israelis, do want peace.

Shlomo Ben-Ami’s assessment is that of a statesman and a historian. It is clear then once again the onus is on the US president. Let’s all fervently hope that president Obama will do better and have more luck than president Clinton did at Camp David in 2000. This may well be the last opportunity for Palestinians and Israelis for a negotiated agreement for a long time to come.

The writer is a retired Israeli diplomat who served in Southeast Asia from 2000-2003.

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