Tel Aviv (AsiaNews) – In a desperate race against the clock, breathlessly reported by the world’s media, U.S. and European diplomats tried to prevent a meltdown in the recently inaugurated peace negotiations between Israel and the PLO, the Palestine Liberation Organization, after the end, on 26 September, of Israel’s self-imposed partial temporary freeze on settlement building activity in the West Bank.
Talks focused on some magic “formula,” some elusive “squaring of the circle,” that would let Israel resume settlement building while inducing the Palestinian side to continue to participate in the negotiations as if this were not happening. This frantic search for a verbal solution to a real problem resembled so much of what has been the problem in the endless search for the “Holy Grail” of peace in the Holy Land: the focus on finding a “form of words” rather than actually impacting the real situation on the ground. The race against the clock (and it became just that, in its last few hours, after the race against the calendar had already failed) was not successful. By Sunday night, and even more so on Monday morning, settlement building resumed, with great fanfare.
But the drama is still unfolding: There are three actors in this drama: The PLO, and its President Mahmoud Abbas (aka Abu Mazen); the Israeli government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu; the U.S. Administration of President Barack Obama.
The PLO relies on the perennial legal principle, lite pendente nihil innovetur, meaning here that one party should not unilaterally change a situation that is the object of negotiations. It is impossible to accept the good faith of the other party, they say, if at the very same time as professedly negotiating the end of the occupation of the Palestinian territory, the interlocutors continue to deepen and broaden that occupation. Under such conditions, say the Palestinians, their participation in the talks might or might not advance their liberation, but would in any case have the sure effect of legitimizing the colonization of their territory. Such colonizing activity, the PLO points out, is contrary to the Fourth Geneva Convention (1949), to which Israel is a Party, and which forbids the occupying power from settling elements of its own population in occupied territory, as well as being in violation of a number of UN Security Council Resolutions applying this international norm to the territory in question; it likewise runs counter to the consistent position of all US Administrations since 1967, which says, in effect, the same thing.
Mr. Netanyahu’s Government in Israel is essentially saying that it will not survive if it halts the settlement drive, given the strong representation of pro-settlement nationalist circles in Israel’s parliament, the Knesset, and within the governing coalition, and even within Mr. Netanyahu’s own Likud party itself. The fall of the Government, it is implied, will certainly do nothing to facilitate peace negotiations.
The PLO, the Israelis say, would gain nothing by abandoning the negotiating table at this time. The settlement drive would continue anyway, but Mr. Netanyahu, who has already publicly committed himself to freeing the Palestinians to establish their own State, would no longer be there to carry out his centrist policy, and there is little practical prospect that the next Government in Israel would be more moderate. This is the time, the Israelis tell the Palestinians, the precious opportunity to be seized and made the most of.
The U.S. Administration agrees with the Palestinian position on the substance, which has always been the U.S. position too, and that of the international community generally, but says in effect that it is powerless to compel the Israeli government to comply. President Obama already tried once to make Israel cease and desist from its settlement activities, but then had to change course, rather abruptly, when judging that he simply did not have enough “political capital” to spend on the issue in his own country. With the U.S. on the eve of Congressional elections, in November, the Administration feels it cannot provoke the powerful lobbies that support the most hard-line positions to be found among Israelis. So, in practice, the Americans too, like the Israelis are trying to persuade the Palestinians that there is nothing to gain, and too much to lose, by walking out of the negotiations. The reasoning is this: The sooner a peace treaty is reached, to end the occupation, the sooner all settlement activity will actually stop; on the other hand, withdrawing from the talks, however justifiable in abstract principle, will simply result in further settlement activities into the indefinite future.
President Mahmoud Abbas appears to wish to be able to continue the negotiations, probably for the reasons given him by the Americans, but would have great difficulty explaining to his own people how he could do so while more of their land and water are being taken away from them day by day. He has therefore asked for a meeting of the Arab League, next week, to hear the advice of the other members of the regional organization. If they advise him to continue the negotiations, as the Americans and the Israelis are pressing him to do, he will have the “cover” he needs to do so; if on the other hand, the Arab League advises him to withdraw from the talks, he will have the “protection” he needs against such pressures to do otherwise. Meanwhile he has also convened the higher councils of both his own Fatah movement and the over-all Palestine Liberation Organisation, to hear their opinion and receive their guidance.
As is sometimes the case with international agreements concluded in haste, the “original sin” here is perhaps rooted in the “Declaration of Principles,” the original “Oslo Agreement” between Israel and the PLO, of 13 September 1993. There, it is said that “the settlements” will be a matter for the peace negotiations in their concluding phase. The evident reference is to the settlements that had already been put up by that time. No one thought that the phrase could be interpreted to mean that settlement activity could still continue after that date in long ago 1993.
An extenuating circumstance is that, on 13 September 1993, it was foreseen that the definitive peace agreement would be concluded, and the occupation would end, by 1999. It still has not happened. But the number of settlers and the territory covered by the settlements have continued to grow exponentially in the last seventeen years. So much so that a still small, but growing, number of commentators, among the Palestinians and even among the Israelis, and not only on the left, are now of the opinion that it has already become impossible in practice to establish a Palestinian State in the now-occupied territories. The only alternative, they say, is to fuse Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories into one State, with both Arabs and Jews as equal citizens of it. Such a State would now have some six million Jewish citizens and more than four, maybe closer to five, million Palestinian citizens (including the present Palestinian citizens of Israel, within Israel’s present border).
Given higher birth rates among the Palestinians, a Palestinian majority in this unitary State could only be a matter of some years, and not very many at that. For the vast majority of Israeli Jews, this is the “nightmare scenario,” the end of the State of Israel as they know and love it, as specifically the national home of the Jewish People. Every time another house goes up in a settlement, every time another settler family moves in to a West Bank settlement, this scenario is coming closer to becoming an inescapable reality. For those Israelis and Palestinians who still wish to have their own respective—national yet democratic—states, and who believe that at this time (though perhaps not for very much longer) this may still be concretely possible, the resumption this week of full-scale settlement activity is therefore a source of the deepest anxiety.