The mirage of Palestinian-Israeli negotiations

Ahmed Eleiba , Saturday 11 May 2013

What lies behind the sudden rush to hold a new round of Palestinian-Israeli negotiations

File photo: Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (L) stands with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (Photo: Reuters)

There was recently a sudden rush to hold an Arab-US meeting in Washington to examine the possibility of resuming Palestinian-Israeli negotiations. An invitation had gone out from Secretary of State John Kerry to the chief parties of the Arab peace initiative, who are simultaneously the chief parties in the Arab League, and the invitation was accepted without hesitation.

But before heading off to Washington, the Arab parties held an urgent meeting in Doha. Qatar is a member of the Arab peace initiative committee, of course. Yet, according to observers, it plays a bigger role than that. Indeed, some observers have gone so far as to say that the Qatari role extends beyond its relative weight in this context to the additional functions it has been acquiring in the course of its bids to insinuate itself among major powers such as the US and Israel.

Atwan Shalhat, an expert at the Palestinian Forum for Israeli Studies (Madar), is of this opinion. Speaking on the phone from Haifa, Shalhat, who is of Palestinian origin, told Al-Ahram Weekly that “with the help of the Arabs more than the Palestinians, the US state department has managed to furnish a cover for the possible resumption of negotiations.”

“At the same time, it has offered inducements to Israel that will probably persuade it to return to the negotiating table. Although there is a Palestinian contingent in the Arab delegation that headed off to Washington to explore the possibilities of resuming negotiations, it is not enthusiastic. It has found little to encourage it in the talks [in Washington] and in the inter-Arab consultations.”

“Undoubtedly, this is because the Palestinians are unconvinced by this approach, which by any standards is a process of concession that is filled with temptations for Israel which in turn does not find the meal on offer rich enough to arouse its appetite for serious, meaningful dialogue.”

The “inducements” boil down to a modification of the Arab peace initiative adopted at the Arab League Summit in Beirut in 2002, which had been initially sponsored by Saudi Arabia, the most influential Arab party in this context, though not one as interested in the limelight as Qatar.

The modification is to include the principle of “territorial exchange,” which according to some sources entails a bilateral land-swap between the Israelis and the Palestinians, while other sources suspect that it will entail trilateral land-swaps between Israel, the Palestinians and Egypt.

There have also been suggestions of a broader “multilateral” or “regional” exchange that would include five parties: Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Palestine and Israel. According to the Israeli political analyst Jackie Khoury as well as the Palestinians of 1948 community in Israel, this project echoes that of the former head of the Israeli National Security Council Giro Eilan.

The trilateral land-swap idea had been proposed to Egypt by Shimon Peres during his visit to former president Hosni Mubarak in August 2010. Mubarak rejected the notion out of hand, nipping any resolution to the question of Palestinian statehood at Egypt’s expense in the bud.

At the time, according to a source in Egyptian intelligence, Israel was looking for a land-swap formula in accordance with which the Palestinians would concede territory in the West Bank and Gaza in exchange for which the western borders of Gaza would be pushed some 164km into Sinai. Egypt would be able to keep Wadi Feiran.

Apparently, Palestinian Authority (PA) president Mahmoud Abbas approved the proposal, which had been put to him through secret negotiating channels with the then Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert. Cairo responded by saying that not a single inch of Egyptian territory was negotiable.

The Egyptian authorities also went further to point out that the current borders of Gaza did not in fact represent the true historical dimensions of that region. Historically, the borders of Gaza had extended up to Ashkelon, 13km north of Gaza’s current eastern border. Therefore, they said, if people were interested in expanding the land area of Gaza, which is the most densely populated area on earth, they should extend its borders into Israel, rather than in the opposite direction into Egyptian territory. Egyptians had made enormous sacrifices to recover this land, they said.

The corridor connecting the West Bank with Gaza was also up for negotiation. Although originally a Palestinian territory, the West Bank-Gaza corridor conflicts with Israeli “security arrangements” that are designed to divide the Palestinian territories into a patchwork of isolated cantons. Could the concept of land-exchange possibly mean a swap of Palestinian land in exchange for Palestinian land?

This is how Hamas perceived it in its reaction to recent rounds of talks. Ayman Taha, a member of the Hamas Political Bureau, told the Weekly that “Hamas was not consulted on this subject at any time, and it does not approve of what has been taking place in the talks.”

According to a high-level Palestinian diplomat who was present at the talks in Washington, the proposals that were placed on the table in the US had been put forward as ideas, not as a definitive project. The source, who spoke to the Weekly from New York, said that the Arabs had not reached any form of consensus over the ideas that would be discussed in Washington before heading off to the US capital.

Instead, they had only agreed among themselves to listen to what Washington had to say with regard to the possibility of the existence of common ground that would permit the resumption of negotiations in a manner consistent with the established principles of the Palestinian cause. There had been no intent to offer Israel enticements in order to lure it back to the negotiating table, he said.

The Palestinian diplomat went on to reveal that certain Arab parties had departed from what had been agreed in order to listen to the US administration’s point of view in reopening the peace process and what the common ground to build upon might be, rather than to discuss or raise proposals.

“Even if Abu Mazen [Mahmoud Abbas] made this proposal at the time of the Olmert premiership, that was in a totally different context. We had only been speaking of minor modifications to the border that would be possible through some land-swaps. The point had been to overcome certain difficulties with regard to the original 1967 borders that had arisen due to changing realities on the ground.”

“There is a difference between territorial exchanges and modifications of the borders. There is an illusion being marketed by the US-Israeli-Qatari trio in the negotiations with the purpose of superseding the supposed framework of the two-state solution, which has long been accepted by all parties,” former Palestinian minister Hassan Asfour, a member of the Palestinian negotiating team during the Oslo talks, said.

Speaking to the Weekly from Jordan, Asfour said that “the idea now is to deal with the current situation in the region in a manner that creates a new political axis to eliminate the Syrian-Iranian-Hizbullah-Hamas axis, because [President Bashar] Al-Assad might regain the initiative in Syria and Hezbollah do something in the management of the urban wars which would shift the balance in a manner that would have dangerous repercussions for the opposing double alliance of the US and Israel and the US and the Arab powers.”

Asfour added that “the trap into which the Arab delegation fell is that the Arab League does not have the right to modify the Arab peace initiative now. Not even the Arab League’s committee for this initiative has this right. This is because there has been a fundamental change in the form of the UN recognition of Palestine, which means that any negotiations that take place should be over the delineation of the borders, not over land exchanges. In overlooking this fact, the delegation is acting as though it wants to set this historic gain aside and pretend it never happened.”

Asfour believed that the US, Israel and Qatar were actively conspiring toward this end. They wanted the Palestinians and Arabs to forfeit this gain, he said, and Israel was prepared to intervene in Syria in exchange for the required modification of the Arab initiative. “Therefore, I believe that the idea that Israel favours is the ‘comprehensive regional solution’ currently being marketed by Qatar. However, Egypt, which is the most important regional party in this equation, is backing off. Even the Egyptian presidency, which hails from the Muslim Brotherhood, does not want to become involved in this, as much as the Muslim Brotherhood wants to end the Syrian question at any cost.”

The Palestinian diplomatic source in New York agreed, adding that “the most accurate observation on the Arabs’ Doha-Washington excursion was made by the Egyptian Foreign Minister Mohamed Kamel Amr.”

After returning from Washington, Amr said that modifying the Arab peace initiative would require an Arab summit. This, he felt, was not the order of the day. Rather, “the time has come to reach a constructive solution based on the already established principles. The focus should shift from conflict management to the actual attainment of peace,” Amr said.

He continued by saying that “we, as Arab states, support the Palestinian position. Our position is also to support the Arab peace initiative, which calls for the full [Israeli] withdrawal from all occupied territories to the borders of 7 June 1967 and a just solution that includes the creation of a sovereign Palestinian state on the Palestinian territories occupied in 1967 with its capital in East Jerusalem.”

Although Amr denied rumours regarding land-exchange proposals, stressing that no joint Arab-US statement had been issued to such an effect, sources in both Amman and Washington did confirm that the various land-swap suggestions had been mooted “as ideas”.

At the end of the meeting in Washington, Kerry apparently said that he would give the parties two months to think over what had been discussed. Developments in Washington’s stances with respect to the various situations in the Middle East, most notably its positions with respect to intervention in Syria and a possible military engagement with Iran, will certainly provide added food for thought during this period.

As Shalhat put it, “there was a lot of nodding and winking with regard to Syria during the talks that took place in Washington.”

He went on to observe that there were fundamental differences among the Arabs, who were sharply divided between those who rejected and those who were pushing for approval of the “ideas” mooted during the talks. However, he asked, “if they enter a new phase of negotiations, will Israel have anything to offer now? I doubt it. There are 40 Knesset members who form a large religious pressure group that Netanyahu has to deal with. This is why Israel will try to shift the focus to another subject over which there is a fundamental disagreement and this is to demand recognition of Israel as a Jewish state, a chord Obama obligingly plucked during his recent visit to Israel.”

Said Okasha of the Israeli Studies Unit in the Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies, said that the purpose of the Israeli focus on the “Jewishness” of the Israeli state at this point was to settle all current and future problems in a single stroke by exacting recognition from the Arabs that they — the Jews — had a historic right to the land before 1948.

Okasha said that the “Jewishness” the Israelis were insisting on had nothing to do with their form of government and the extent to which it is influenced by religion, as some Arabs think, but rather it relates to their claim to an exclusive and pre-existing title to the land.

Shalhat added that Israel would never consent to what the Arabs demanded and that the furthest it would go would be to offer to restart negotiations where they left off in 2008, to which they might add some “good will” initiatives such as helping to promote tourism in the Palestinian territories, freeing some Palestinian prisoners and withdrawing from various central points in the West Bank.

“This is the type of thinking that the various political parties in the Knesset can come together on, especially in view of the influence of the Jewish Home Party, the third-largest bloc in the Israeli parliament, which is in favour of developing the Palestinian Authority into an autonomous rule area. However, there will be a consensus that the need now is to focus on more pressing and sensitive issues for Israel, which are Syria and Iran, over which Tel Aviv and Washington have very different red lines.”

Clearly various parties are trying to push Washington and Tel Aviv closer together on these “red lines”. However, it appears that the keys are still in the hands of Iran and Syria and the way they respond to Israel’s succession of provocative aerial strikes inside Syria. For the moment, Israel is in waiting mode, having mobilised its missile batteries on the borders in anticipation of that response.

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