Israeli-Palestinian peace will take more than hope

Jerusalem: A Palestinian woman passes right-wing Israelis demonstrating against fellow leftwing peace activists who joined a Palestinian protest against the eviction of Palestinians from their homes in annexed Arab east Jerusalem, in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood on January 1, 2010.(AFP Photo / Ahmad Gharabli)
When Israeli and Palestinian negotiators sit down in Washington next week for a new round of peace negotiations, they will be confronted with a huge plate of challenges.

Upon the invitation of US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas will meet with US President Barack Obama beginning on September 2 for a historic round of peace talks that will be compounded by a string of complex issues. Here are some of them.

Israeli settlements

The timetable for the peace talks comes just before a 10-month moratorium on Jewish settlement construction is set to expire, on September 26, and this has naturally caused much consternation amongst the Palestinians, who do not want to see any more construction on the territory they envision as the site of their future state.

On Monday, President Mahmoud Abbas sent a letter to Washington warning that the Palestinians would withdraw from the negotiations if the settlement freeze ends and the construction equipment returns.

"If Israel resumes settlement activities in the Palestinian territories, including East Jerusalem, we cannot continue negotiations," Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said, quoting from the letter. “Settlements and peace are parallels that don’t meet. If Israel continues with settlement construction, we will withdraw from talks.”

He said the letter also was sent to other members of the "Quartet" of Mid-East mediators, comprised of the EU, UN and Russia.

However, Netanyahu has said he will not enter the talks with any preconditions, saying that the settlement issue will be discussed at the table in Washington. Moreover, the conservative Israeli leader of the hawkish Likud party fears a political backlash within his coalition government if he caves in to Palestinian demands to halt settlement construction.

“Jerusalem is not a settlement,” Netanyahu told the powerful American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) in March.

“It would be political suicide for Netanyahu to agree to maintain the “once-only” ten-month new-construction freeze he instituted throughout Judea and Samaria last November…as the Palestinians demand,” according to an editorial in The Jerusalem Post on Tuesday. “It would also send out the false message that Israel might be ready to evacuate all Jewish settlements beyond the 1949 Armistice lines.”

Meanwhile, US State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said Washington understands the importance of the issue for the Palestinians and will ensure that it is included at the start of the negotiations.

"We are very mindful of the Palestinian position, and once we are into direct negotiations we expect that both parties will do everything within their power to create an environment for those negotiations to continue constructively," he said.

There are now about 120 Jewish settlements throughout the West Bank, which are home to roughly 300,000 Israelis amongst some 2.5 million Palestinians. Israel, despite heated objections from the international community, has been settling the contended territory since capturing it -along with Gaza and East Jerusalem – in the 1967 war.

The settlement issue was responsible for dragging US-Israeli relations to their lowest point in many years after Israel announced it would build 1,600 new homes for its settlers in East Jerusalem. As if that announcement was not bad enough, it was made while US Vice president Joe Biden was in Jerusalem, trumpeting the Israeli-US relationship.

Can East Jerusalem be shared?

The question of East Jerusalem will be a hot-button topic for any future peace agreement. The Palestinians envision it as the capital of their future state, while Netanyahu has said in the past that they will not allow Jerusalem to be divided. But that is just the tip of the iceberg of a very complex issue that has deep religious roots.

East Jerusalem is the site of the Temple Mount and the Western Wall, which carries tremendous significance for the Jews. Meanwhile, it is also the place of the Dome of the Rock, the oldest existing Islamic structure in the world and the place from where Muslims believe that Muhammad ascended into heaven alongside Abraham, Moses and Jesus Christ (which begs the question: if these four can get along, why can't the Israelis and Palestinians?).

The Dome of the Rock also is built over the site of the so-called Foundation Stone, the place where Abraham prepared to sacrifice his son Isaac. It is considered to be the holiest site in Judaism.

Although this may be seen as delving too deeply into the religious history of the region over what is arguably a strictly political question, it would be impossible to have any discussion on the future of East Jerusalem without giving hefty consideration to the religious element of the area, which has a way of bringing passions to the boiling point.

If Israel does agree to return East Jerusalem as the capital of a Palestinian state, it would at least have to be done in a way that would allow Jews, Christians and Muslims to enjoy full access to the Temple Mount, while at the same time placing a definite limit on future Jewish settlements.

Palestinian right to arms

US President Barack Obama, in his June 4, 2009 speech in Cairo, Egypt, advocated a two-state solution and pushed for compromise between "two peoples with legitimate aspirations." He called for both Israel and the Palestinians to fulfill obligations described in the 2003 Roadmap for Peace, including a halt to settlement expansion in the West Bank by Israel.

Less than two weeks later, on June 14, Netanyahu responded with a speech that revealed his true hand.

Although uttering the previously unheard “two-state” solution, Netanyahu’s speech went downhill from there, making demands that he certainly understood the Palestinians would never agree to.

One of the conditions for living side-by-side a Palestinian state was that Israel’s theoretical neighbors would have to be demilitarized, bereft of any means to defend themselves from outside attack, which is the right of every sovereign state. And remember, it is Netanyahu who is staunchly against the Palestinians making any pre-conditions before the peace talks.

"I say this in a clear voice – if we receive a guarantee of this demilitarized unit, we will be prepared to reach agreement to a demilitarized Palestine side by side with the Jewish state," Netanyahu said, according to a translation of his speech at Bar-Ilan University's Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies in Ramat Gan, Israel.

Palestinian chief negotiator Saeb Erakat said Netanyahu "left us with nothing to negotiate as he systematically took nearly every permanent status issue off the table."

"He announced a series of conditions and qualifications that render a viable, independent and sovereign Palestinian state impossible," Erakat said.

Obama, happy to at least hear the “two-state” utterance from the Israeli leader, called the speech "an important step forward" for providing the Palestinians with "a viable state," according to a White House statement.

Unless some means of allowing the Palestinians to protect themselves from aggression – possibly through the United Nations, or even NATO – it is difficult to see how Abbas would be able to agree to such humiliating conditions.

The question of Israeli statehood

For the Palestinians, they – together with the more militant forces, including Hamas – will have to agree with Netanyahu that "the land of Israel is homeland to the Jewish people, and that is the basis of our right to it."

Although definite borders will have to be worked out concerning where the “homeland of the Jewish people” begins and ends (this was set down in the 1949 Armistice Agreements that ended the 1948 Arab-Israeli War), the point is that Israel’s traditional opponents will have to acknowledge Israel’s right to exist.

Hamas, for example, the political group that won a majority of seats in the Palestinian Parliament in 2006, has removed from its charter original wording calling for a Palestinian Islamic State in the region that now comprises Israel, the West Bank and Gaza.

The possibility for compromise came in July, 2009 when Khaled Meshal, Hamas's political bureau chief, stated Hamas's willingness to co-operate with "a resolution to the Arab-Israeli conflict which included a Palestinian state based on 1967 borders," provided that Palestinian refugees forced out in 1948 be given the right to return to Israel.

East Jerusalem, meanwhile, would have to be recognized as the new state's capital.

Peace plan mission impossible?

A successful outcome in the Israeli-peace talks will require much more than political will; it will require political courage, perseverance and, in the case of Prime Minister Netanyahu, the ability to see beyond the next election cycle. In other words, it will mean performing an act of historic significance that he may or may not live to appreciate in his own lifetime, as opposed to an act of ephemeral political advantage.

Unfortunately, however, judging by everything the Israeli leader has said and done up to this point on the question of Palestinian statehood, he is most likely not the man who will seal the deal.

Netanyahu recently told his cabinet that he wants to "surprise the skeptics" and reach a settlement with the Palestinians.

"I know there is a lot of doubt after the 17 years which have passed since the start of the Oslo (peace) process," the Israeli leader said. "We are seeking to surprise the critics and the skeptics, but in order to do this we need a real partner on the Palestinian side.”

Ultimately, it will be Netanyahu, as the leader of the most powerful nation in the Middle East, which enjoys practical unconditional support of the United States, who will have the luxury of determining if the Palestinians are being a “real partner.” The Palestinians may reach the same conclusion about their partners on the other side of the table, but it is the Israelis, after all, who will determine the outcome of the talks.

But the Palestinians are not completely powerless heading into these peace talks. First, Netanyahu knows that the entire world is watching the outcome of these negotiations and, perhaps due to all the hype built around Barack “Peace Prize” Obama, the expectations, not to mention the stakes, are extremely high.

Furthermore, sympathy over the Palestinian cause is growing around the world, and this was witnessed by the ill-conceived aid flotilla that the Israeli military intercepted with tragic consequences in international waters en route to the Gaza Strip. The incident forced Israel to loosen its four-year embargo on Gaza, while subjecting Netanyahu to harsh international condemnation.

Finally, Israel, which is attempting to drum up international support in its war of rhetoric against Iran, would certainly “stun the critics” by making generous concessions to the Palestinians in Washington next week so that a two-state dream can become a reality.

Netanyahu should put all political considerations aside without risking Israel's security and do what is in the best interests of Israelis, Palestinians and the struggle for global peace: help the Palestinians to create their own state. There may never be a better time than now.

Robert Bridge, RT

Thanks to Evgeny Sukhoi who contributed to this article.