The so-called final status issues will not be affected by the course of the current Palestinian-Israeli negotiations, nor will they be affected by the results of the talks, or by whether they are destined to achieve anything during its nine month time frame. The time frame may even be extended or its near-inevitable failure may be announced.
This is due to the context of the negotiations which began, under American patronage, on 30 July, as well as the contrasting objectives between the Palestinians’ approach to the “final issues” and Israel’s attempt to drag in a second Oslo into an environment that rejected the first. It is also interested in any form of “agreement” in the light of America’s bias towards the occupation and the weakness of the Arab and Islamic support for the Palestinian cause, other than simple expressions of solidarity.
In the face of what appeared to be an American “breach” of the stalled peace process, Secretary of State John Kerry made six visits to the region and was able to bring the two sides together to discuss the final status issues of the refugees, Jerusalem, settlements, borders, security and water within nine months in order to reach a peaceful agreement that will put an end to the core of the Arab-Israeli conflict. This occurred after four years of the Obama presidency that lacked any real effort towards peace, except for neutralising the role of the UN and ignoring Israeli violations of international law in the occupied territories, without proposing any vision to end the conflict or having the will to impose a balanced solution.
Under US pressure and urged on by the Arab states, the Palestinian Authority was forced to abandon its pre-conditions for talks; an end to settlement construction, acceptance of the June 1967 borders as the basis for the talks, and the release of Palestinian prisoners held by Israel since before the Oslo Accords were signed in 1993.
That is how the Palestinians went to the negotiations table without a single strong card to play, no popular national consensus and no other strategic alternatives. They only went in with a single and fragmented achievement of getting 104 long-term prisoners released in 4 batches, depending on the progress of the negotiations. Concerted efforts to get the PA to stand firm were unable to prevent the authority from returning to the talks despite continued settlement activity, no frame of reference on the borders and intensified Israeli attacks against the people of Palestine. In return, the Palestinians had to agree to put on hold their efforts to become a full member of the UN and, with that, the opportunity to prosecute Israel at the International Criminal Court.
As such, the negotiations are being held without any frame of reference or pre-conditions, not taking into consideration the Israelis’ actions on the ground; this turns the talks into political cover for these (usually illegal) actions and a comfort for Israel’s allies and supporters. This relieves America’s burden as long as the victim of the occupation is negotiating with the illegal occupier in the midst of the imposition of the status quo which affects what is, in theory at least, being negotiated.
While the Palestinian Authority is sticking to its only negotiating option, despite the establishment of 1,000 additional settlement units a month since the negotiations were resumed and about 19,000 since the beginning of the year (according to Palestinian estimates), and in the light of the Judaisation of occupied Jerusalem and regular incursions into Al-Aqsa Mosque and other religious sanctities, the Israelis are continuing their aggression apparently unaffected by the need to negotiate; in short, they are just getting on with their project to colonise all of Palestine. Israel is filling the territories supposedly earmarked for the State of Palestine with more illegal settlements, settler-only roads and military checkpoints. They are even employing a law passed on 21 October which dictates that 80 Knesset members must agree on the final status issues before any negotiations concerning division or relinquishment of land are started.
All indications suggest that the American administration has no clear plans for the resolution of the conflict, only for its management and containment. The fear remains that the “peace process” may be marginalised by the outbreak of a third intifada, which is very likely.
These fears have intensified with America’s attempt to close the file due to the current political unrest in the region and leaks from the talks regarding the Palestinians’ readiness to “overlook” the settlements in exchange for the release of more prisoners and a 1.9 per cent land swap. That would see 65 per cent of the settlers remaining in the West Bank under Israeli control. Other leaks contradict John Kerry’s assessment of the talks as “unproductive” and denials last month by the Palestinians and Israelis that the negotiations have “reached a dead end”. This raises Palestinian fears of a “peace formula” that goes beyond national rights, while the Israelis fail to commit to anything.
Although the potential to reach an “agreement” is believed by many to be likely it will not result in the end of the conflict; it will only change its daily interactions and management. The gap between the minimum conditions for an acceptable agreement for the Arabs officials and something acceptable to the Israelis is still considerable. The Palestinians want a final deal that will end the occupation and establish a viable independent State of Palestine on the 1967 borders; the Israelis want a temporary agreement that will give them more time to establish more “facts on the ground” and postpone discussion of the thorny issues to yet another round of negotiations, by which time such talks will probably be academic in any case.
It looks, therefore, as if “Oslo Part II” is the best that the Palestinians can hope for. The current Israeli government, like its predecessors, does not really believe in the “two-state solution” and does not want peace or to give anything to the Palestinians. Over a third of the Knesset is made up of representatives of right-wing parties and extremist settlers, so this should not be a surprise to anyone. They are united in opposition to a state based on the June 1967 borders with East Jerusalem as its capital, the right of return of the refugees and the withdrawal of settlers and Israeli soldiers from the Jordan Valley. Instead, they talk of a demilitarised Palestinian state with limited sovereignty, if they don’t reject the idea of a state completely.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a speech in 2009 at Bar-Ilan University that he would accept the “two-state solution” on the condition that the Palestinian state was demilitarised and recognised “the Jewish nature of Israel” by holding negotiations without pre-conditions. The Israelis accepted this but only in order to buy themselves more time to colonise more land.
The Israelis are aware of the fact that the current instability in the Middle East would allow them to break off talks at any time and strengthen the occupation. To a certain extent this is exacerbated by the Palestinian Authority’s dependence on negotiations as its only strategic option. Some of the main Palestinian factions are certain that the talks will fail because America is not convinced enough to allow them to be successful and Israel isn’t interested in a two-state solution. Even so, some Palestinians suggest “tactical negotiations” rather than “strategic” to make more gains on the ground, no matter how small, in order to please the international community and show that it is not the Palestinians who are hindering the process.
However, by adopting this policy, the Palestinian leadership is coming out of every negotiation round with miserable losses, including the loss of yet more of the occupied territories, so that there is likely to be less than 20 per cent of fragmented “cantons” left for the “State of Palestine”. If they continue to participate in negotiations nothing at all will be left, and they will only hint at other options, such as taking punitive measures against Israel at the UN.
Nevertheless, negotiating just for the sake of it means maintaining the status quo, including the continued existence of the PA, sustaining the income and privileges of influential figures at the expense of the ordinary people of Palestine.
Any “agreement” that may be achieved in this way will not end the conflict nor will it end the historical injustice suffered by the Palestinians. Fundamental issues will remain unresolved, such as the right of return for refugees and Jerusalem, due to doubts regarding Israel’s commitment to any agreement, no matter how biased it may be in its favour.
The author is the director and editor-in-chief of Al Ghad newspaper in Jordan. This article is a translation of the Arabic text published by Al Jazeera net on 20 November, 2013
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.