By Fahmi Huwaidi
As direct negotiations between the Israeli and Palestinian Authority take centre stage we must declare publicly that it is the "moderate" Arab states which have provided the Israelis and Americans with the fig-leaf of cover to implement their plans on the Palestinian issue. The green light given by the so-called Arab initiative committee represents a good prize for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. In return, Netanyahu endorsed three actions:
- Israeli bulldozers demolished the village of Alarakib in the Negev region; the homes were shacks made of tin and the Israelis even destroyed the trees. The Palestinian Bedouins who have inhabited the area for hundreds of years were displaced. Israeli press reports said that the authorities planned to build a park on the land as part of the expansion of Beersheba. The Israeli authorities asked the villagers to leave in February and when they protested the demolition orders were made. Seventy thousand Arabs live in the area, usually in villages that are not recognised by the Israeli government. The demolition of Alarakib was watched over by 1,300 Israeli soldiers.
- Israeli settlers seized a two-storey house in Saadia in the Old City of Jerusalem near Al-Aqsa Mosque. The building of 11 rooms was inhabited by 50 members of the Qirsh family, who have lived there since 1936. The house was stormed by settlers while most of the family attended a wedding in the neighbourhood. The settlers barricaded themselves inside the house under police protection, bringing the number of buildings seized by settlers in Saadia to five, all overlooking Al-Aqsa Mosque. According to Hatem Abdel Kader, a former Minister for Jerusalem in the Palestinian government, the settlers have seized 75 properties in Jerusalem to-date. The Israeli government has used the Absentee Property Law with regards to the 500 Palestinian villages wiped off the map since 1948, and other property in Arab cities like Jaffa and Haifa, while declaring that the law does not apply to East Jerusalem.
- A few hours after the Arab Initiative Committee meeting, the Israeli air force attacked Gaza, killing Isa Batran, a commander of the military wing of Hamas. The Israelis killed Mr. Batran's wife and five of his sons during the invasion of the Gaza Strip. Eleven Palestinians were wounded in the latest raid.
The implication of the above is clear; Israeli policy does not change and it is not linked with the negotiations, direct or indirect. There is no obvious connection between what is going on in the negotiation rooms and what is happening across the occupied territories. While the Palestinians continue to chatter in discussions and on satellite TV, the Israelis continue to change the facts on the ground.
Seventeen years of Palestinian-Israeli negotiations prove that they really mean nothing apart from allowing the Israelis to have more time to carry out their policies. The number of settlers has doubled since the signing of the Oslo agreement. According to Israeli human rights group B'Tselem, Israel's settlements control 42% of the West Bank and have absorbed almost half a million settlers; more than 300,000 live in 121 settlements and 100,000 live in settlement outposts. The rest are in 12 settlements built on land annexed to enlarge the Jerusalem municipality. In addition, the Israeli "separation wall" cuts into yet more West Bank territory, and we shouldn't forget the war in Gaza which killed 1,400 Palestinians (one-third of them children) and injured 5,000.
Meanwhile, Israel continues to hold around 10,000 Palestinians in its jails and has started to expel people originating in Gaza from their homes in the West Bank. Further settlement expansion is planed when the supposed "freeze" expires in September. According to Chief Palestinian Negotiator Saeb Erekat, Israel plans to build 20,000 housing units between now and 2020. At the same time, the Israeli authorities in Jerusalem have revealed their "structural map of United Jerusalem", the biggest since Israeli annexed, illegally, East Jerusalem in 1967. The map shows Israel's plans to unite all of the settlements built around the city on the West Bank; Haaretz newspaper reports that this will give "legitimacy" to the unilateral inclusion of East Jerusalem within the borders of Israel, something that no previous Israeli government has dared to do.
It is beyond any doubt, therefore, that the Palestinian-Israeli negotiations have only two goals: first, to extract maximum concessions from the Palestinians, and second, to buy Israel more time to implement its proposed changes and complete the Judaisation of Jerusalem as part of the efforts to thwart the establishment of a Palestinian state. This is no secret plot; it is going on right under our noses, so much so that some senior Palestinian Authority officials are now talking openly about the absurdity of the negotiations. The President himself, Mahmoud Abbas, told the Executive Committee of the PLO in March that he expects nothing to come out of them. A member of the committee, Tayseer Khaled, called the talks "a waste of time", but that didn't stop indirect talks starting simply because the US administration wanted them to.
America's plan was to continue with indirect negotiations for four months, up to September, after which if progress was made direct negotiations could follow. However, after 20 visits by the US envoy, nothing has been achieved. Israel's Prime Minister has asked to move to direct negotiations for his own internal political reasons, and has persuaded the US president to back him. Barack Obama has one eye on the mid-term elections in America, so doesn't want to upset the Israel lobby. Hence, his instruction to President Abbas to start direct talks in August, with threats to "re-evaluate US-Palestinian relations" if they don't go ahead, with a cut in financial aid thrown in. The carrot of US support for a Palestinian state has been dangled enticingly in front of Abbas. The suggestion that the Palestinians could appeal to the UN General Assembly, made by the Arab League's Amr Moussa, has been rejected by Obama, whose letter to the PA President did not mention Israel withdrawing to the 1967 borders, or the lifting of the siege of Gaza. In short, Obama is threatening the Palestinians with international isolation unless they go straight to direct negotiations. PLO Executive Committee member Dr. Hanan Ashrawi confirmed as much in a press statement at the end of July.
How has Israel managed to turn its wishes into reality? Quite simply, this task was carried out by the Arab States; various meetings have been held between Netanyahu and Egypt's Hosni Mubarak, and a combination of all or some of Mahmoud Abbas, Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah, and his namesake in Jordan. The underlying theme of the contacts made between the pillars of "moderation" was the move to direct negotiations. It took just ten days to get the green light, allowing Abbas to claim his move is in line with the "Arab consensus".
My colleague Abdul Wahab Badrakhan has some observations which are worth quoting in full: "The issue is of immense complexity. What is needed is neither failed nor successful negotiations; failure would exacerbate difficulties for Mahmoud Abbas, and success could topple Netanyahu's government. The negotiations are required to promote the development of the Palestinian Authority, while maintaining the division between the West Bank and Gaza Strip. They are also required to make a qualitative improvement of the situation in the West Bank, under the continued control of the occupation, soldiers as well as settlers, and without any agreement on a final solution. Israel is not ready for peace, and Palestinian negotiators lack the support of all areas and all people. The Israelis want the resumption of settlement expansion in return for removing some barriers and allowing some facilities, but with further humiliation of the Palestinian citizens, as well as continuing the destruction of homes and the enforcement of deportation, and of course with the continuing siege of Gaza. On top of that, Palestinians and Arabs are required not to contribute to the international campaign accusing Israel of war crimes, piracy and crimes against humanity."
The bottom line is that direct negotiations will take place because nobody has any other option. The Palestinians are now paying the price for their weakness and bankruptcy. Until further notice, they must turn the other cheek to receive Israeli and US slaps, directly and indirectly.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.