Benjamin Netanyahu’s election coalition partner has said that it is “impossible” to solve the conflict with the Palestinians. “It is possible to manage it – and it is important to manage it – and to negotiate in order to reach a long-term transitional agreement,” claimed Avigdor Lieberman, who was speaking in the context of the discussions to form a new coalition government in Israel.
Two days later, in an article published on 11 February in Israel Today, well-known politician Yossi Beilin made known his view that President Barack Obama is not going to Israel with a new peace plan. “Obama will seek the immediate renewal of negotiations with the Palestinians,” said the ex-leader of the leftist Meretz Party. “The new aim will be the establishment of a Palestinian state with temporary borders, not a comprehensive solution.” Beilin was a key figure in the 2000 Camp David discussions; he predicted that the Arab League will be a “partner” in this so that Obama’s visit is seen as a historic turning point in the region’s politics.
That’s the picture at the moment across the Israeli political spectrum, from Lieberman’s extreme right to Beilin’s far left. The nexus is the idea of a “temporary” set of borders and thus a “long-term transitional solution”, a phrase also used by the unlamented Ariel Sharon. Indeed, there appears to be political consensus on this point, backed by Likud’s Netanyahu and Labour’s Barack. The odd ones out are the religious right-wing parties whose opposition is probably more theoretical than practical. Tzipi Livni, Netanyahu’s preferred choice for chief negotiator with the Palestinians, is supportive.
It’s very clear that this scenario is just smoke and mirrors to mask realities on the ground, utilising a pliant “realistic” Palestinian leadership which rejects armed struggle and insists on negotiations to preserve the Palestinian Authority – which has become a pension scheme for the leaders and little else – and regain what has been taken from the Palestinians in the occupied West Bank. It includes a revival of the 2002 Beirut initiative from the Arab world built around international resolutions but which concedes the right of return as part of an “agreed solution”.
At best, this is a solution that will see refugees getting no more than compensation for their land and homes. There is a consensus in Israel that Palestinians expelled since 1948 must not be allowed to return. Indeed, in previous discussions, Livni told Palestinian negotiators that no Palestinians will be allowed to return even though the then Prime Minister, Ehud Olmert, had said that 10,000 could do so over a period of ten years. According to Livni, this was Olmert’s “opinion”, no more.
Ever since Mahmoud Abbas took over the PA and reorganised the Palestinian security services for their cooperation with the Israelis, he has shown a lot of private faith in the idea of a transitional agreement with Israel, although he has denied this in public statements. In my view, the new status at the UN is very much part of this process. Israel’s objection to the UN move was perfunctory and I wouldn’t be surprised if “Palestine” goes on to get full membership of the international body so that the conflict turns into one over borders and nothing else. By that stage, “Palestine” would exist in less than half of the occupied West Bank and none of occupied Jerusalem. It looks as if the Palestinian Authority has no “plan B” now that it has finally realised that it will be impossible for Netanyahu to give what Ehud Barack refused to give at Camp David in 2000.
If this plan is adopted by America, as predicted by Yossi Beilin with Obama launching negotiations to lead to this solution, it might become a reality in double quick time. This would mean that the Palestinian cause would cease to exist; the existential struggle between a military occupier and the people under occupation backed by the Palestinian diaspora in refugee camps around the region and beyond would turn into a border dispute between two states. The Palestinians outside historic Palestine and inside Israel itself are being excluded from the process and discussions, while the Abbas-led PA contents itself with less than 12 per cent of their land to have as a mini statelet lacking full sovereignty. If the promised “reconciliation” takes place, the situation in the Gaza Strip may change if it is granted control over its air space and territorial waters.
Those who are still negotiating such reconciliation in Cairo understand all of this, but they insist on going ahead in any case under the umbrella of the PLO/PA. The PA leadership really want it because they feel that it is the best that can be achieved. Others, notably the Islamic Resistance Movement (Hamas) are relying on internal, Arab and regional developments to turn the people against any agreement which gives away their land to such an extent. Hamas hopes for unity of the Palestinians and a revival of its own fortunes in the West Bank despite being targeted by an arrest campaign from the PA and Israel.
The devil is in the detail, so the saying goes, and it is hard to say if reconciliation is likely. It is difficult for Hamas to return to the situation of Gaza 2007 in terms of control while the PA in Ramallah does not want to create the conditions suitable for a new intifada.
With regards to new elections, the situation faced by Hamas in the West Bank make it unlikely that it would be able to contest them seriously; most of the Hamas political leadership is behind bars in Israel following recent waves of arrests. As such, I am surprised at the movement’s request for 25 per cent of the Palestinian Legislative Council to be based on constituencies. Doesn’t it realise that it is in a miserable position at the moment, having been decimated by the Israeli and PA security services?
Abbas believes that a coalition between Fatah and the groups supporting it will get a majority in the elections. This seems about right, not least because Hamas boosted Fatah while the Islamic movement itself was damaged by the nature of its expulsion of the secular faction in 2007. Fatah’s recent commemoration programme in the Gaza Strip demonstrated the strength of its support in the territory, as have university polls in the West Bank despite the corruption of the PA. Hamas may benefit from this on a popular level but organisationally it will be difficult due to the imprisonment of its political leaders.
Perhaps Hamas is pinning its hopes on a new intifada or a reformed Palestine Liberation Organisation to get around the PA. Whatever it is, Netanyahu will push a temporary state solution and Abbas is unlikely to say no. However, if Hamas really has the interests of all Palestinians at heart, it has no option but to reject the “temporary borders” solution, even at the expense of reconciliation. It also has to provide a viable alternative which would include members of the diaspora, not just Palestinians living in the occupied territories. That might look like a unity Palestinian Authority elected by the West Bank and Gaza Strip with administrative powers, not a statelet under occupation with little in common with its neighbour except endless negotiations which don’t trouble the state next door very much at all.
Failure to provide such an alternative would make the Islamic movement accomplices in a meaningless temporary state, regardless of whether or not reconciliation takes place, or if the leadership is elected. Reform of the PLO will be dominated by Fatah and its allies who will take more than half of the West Bank and Gaza votes and will apply the results to the diaspora on the grounds that it is not possible to hold votes in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and the other countries where Palestinians are living in exile. Of course, this overlooks the fact that Egyptian expatriates voted in the recent elections following the ousting of Hosni Mubarak; it didn’t appear to be an impossibly difficult process. In any case, the PLO may well be marginalised by a Palestinian state, even one with temporary borders, just as it was pushed to the fringes by the Oslo Accords.
The Palestinians face an absurd future which can only be deflected by having a leadership chosen through free and fair elections for a consensus-based Palestinian Authority across the West Bank and Gaza Strip. This leadership should launch comprehensive resistance to the Israeli occupation; a state can only come into being once the land and people are free, not before.
What’s left to say is that we pin our hopes on those who are faithful to efforts to liberate Palestine and the launch of a new intifada in the West Bank against Israel’s illegal settlements and Judaisation policies through which the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians is taking place. The Palestinian Authority and all of the factions should feel obliged to take part, as they did with the Aqsa Intifada in 2000. This is what Netanyahu, Abbas and their supporters in the West are trying to prevent, just as those in America, Israel and Europe are trying to limit the effects of the Arab Spring. At the end of the day, they don’t really care for the people of Palestine or the region; they have the best interests of Israel at heart.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.