No progress on peace until Palestinians change stance

No progress on peace until Palestinians change stance

A version of this article appeared in the Canberra Times, 11 October 2011.

Colin Rubenstein

Speaking to ABC “Lateline” recently, Palestinian Authority (PA) official Nabil Shaath lamented that the Israelis have been “in full occupation of [his] country for years, 62 years.” There is a subtle but profound message in that number. Going back 62 years, Israel existed in the territory set by a 1949 armistice agreement with the surrounding Arab countries, within the so-called “Green Line” that now delineates what is internationally recognised indisputably as Israeli sovereign territory.

Until June 1967, the West Bank was occupied and annexed by Jordan and Gaza was placed under military rule by Egypt. That Shaath considers Israel’s existence in 1949 as an “occupation” speaks volumes about the true mindset of the PA – for all of the rhetoric about a return to the “pre-1967 borders”, even mainstream PA figures consider Israel’s existence, even within the 1948 borders, as illegitimate.

Shaath’s sentiment was not a Freudian slip. While Gaza’s rulers, the Palestinian Islamist extremist group Hamas, rejects Israel’s very right to exist, the PA’s rhetoric is not so different when they are speaking to their own people. The idea that Israel is an “occupier” within its own sovereign territory is constantly propagated by official PA outlets. PA maps don’t include Israel, they show the entire area as Palestine. A PA year-12 history book states that in 1948 “Zionist gangs stole Palestine Š and established the State of Israel”; a PA event in February of this year saw PA President Mahmoud Abbas and many other senior officials applauding a song that spoke of Palestine “from Rafah to Rosh Hanikra (northern Israel) our coast, and Beit Shean”, again including places that are indisputably in Israel.

Just last week, Abbas proposed that the UN recognise a Palestinian state on the pre-1967 borders, with his letterhead showing “Palestine” on the pre-1948 lines. And as reported in the September 5 New York Times, Abbas speaking to a group of journalists and left-wing Israelis about his forthcoming mission to the UN, told them, “We are going to complain that as Palestinians we have been under occupation for 63 years.” As with Nabil Shaath’s comment on “Lateline”, this doesn’t just impugn the legitimacy of Israel’s occupation of the West Bank, which began in 1967, it impugns the legitimacy of Israel.

This language is routinely presented to the Palestinian people but has been less understood by the international community. PA officials are highly adept at using a form of “doublespeak”, using Western terms to mask the underlying meaning of their words.
A truly insidious example of such rhetoric is the manner in which the word “settlement” is employed. The exploitation of settlements as we know it is actually a fairly recent phenomenon. Due to a short collective memory in modern public debate, the pre-2008 era when there were other intractable issues in the Israel/Palestinian conflict seems to have been all but forgotten. The problems of borders, refugees, Jerusalem and security have not disappeared however, but were merely overtaken by an unfortunate statement by incoming United States President Barack Obama.

He entered office confident that he had the key to solving the conflict: the Israelis needed to pre-emptively concede to Palestinian demands by freezing all settlement construction, the Palestinians would respond in good faith by agreeing to end all hostility towards Israel and peace would ensue. Like many before him, he quickly realised that not only did he not have the right answers, but had been asking all of the wrong questions. When Israel agreed to implement the “unprecedented” requested settlement freeze, the PA would not negotiate until the freeze was about to expire and have been refusing to do so ever since.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, speaking in front of the entire UN, implored Abbas to meet with him, saying “we’ve both just flown thousands of miles to New York. Now we’re in the same city. We’re in the same building. So let’s meet here today in the United Nations.” Yet Abbas remained intransigent, refusing to even sit at the same table as Netanyahu.

Abbas has demonstrated that he is not willing to negotiate with the Israelis, which shows that he is not serious about peace. While at first he felt that he had been put “up a tree” by Obama – the invidious position where he had to endorse Obama’s demand for a settlement freeze (a position Obama has long dropped), this in fact has provided Abbas with the pretext to repeatedly refuse negotiations.

This marginal issue of building within existing Jewish settlements has unfortunately come to overshadow the genuine obstacles to peace. When the Israeli Interior Ministry recently gave preliminary approval for 1,100 much needed housing units in Gilo, a largely Jewish suburb to the south-west of Jerusalem that lies just over the Green Line and will become a part of Israel in every serious two-state solution that has been proposed, (and even earlier conceded by the Palestinians), there was an outcry from some Western leaders and editorial writers. Ironically, this comes as the Israeli Defence Forces have been suffering attacks of vandalism by Israeli settlers as they vigorously enforce a recent Israeli High Court ruling that a settlement outpost was built illegally and should therefore be demolished.

Accusations that Israel is expanding settlements and swallowing up Palestinian land are incorrect. The territorial,municipal boundaries of all settlements have not been enlarged since 2003 and all of those in Gaza were demolished in 2005 (as were those in Sinai by 1982). All the expansion referred to represents natural growth within existing suburbs or settlements accommodating the normal requirements of living communities.

While the Palestinian leadership continues to refer to Israel’s very existence as an “occupation” and refuses to sit down and negotiate peace until there is a “settlement freeze” and acceptance of the 1967 borders as a starting point – which every peace agreement stipulates should be part of the subject of negotiations, not their preconditions – there will be no progress.

It is odd that the planning announcement of new units has dominated the headlines, when Abbas’ negative reaction to the Quartet peace proposal for urgently resuming negotiations “without delay and pre-conditions” (an initiative accepted by Israel) is the current core stumbling block.

The Palestinian quest to achieve statehood at the UN without negotiations represents the internationalisation of their broader strategy to further delegitimise Israel. It is a setback to the cause of reconciliation and a recipe for continued conflict and confrontation.

Dr. Colin  Rubenstein is Executive Director of The Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council.