A version of this article appeared in the Canberra Times on 11 June 2012
In his recent article, Robert Newton of the Australia Palestine Advocacy Network offered Australian Foreign Minister Bob Carr (“Carr should press Obama on peace for Israel and Palestine”, June 4) some poor advice on moving forward with the Israeli-Palestinian Peace negotiations.
Newton suggests that Israel alone is wholly to blame for the current ‘impasse’ in Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, ignoring the element of Palestinian responsibility for perpetuating the conflict which has been all too apparent in the events of recent months. He neglects to tell readers that Israel has been continually stating that it seeks the “immediate resumption of peace talks without any preconditions whatsoever”, but it is the Palestinian Authority that is refusing to talk with Israel, and has been doing so, with a few minor exceptions, over the past three years.
Last week in a good will gesture to “get the peace process back on track”, Israel returned the bodies of 91 Palestinians to the West Bank and Gaza Strip, most belonged to those killed while carrying out attacks against Israelis. They included Ramez Aslim who in 2003 blew up the crowded Cafe Hillel in central Jerusalem, murdering 7 people and Raed Abdel-Hamed Misk the suicide bomber who carried an attack on Israel’s No.2 bus in Jerusalem in 2003, killing 23 and injuring over 130. Abbas has not responded to the gesture. Instead the Palestinian Authority held a ceremony for the returned bodies and glorified the terrorists as “martyrs” for the Palestinian cause.
Meanwhile, the Palestinian leadership remains divided despite discussions of a “Fatah-Hamas unity deal” while Hamas leaders remain very clear that they are committed to the destruction of Israel. In April, Hamas deputy leader Mousa Abu Marzook, again re-iterated that Hamas would never recognise Israel, and that even if Israel withdrew to the 1967 boundaries and allowed the impossible and legally-unprecedented “right of return” to Israel for descendants of refugees, all Hamas would offer in return was a temporary truce in which relations between Israel and a Palestinian state would be like the “relationship between Lebanon and Israel or Syria and Israel.” These are both countries that are in a state of war with Israel and actively assist terrorist groups, which attack Israel via arms, money and logistical support. Those seeking to blame Israel for the impasse on a two-state peace often appear to turn a blind eye to Hamas’ existence.
Newton flies in the face of overwhelming evidence when he writes, “it is now evident that, since the beginning of the Madrid peace process in 1991, Israel’s leaders have never seriously wanted negotiations to lead to an agreement.” Newton clearly ignores not only the Oslo peace process, but the Israeli withdrawal from 21 settlements (8,000 people) in the Gaza Strip in 2005 and offers of a Palestinian state by Israeli Prime Ministers Barak in 2000-2001 and Olmert in 2008 on nearly all the West Bank, Gaza Strip, and Arab neighbourhoods of east Jerusalem. Israel also agreed to accept an agreed number of refugees on humanitarian grounds, and to support the creation of an international fund that would compensate all the refugees.
The Palestinian leadership’s decision not act on these offers of statehood, indicates that it is not ‘settlements’ that are the main obstacle to a Palestinian state, despite the obsession with the subject for some Palestinian advocates like Newton.
It is worth again repeating some basic facts about settlements because there are so many myths being promulgated. They take up less than 2% of the West Bank; Israeli policies in place since 2003 mean that no new settlements are being built and the land area of existing settlements is not expanding; Israel has repeatedly shown a willingness to remove settlements if necessary for peace, and proved its bone fides by removing settlements in both Gaza and the northern West Bank in 2005; Israel instituted an unprecedented ten-month freeze on new construction in West Bank settlements in 2009-2010, as US President Obama requested, but the Palestinian Authority still refused to engage in any meaningful negotiations about peace.
Newton implores Carr and Obama to use stronger language when condemning Israeli settlement construction, but it is precisely the focus on settlements that has prevented Israeli-Palestinian negotiations from moving forward. Barak and Olmert’s offer for a Palestinian state indicate that real progress can be made without demanding a complete settlement freeze, especially in areas that are likely to be included in the boundaries of Israel via “land swaps” in a final status agreement. It is important to note that no previous US Administration or Palestinian leadership has ever made a settlement construction freeze a pre-condition for negotiations – and the past three years have seen the least Israeli-Palestinian negotiations since the Oslo Accords were signed 1993.
The focus on settlement construction and other distractions, such as the quixotic and foolish Palestinian attempt to persuade the UN to approve Palestinian statehood without negotiations with Israel – are undermining the critical task of moving forward with peace negotiations that will establish a thriving Palestinian state. There is no other way. Without negotiations, no progress can be made.
If Carr and Obama want to advance the peace process, they need to reconsider the real obstacles to peace, and foster the revival of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. Above all, that means telling the Palestinian Authority that the world is willing to aid the Palestinians, but this can only happen if the Palestinians show they are willing to help themselves. And since the only viable path to a Palestinian state is a peace agreement with Israel, this requires them to immediately and unconditionally sit down with their Israeli counter-parts for serious and sustained negotiations.
Sharyn Mittelman is a Policy Analyst at the Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council.