The Age/ Sydney Morning Herald/ Canberra Times – October 15, 2015
What should be done about the deadlock in Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations since Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’ decision to walk away from the talks last year, preferring instead to sign a unity deal with the terrorist group Hamas?
Should the parties go back to discussing a two-state peace that would end the conflict? Or should there be a renewal of the sort of daily, deadly violence that occurred during the 2000-05 second intifada, which led to the deaths of thousands of both Palestinians and Israelis?
The answer seems obvious. Yet strangely enough, both the Palestinian Authority and some of their international supporters seem to be engaged in behaviour which is encouraging the second course.
The recent outbreak of violence – which has seen almost daily stabbings and other deadly terror attacks against Israeli civilians, plus numerous efforts to ambush Israeli civilian cars with rocks and petrol bombs – is built on a lie. This is the inflammatory but demonstrably false claim that Israel is determined to change the status quo of the al-Aqsa Mosque on Jerusalem’s Temple Mount.
The site is the third holiest in the world to Muslims, who call it the “Haram al-Sharif”, but – as the location of the two biblical temples according to Jewish, Christian and Muslim scripture as well as abundant archaeological evidence – it is also the most holy place in the world for Jews. Even so, the existing arrangements at the site are extremely generous to Muslim beliefs and sensibilities. Muslim religious authorities control the entire site. Non-Muslims may visit the 15-hectare Mount at certain restricted times – but are forbidden to enter the al-Aqsa Mosque itself or to engage in any prayer anywhere.
Yet at the United Nations this month, Abbas accused Israel of supporting “systematic incursions upon Al-Aqsa Mosque, aimed at imposing a new reality and dividing Al-Haram Al-Sharif… The Israeli government is acting to implement this program … which inflames the feelings of the Palestinians and the Muslims everywhere.”
Earlier, on Palestinian TV, he all but called for violence to defend al-Aqsa and made some disgusting comments about Jews: “We welcome every drop of blood spilled in Jerusalem. This is pure blood, clean blood, blood on its way to Allah. With the help of Allah, every shaheed [martyr] will be in heaven, and every wounded will get his reward. Al-Aqsa is ours… They have no right to desecrate [it] with their filthy feet.”
The Palestinian official media and other leaders of Abbas’ own Fatah party have made similar comments.
As a democracy, Israel cannot stop some small numbers of Israeli citizens advocating for a right to pray on the Temple Mount – which is the basis for the Palestinian conspiracy theories. However, the Israeli government has repeatedly and vehemently pledged not to change the existing status quo on the Mount and continues to enforce it rigorously.
Historically, claims of supposed dangers to the al-Aqsa Mosque have been used repeatedly to incite violence – in the 1920s and 30s, in 1996 and again in 2000, in what was called in Palestinian circles “The al-Aqsa Intifada”.
The recent claims about the Mount have had a predictably destructive effect. Initially, Palestinians stockpiled firebombs, pipe bombs, fireworks and rocks on the Temple Mount, including inside the al-Aqsa Mosque itself, apparently to use against Jewish worshippers at the Western wall, the holy place of Jewish prayer below and adjacent to the Temple Mount. Together with the subsequent wider violence, Israel has had no choice but to respond through control measures, arrests of those committing or organising violence, occasional restrictions on access, and where lives are in direct danger, live fire.
Meanwhile, Israel has repeatedly offered negotiations without preconditions on a two-state resolution – most recently in Prime Minister Netanyahu’s speech to the UN the day after Abbas spoke. Abbas, for his part, explicitly ruled this out, saying “It is no longer useful to waste time in negotiations.”
This follows the three occasions the Palestinian leadership walked away from Israeli peace offers – most recently in 2008, when they were offered a future state comprised of the entirety of Gaza, a shared capital in east Jerusalem and the vast majority of the West Bank with land from pre-1967 Israel in exchange for the rest. Meanwhile, American mediators say current PM Netanyahu also promised he would withdraw from the vast majority of the West Bank for a secure peace during the negotiations last year.
History thus demonstrates that direct talks can produce viable proposals for a resolution which would fulfil Palestinian aspirations for statehood and create a two-state peace of the sort the international community has always envisioned.
That is why, in Australia, there is bi-partisan consensus that a negotiated outcome leading to two states is the way forward. As Prime Minister Julia Gillard noted in her autobiography with regard to a UN vote on enhanced Palestinian status: “to me it was self-evident this was not the path to peace. A million resolutions, billions of pieces of paper would never create a Palestinian state – only fruitful negotiations would”.
Yet the Palestinian leadership claim they are cancelling the Oslo Accords which created the Palestinian Authority, and instead want the international community to unilaterally recognise their state without ending their conflict with Israel. And in a move that would effectively replace the principle of “land for peace” envisioned in the 1967 UN Security Council Resolution 242 with “land for war”, they are clearly using the current violence centred on the Temple Mount as part of this larger campaign.
No true friend of the Palestinian people or advocate of a just and lasting two-state resolution should help them destroy a negotiated peace and put more Palestinian and Israeli lives at risk.
Dr Colin Rubenstein is executive director of the Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council and taught Middle East politics at Monash University.