Piecemeal road to Middle East peace

Colin Rubenstein

The Australian – June 04, 2009

BARACK Obama’s much anticipated policy speech to the Muslim world is happening today. While dealing with broader themes, it will undoubtedly also cover the seemingly interminable Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Recently, the US President has met Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in Washington. The Netanyahu meeting, in mid-May, was noted in the media for Netanyahu’s failure to say the words “two-state solution”, as the US Government had wanted him to specify. He did insist, however, that Israel did not wish to continue governing the Palestinians and wanted to begin negotiations to devise new arrangements.

At the Obama-Abbas meeting last week, the US President urged the Palestinian Authority leader to end ongoing incitement in Palestinian schools, mosques and media. Abbas said he was ready for peace, if only Israel was ready to come to the party. In short, both said what everyone expected them to say.

Or did they? Whereas Abbas’s comments after his meeting with Obama were fairly pro forma, an interview he gave a day earlier with The Washington Post was surprising in its frankness.

Abbas said basically he had nothing to do now but wait. “I will wait for Hamas to accept international commitments,” he said. “I will wait for Israel to freeze settlements. Until then, in the West Bank we have a good reality. The people are living a normal life.”

That quote, as well as the rest of the interview, indicates Abbas seems to think the peace process is not about each side offering what it can (“painful concessions”) to meet the needs of the other. Rather, it amounts to finding the favour of US presidents, so Israel is pressured into giving the Palestinians what they want without them having to negotiate or compromise. “The Americans are the leaders of the world,” he said in the same interview. “They can use their weight with anyone around the world. Two years ago they used their weight on us. Now they should tell the Israelis, ‘You have to comply with the conditions.”‘

His aide, quoted in the Post, added that Abbas’s plan was to continue refusing to negotiate for a “couple of years” in the hope that US pressure would force Netanyahu from office.

In other words, Abbas has not interpreted increasing pressure from the Obama administration on Israel – especially with regard to settlements – as a sign of American even-handedness. Instead, Abbas has used it as a signal to strengthen the counterproductive traditional Palestinian approach to the conflict, which has always seen Palestinian demands as a matter of rights and therefore not requiring any reciprocity, confidence-building or compromise.

Thus, in the interview Abbas defended his rejection of former Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert’s offer of 97 per cent of the West Bank (presumably with land swaps to make up the difference). Moreover, Abbas admitted Olmert also offered symbolic recognition of the longstanding Palestinian demand for a “right of return” to pre-1967 Israel, on both counts going further than previous offers during the Oslo process.

The lesson to be learned is clear: peace does not depend only on Israel or on whether the Israeli Government says the words “two-state solution”, as the previous three prime ministers did repeatedly. Olmert offered virtually everything the Palestinians could reasonably expect to obtain from any just two-state solution but was rejected.

Nor is there any reason to think Obama’s desired freeze on all construction in settlements will make any difference. Israel had settlements in Sinai before signing a peace agreement with Egypt and removed every last one. Israel had settlements in Gaza before deciding to leave and removed every last one. History shows the existence of settlements does not create an impediment to peace agreements or Israeli withdrawals. Moreover, the preferred Israeli policy of allowing “natural growth” means construction can occur only within existing built-up areas in major settlement blocs certain to be retained by Israel in any peace deal. In other words, this construction takes no new land and thus does not prejudice a future two-state agreement.

The problem is not simply Abbas’s refusal to deal. The Palestinian Authority rules only the West Bank, not Gaza. It is corrupt and unpopular. It has little control over the militias operating in its territory, even those officially loyal to Abbas’s Fatah group. In short, it is incapable of running a stable state.

Israeli leaders fear the rejectionist Iranian client Hamas will come to control the West Bank, as it does Gaza, if Israel withdraws prematurely. This would be an existential threat to Israel because a replication there of the situation in Gaza – where withdrawal was followed by incessant rocket fire on civilian towns – would shut down normal activity for most of the country’s population.

By the time Obama makes what may be a historic speech in Cairo today, let us hope he has read The Washington Post and realises aspects of his present course are unlikely to help reactivate genuine peace prospects. Peace will have to be built piecemeal and the first step must be to disarm the Palestinian leadership of the belief that it can wait passively for Washington to extract the concessions it wants from Israel.

Colin Rubenstein is executive director of the Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council and previously taught Middle East politics at Monash University.