This is yet another crucial moment in the capricious Middle East peace process. The new political reality that has emerged since September 11th has dramatically changed the dynamics of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. For the first time, the United States perceives a direct and immediate interest in resolving the conflict – or at least minimizing its potential for disrupting the efforts of the anti-terrorist “coalition.” Bush has expressed support for a Palestinian state alongside Israel, and the American government seems poised to present a comprehensive Middle East plan.
As pressures mount for Israel and the Palestinians to return to the negotiating table, extreme care must be taken not to return to the dead-end of the Oslo process. Simply “returning to negotiations” is not enough. If a viable and truly sovereign Palestinian state does not emerge from the negotiations, the conflict will not be resolved and will once again burst out in violence. If renewed negotiations are to succeed, they must include the following elements missing from Oslo:
* A direct connection between the negotiations and the realities on the ground. Oslo was formulated in a way that put off the “hard issues” (read: the issues most crucial to the Palestinians) for the final stages of the negotiations, which never happened. Jerusalem, borders, water, settlements, the fate of the refugees and security arrangement – all these issues (except the last, important mainly for Israel ) were put off during the seven years of negotiations.
Although Article IV of the Declaration of Principles talks about preserving the “integrity” of the West Bank and Gaza during negotiations, it did not prevent Israel from “creating facts” on the ground which completely prejudiced the talks. From the signing of the Oslo Accords in September, 1993, until the collapse of the negotiations in February, 2001, Israel more than doubled its settler population to 400,000, adding dozens of new settlements – even whole cities — while proclaiming to the world that it had actually “frozen” them. Having turned the Palestinian workforce into one of casual labor completely dependent upon the Israeli job market, it imposed a “closure” that shut most Palestinians out of Israel and led to widespread poverty. Although the Palestinian negotiators pleaded that they needed their people to actually feel the benefits of the peace process, the average Palestinian family today earns less than a quarter than it did when Oslo was signed. The Territories have been carved into hundreds of tiny islands with no freedom of movement among them, and virtually every Palestinian lives under conditions of siege. Israel controls all the water supplies of the West Bank and Gaza. Israel is building frantically in Palestinian East Jerusalem to prevent any division – or even equitable sharing – of the city. And it refuses to address the refugee issue in any meaningful way.
The new framework for negotiations must integrate negotiations for a political solution with the actual situation on the ground. If Israel succeeds – as it probably has already – to create irreversible “facts” that will allow it to control and dominate the Palestinian territories forever, negotiations based on the principle of two states are only a prescription for apartheid.
* Reference to international law and human rights. In Oslo, almost every protection and source of leverage the Palestinians possessed – including the Geneva Conventions and most UN resolutions – were set aside in favor of power-negotiations in which Israel had a tremendous advantage. The Fourth Geneva Convention, for example, forbids an occupying power from building settlements in territory it conquered. Had international law been a basis of Oslo, the Palestinians could have demanded that the settlements – all the settlements, including those in East Jerusalem – be dismantled. Israel and the United States, however, insisted that everything be negotiable, and that international law be suspended because adherence to international law would “hinder” negotiations. The US even reclassified the Palestinian areas from “occupied” to “disputed.” In so doing it pulled the rug out from under the Palestinians.
Any new framework of negotiations, then, will have to take international law, human rights and UN resolutions into account. Only this will create the “level playing field” permitting the weaker Palestinians to negotiate with a stronger Israel.
* Dismantling the matrix of control. Israel presents its offer of relinquishing 95% of the Occupied Territories as “generous,” accusing Arafat of missing an “historic opportunity.” This conceals the fact that in Oslo the Palestinians already gave up claim to the 78% of Mandatory Palestine when they recognized Israel. If the object of negotiations is a viable Palestinian state alongside Israel, the fundamental issue is one of control, not merely territory. The strategic 5% Israel has in mind would allow it to maintain three or four major settlement blocs containing more than 90% of its settlers, create an Israeli-dominated “Greater Jerusalem” and continue to control movement throughout the area. Unless the issues of control, viability and sovereignty become formal elements in the negotiations, a non-viable and dependent Palestinian mini-state will be the result.
* Refugees. Some seventy percent of the Palestinian people are refugees. No resolution of the conflict is possible without addressing their rights, needs and grievances. Israel must acknowledge its active role in creating the refugee problem and recognize the refugees’ right of return. This is a precondition for negotiations on the actualization of that right.
The tiny Palestinian state that will emerge must possess a coherent territory, must be economically viable, must be truly sovereign and must be free of Israeli controls. It is up to the international community to ensure a new framework of negotiations that bring about a just a lasting peace between the two sides.