Nov 26 2007

US national security means no settlement activities in Palestine

Published by at 10:19 pm under Articles,Palestinian politics

By Daoud Kuttab

Palestinians are facing a dilemma in regards to the upcoming Annapolis Arab-Israeli peace conference, or meeting as American officials prefers to call it. The dilemma is whether to participate in yet another process that has so far produced little tangible results or to insist on a more effective way out of the present stalemate. Whether Palestinians go or not and whether the Annapolis meeting is productive or not, there is need to make sure that settlement activities are totally and permanently frozen in areas scheduled to be the lands of the state of Palestine.

While in previous peace talks progress has been made on procedural or superficial issues, the reality was tangible and much more concrete.  The false trappings of a state provided to Palestinians as part of the Oslo peace process and the famous White House handshake in 1993 has hurt more than helped Palestinians. Palestinians got an elected president, parliament a government (whose ministers are not guaranteed passage from Gaza to West Bank), passports (whose numbers must be entered into Israeli computers), postage stamps and lightly armed police, but not real sovereignty over land or contiguity between Gaza and the West Bank.

Hundreds of checkpoints in the West Bank with an eight foot wall deep in the Palestinian territories and tight control over the borders make these trimmings of a state nothing more than cosmetic. In return, the Israelis were relieved of having to guard populated areas, crowded neighborhoods and economically they were no longer obliged to pay public servants or take care of the occupied population as – I would argue – international law stipulates.  For many Palestinians, including the leadership, the hope was that these imperfections would eventually be rectified and the sovereignty would be solidified.  But this has yet to happen.

When US President George W. Bush first announced his intention to convene an international meeting on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, the Palestinian side was concerned about the lack of any clear agenda for the meeting, as well as the lack of substance and the absence of a list of invitees.  Palestinian negotiators consequently insisted that the meeting should be preceded by agreement between the Palestinian and Israeli sides regarding how and when to tackle final status issues such as borders, Jerusalem and refugees.

Israel resisted this and insisted instead that nothing but a general declaration of principles could come from the meeting. Slowly, but irresistibly, the Palestinian position changed. Today, Palestinian officials speak and hope for an agreement at the meeting on a general framework that will then be followed by negotiations on final status issues to be concluded no later than six months after the meeting. On the other side Israel has refused being clear on any issue and have rejected any timetable but made unrealistic demands of Palestinians to declare their recognition of the religious nature of the state of Israel.

On the ground, the Palestinian position is at its weakest. There is political as well as geographical division between the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. Social and economic conditions are on the verge of collapse, the Israeli grip on the West Bank and Jerusalem is stronger and more draconian than ever while Arab and international support for Palestinians is dwindling. In view of that, how can Palestinians change the balance of power and squeeze anything successful from negotiations with Israel? Some argue that the US administration has finally recognized the compelling necessity of resolving the Palestinian question. But this would be an enormous assumption. The current US administration is suffering severe domestic criticism over its war in Iraq and is stumbling through its remaining months in power. Furthermore, nothing indicates that the Bush administration’s unwavering support of Israel has changed. The White House may have recognized that it needs to reinvigorate the Palestinian-Israeli political process. It is clear, however, that it is neither willing nor capable of imposing a settlement, something Arab countries and Palestinians have long looked for.

One of the major problems in the Oslo Accords was repeatedly stated by the late Haider Abdel Shafi, namely that it didn’t secure the stoppage of settlement expansion in the interim period or if the final status talks failed. Palestinian negotiators insist that they are not planning to do any more substantive negotiations. They argue that positions acceptable in Taba (following the failure of Camp David II) should be the basis of agreements and what needs to be negotiated now is the timetable for implementation. 

 Supported with a reasonably and internationally backed Arab peace plan, Palestinians feel that they will insist that there is already world wide consensus on  the 67 borders (with adjustments equal in size and quality); the need for a fair agreement on dealing with the Palestinian refugees  and a formula to share Jerusalem.

The settlement activities and the wall have forced  Palestinian negotiators are now reversing their position on the step by step approach which has proved disastrous, has been exploited by radicals on both sides and has resulted in giving the Israelis time to build more illegal settlements on Palestinian lands. Instead they are insisting on reaching a broad agreement (in writing) as the basis for going to Annapolis.  Palestinians are hoping that at the US sponsored conference in can receive international support and that the following stage will be about implementing it rather than doing any further negotiations. The one problem that is still unclear is what happens if no document is agreed upon before Annapolis and more importantly if this round of talks (strategically timed a year before the ’08 presidential elections in which Bush is not running) fails.

There is talk about the fear of another violent outbreak. There is no way to predict these things. But what is crucially important for Palestinians is that success or fail, Palestinians and the international community must at the very minimum insist on the need to reverse the settlement process or at a minimum to genuinely freeze expansion and land expropriation.  Dr Rice has said that the creation of a Palestinian state is in part of US national security. This statement was followed by the replacement of pro Israelis state department official Elliot Abrams with Steven Hadley, the national security advisory as the key person in Washington on this issue.

 If the creation of a Palestinian state is truly in the national interest of the United States of America, there is no way that such a state will appear now or in ten years if the occupying state of Israel continues to be involved in settlement activities in areas slated for the Palestinian state.

Daoud Kuttab is a Palestinian columnist is a Ferris Professor of Journalism at Princeton University in the United States.  His email is

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