May 04 2003

The weakness of Israeli territorial justifications after Iraq

Published by at 12:00 am under Articles,Palestinian politics

Much has been said about the effects to the Middle East of the end of the Saddam Hussein regime. But surprisingly nothing has been said about the strategic meaning of the presence of US forces to the territorial security arguments that have blocked Palestinian-Israeli agreements.

Ever since the 1967 Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, Israeli officials have repeated rejected the suggestion of total Israeli withdrawal to the June 4th 1967 borders. The very premise of UN Security Council resolution 242 which states in its preamble “the inadmissibility of occupying land by force,” and called for “Israeli withdrawal from occupied territories” has been absent from every single Israeli peace plan. Even the so called ‘generous” Israeli offer made by Ehud Barak at Camp David failed to meet the test of full withdrawal in return for full peace.

In their repeated justification for rejecting total Israeli withdrawal from the Palestinian territories Israeli politicians and security strategists have consistently insisted that they could not withdraw from areas like the Jordan Valley because of its strategic value. Former Israeli Labour official Yigal Allon and Likud leader Ariel Sharon have taken foreign officials on air and land tours to defend their positions. Armed with maps, Israeli officials have pointed to the narrowness of the center of their country and the need for a buffer zone to protect Israel from Arab tanks and missiles. When Israel signed a peace agreement with Jordan, this argument became much weaker, especially after Jordan agreed to the Israeli request that no Arab army would be allowed into Jordan.

With Iraq’s Saddam Hussein in power and following the 26 scud missiles that were fired at Israel in the 1990 Gulf War, Israel was able to continue to hold on this strategic security argument. Withdrawing from Palestinian territories especially the Jordan Valley and settler occupied mountain tops was repeatedly rejected by Israelis because of the concern from Iraqi missile attacks.

This argument can no more hold water now that US troops are in the Iraqi capital and there is little chance that America and its allies will allow any future threat to Israel from Iraq. Land and territorial integrity of a future Palestinian state have been repeatedly stated as essential for any peace agreement. Unlike what has been stated by Israeli officials and their apologists land and not refugees was the issue that blocked agreement in the final months of the Clinton administration. Palestinian and Israeli negotiators meeting in the Egyptian resort of Taba in January 2001 said that they were never closer in resolving the conflict. The Palestinian’s right of return, always a thorny issue among Palestinian refugees was resolved in those talks. Agreement even on the issue of Jerusalem was reached in Taba. Both sides agreed on President Clinton’s idea of Arab neighborhoods to be under Palestinian sovereignty while Jewish settlements to be under Israeli sovereignty.

The only unresolved issue was that of land and Palestinians’ need for territorial integrity. If the viable Palestinian state that British Prime Minister Tony Blair is committed to is to be materialized, this issue of land must be resolved.

With the official announcement of the Road Map for peace in the Middle East, it would be very useful and time saving if the members of the quartet especially the American negotiators don’t allow the Israelis to insist on retaining Palestinian territories in the West Bank and Gaza strip. And now that the Iraqi army has been crushed and American troops are in Iraq, the one area that Israel should not waste negotiators time is their insistence on keeping Israeli troops in the Jordan Valley.

If the question of Palestinian statehood is no longer if and when but how, what local and international negotiators should put effort and time on is the issue of the viability of the new Palestinian state. The nature of the state, its administrative structure economy and relations with its neighbors are the key issue that will decide the longevity and success of the peace process. For a peace settlement to be successful it must meet Palestinian minimum aspirations of a democratic Palestinian state on all the territory alongside Israelis desires to live in a safe Israel within secured and recognized borders.

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