Sunday, January 16, 2011

After the failure of negotiations what next?

Despite months of pleading and incentive packages from Washington Israel refused to halt its settlement activity on Palestinian land occupied in 1967. Israel's defiance of the international will brought the mediation efforts to a grinding halt. In desperation, the humiliated Obama administration conceded that it is incapable of reining in its recalcitrant ally, setting tensions across the region on the boil once again. Commentators fear the worse; Le Monde Diplomatique's Alain Gresh warns that the American failure makes a new war likely.

While this ominous scenario may seem alarmist, there is no doubt that the entire region feels a real sense of betrayal. For Palestinians, two decades of negotiations with Israel have frustrated their aspirations for self-determination and led to the loss of large swathes of the West Bank, including Jerusalem. Thus, what may be on offer to the Palestinians, according to Richard Falk, the UN Special Rapporteur in the territories, is just 14% of historic Palestine on which to build a supposedly viable state.

What next?
There is nothing new in the US position to surprise the PA and the Arab states. Successive administrations since 1991, when "peace" negotiations started, have supported Israel's expansionist designs, in spite of numerous assurances, starting with the letter written by Secretary of State James Baker on 18th October 1991: "The United States has opposed and will continue to oppose settlement activity in the territories occupied in 1967, which remains an obstacle to peace."

Even so, those "assurances" were a far cry from previous American statements. Between 1967 and 1981, all US administrations condemned settlements as a violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention. In 1978, the State Department's Legal Advisor formalized this, echoing the 1967 opinion given by Theodor Meron, legal counsel to the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs. When consulted on the legality of the settlements Meron wrote, "…civilian settlement in the administered territories contravenes the explicit provisions of the Fourth Geneva Convention".

Because of their clearly short memories, American and European leaders need to be reminded of this opinion. Their coercion of the Palestinian Authority to meet all its international obligations, especially on security, contrasts with their lackadaisical approach and appalling aversion towards holding Israel to its obligations. It is no wonder that the present Israeli government feels emboldened to tighten its economic blockade of the Gaza Strip, murder civilians at will, demolish their homes and appropriate their land.

For better or worse, the PA and the Arab States which support it have been forced to explore alternatives to the discredited charade of negotiations with the Israelis. Regardless of its history, no political leadership could ever hope to convince its people to accept such relentless oppression. As a result, the Ramallah authority has announced the following options:
  • Continue negotiations if settlement expansion stops.
  • Call on the US to recognise a Palestinian state within the 1967 borders.
  • Demand that the UN Security Council condemns the settlements and recognises the Palestinian state (and insist that America does not use its veto).
  • Should the US use its veto, appeal to the UN General Assembly under the General Assembly Uniting for Peace Resolution 377 A (V), which can be as binding as a Security Council resolution.
  • Request the UN to place Palestine under international trusteeship.
  • Suspend all agreements signed with Israel.
  • Dissolve the Palestinian Authority and force Israel to meet its responsibilities as an occupying power.
None of these should be given any importance more than they deserve as they are unlikely to change anything on the ground. In the best case scenario, one or more may buy President Abbas some time to stagger on. In practice, there is hardly anything between these options; they all rotate around the same orbit of the notoriously dishonest power brokers. With all the failures of the US, the UN and Europeans to help the Palestinian people realize their aspirations, the PA should first undertake to put the Palestinian house in order, giving meaningful representation to its people, both in Palestine and in the diaspora.

The sooner this is done, the better, as the divisions within Fatah itself are becoming more open, despite claims that things are under control. No amount of media manipulation can now conceal the growing rift between Abbas and his challenger Muhammad Dahlan. Like the beleaguered Yassir Arafat in his final days, Abbas must rise above the fray of narrow party politics and forge a new strategy for national liberation. As painful as it may be, in terms of loss of financial revenue from the US, he must end security cooperation with Israel as his first move, because this has given the illegal Jewish settlers security at the cost of the incarceration of over 10,000 Palestinians in Israeli jails.

Dissolving the PA
Israel's systematic attempts to keep the Palestinian people in a humiliating cesspool have provoked a serious debate on the dissolution option. A number of reports suggest that Abbas may resort to this option should the settlements continue to grow. The Fatah leadership is divided, with some support for dissolution from Saeb Ereqat, the chief negotiator and member of Fatah's central council, Nabil Sha'ath and Ahmad Qurei, the architect of Oslo, as well as Muhammad Shitayeh and Jamal Muhaysin, both of the central council.

On the other side opposing the dissolution of the PA stands appointed Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, who was parachuted in by the US as their man in Ramallah. He views the PA as a stepping stone toward Palestinian statehood. He is supported by Muhammad Dahlan and Jibreel Al Rajoub; the latter believes that the PA provides social and economic services which no single party would be able provide. 

Whatever their professed differences, the matter has not yet been discussed formally within Fatah. As such, it is not expected to affect anything on the ground, not least because Abbas himself is still trying to negotiate a way out of the impasse through the UN.

Moreover, in the absence of reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah, the dissolution of the PA could make a bad situation worse. Given that both parties are the largest, such an agreement could be significant. This is, however, unlikely at present, with the continued arrests of Hamas members in the occupied West Bank and security collaboration with Israel.

As matters stand, Israel is in no need of negotiations with the Palestinians. It enjoys the unqualified economic and political support of the West, its settlers enjoy unprecedented security and its techno-based economy is booming. For the PA, time is running out. The impoverished and caged youth of the West Bank will only endure so much and the refugees will not relinquish their right to return. The time for a new approach has arrived. It must not be wasted.

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