Peace in West Asia still a mirage

The direct negotiations between Palestinians and Israelis which open on Thursday in Washington are the last hope of a West Asia peace settlement. If Israel does not halt its colonisation of East Jerusalem and the West Bank and permit the emergence of a viable, independent Palestinian state, the region is certain to suffer another century of warfare and instability.

If denied freedom, Palestinians are likely to resume violent resistance while former Premier Ehud Olmert warned that Israel would face the choice of granting Palestinians full citizenship and political rights in a binational democratic state or imposing an apartheid regime. This would undermine Israel’s legitimacy and transform it into an international pariah.

Unfortunately, there is little hope the negotiations will succeed. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas could pull out as early as Sept 26 if Israel does not maintain its limited construction ‘freeze’ in the West Bank. This involved a 10-month ban on new building that allowed the completion of 3,000 housing units already under construction. Since most of these have been completed, renewal of the ‘freeze’ would mean that construction of additional units would halt. This is totally unacceptable to the powerful settler movement and the right wing parties that comprise Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s coalition which could collapse if colonisation is frozen. If the halt is not renewed, construction of several thousand homes could start promptly in 57 settlements.

Final status issues

If a compromise on this contentious problem is found, the sides will have to tackle final status issues on which their positions are very far apart: borders, Jerusalem, Israeli colonies, West Bank water resources, and Palestinian refugees.

Abbas insists that the border should be based on the pre-occupation line of June 4, 1967, with minor adjustments allowing Israel to annex major colonies straddling the line. Netanyahu refuses to commit to the 1967 line. He also argues that a Palestinian state must not have an army, Israel must control its air space and electronic activity, and maintain a military presence on its borders with Jordan and Egypt to prevent arms smuggling. His demands are totally unacceptable to the Palestinians.

They claim occupied East Jerusalem as the capital of their state; Netanyahu insists that the holy city remain Israel’s exclusive, undivided capital.

The Palestinians want Jewish colonies dismantled and colonists repatriated to Israel ‘proper’; Israel refuses to halt the expansion of its colonies and does not contemplate their removal. There are now some 5,00,000 Israeli colonists, 3,10,000 in the West Bank and 1,90,000 in East Jerusalem. Their presence in 60 per cent of the West Bank and in strategic locations in East Jerusalem makes it nearly impossible for the creation of a viable Palestinian state with contiguous territory.

Israel, which controls West Bank aquifers, takes 80 per cent of its water and has planted colonies on prime land which Israel is determined to keep but the Palestinians need for their state.

There could conceivably be agreement on one main issue: Palestinian refugees. Both sides could accept that those who became refugees at the time of Israel’s establishment in 1948 and as a result of the 1967 war could ‘return’ to the future Palestinian state.

Little wonder that Arab League Secretary General Amr Moussa observed, “We are hoping that talks will succeed but we are all very pessimistic about the viability of the peace process because of past experience. The only reason for hope is the sincerity of President Obama and his wish to achieve something good during his presidency.”
If this is to happen Obama will have to lead a ‘forlorn hope’ — a Raj-era suicide mission to alter the tide of battle — into the politically deadly West Asian peace process. US envoy George Mitchell, who failed to secure Israeli engagement during five months of intermittent indirect talks, promised sustained US involvement and action to bridge differences.

But Obama’s approval rating has fallen from a high 68 per cent to 43 per cent due to the dire state of the US economy and he could lose control of Congress in the November mid-term election. This means he is in a weak position to confront the US pro-Israel lobby captured many years ago by the rightist ‘Greater Israel’ camp committed to Israeli possession of all of Palestine as well as the Syrian Golan Heights. Unfortunately, Obama cannot marshal the support of the 70 per cent of US Jews who back the creation of a Palestinian state as the main means of ending the warfare that has engulfed West Asia since the Zionists began their colonisation enterprise in the 1880s.

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