We are at the midst of a new round in the Middle East peace process. Seven years after the Oslo peace process collapsed, the political conditions in Israel and the Palestinian Authority, as well as in Europe and the United States, appear ripe for it.
Since the collapse of the Palestinian national unity government in June of this year, the dismissal of Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas as Prime Minister and the constitution by decree of a Palestinian government headed by Salam Fayyad, the United States and Europe have been engaged in bringing Israel and the Palestinian Authority to the negotiations table. International envoys regularly visit the region, attempting to bridge between the parties. Moreover, the European Union has organized several meetings of the local civil societies to promote “peace from below.”
Upon this backdrop, the US administration called for a regional peace conference to occur this fall. The Israeli press claims that the conference will take place in Washington DC sometime in November. We must ask, however, given the existing political context, whether this US sponsored regional peace conference will have any realistic ability to breach the political stalemate?
It is essential that we recognize the large gap that still exists, between Israel’s probable resolution offer and the Palestinian minimal demands. Israel and the United States require Palestinian recognition of “facts on the ground” and the right to bypass international law as well as relevant UN resolutions. In other words, they insist that the Palestinian Authority accept the creation of a Palestinian state whose borders will be defined by the circuitous and usurpatory route of the Separation Wall. On the opposite side, the Palestinian political consensus demands a Palestinian state on all the territories Israel occupied in 1967, and respect for international law and relevant UN resolutions.
Mainstream European and American analysts divide the Palestinian political arena between radicals and moderates, assuming that the Mahmoud Abbas and the government he appointed in June of this year is moderate, based on the assumption it is ready to come to terms with the American and Israeli demands.
But Mahmoud Abbas attitudes are far from mainstream Palestinian public opinion. According to an opinion poll conducted by the Jerusalem Media and Communication Center (JMCC), most of the Palestinians oppose an agreement by which settlement blocks will remain on the territories occupied by Israel in 1967, oppose concessions on Jerusalem and support the right of return of the Palestinian people.
At the same time, as long as President Abbas is the legal head of state with an unconstitutional government, he will not be able to sign any agreement that makes substantial concessions at odds with the Palestinian national consensus.
According to Article 110 (1) of the Palestinian Basic Law, the president “may declare a state of emergency by a decree” when there is a threat to national security caused by war, invasion, armed insurrection, or at a time of natural disaster for a period not exceeding thirty (30) days.” This state of emergency can be extended for additional thirty days only with the approval of two thirds of the parliament.
Because one third of the Palestinian MPs are in Israeli jails and Israel imposes restrictions on the movement of the remaining MPs, the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC) could only in theory meet to discuss an extension of the state of emergency for a second time in August or give a vote of confidence for Salam Fayyad’s appointed government. However, it is unlikely that the current PLC, which has a Hamas majority, will endorse the state of emergency or Salam Fayyad’s government.
The Palestinian Authority can return to constitutionality either by the release of the jailed MPs, or, through new elections. Only a government empowered and legitimized by the Palestinian constitution will be able to negotiate with Israel. Otherwise, the agreements signed by the Palestinian Authority risk being deemed illegitimate.
This will not be the first time Israel signs a peace agreement with a government lacking legitimacy. On May 17, 1983 Israel signed a peace agreement with Lebanon after three month of negotiations mediated by the United States. The agreement was never ratified by the Lebanese government, and never implemented.
In Israel, Olmert heads a weak government. The Israeli government coalition leans on Israel Betinu, a far Right party, and Shas, an ultra-orthodox party. Both these parties support the expansion of settlements and currently oppose even dismantling unauthorized settlement outposts built after March 2002, as stipulated by the Road Map.
Olmert also has problems inside his party, Kadima, where he confronts a strong rightwing opposition that sees an unnecessary risk in any substantial concession to the Palestinian Authority. The rightwing of Kadima demands that Olmert avoid political concessions to the Palestinian Authority without first consulting with the party.
According to a periodic research poll conducted by the Tami Steinmetz Center for Peace Research (TSC), on Israeli attitudes towards peace, the majority of Israelis do not believe that peace with the Palestinian Authority is possible. Therefore, “although a considerable Israeli Jewish minority currently supports an extensive Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank (except for the large settlement blocs), the majority does not support such a move even if it occurs in the framework of a peace agreement with the Palestinians.”
Israeli analysts, such as Akiva Eldar, believe that the highest offer Olmert can make President Abbas is a Palestinian state whose borders are the Separation Wall, some neighborhoods in East Jerusalem, some exchange of territories, and a complicated compromise on the Old City of Jerusalem. Akiva Eldar claims that in order to appease Israel Bitenu, Olmert may propose that the Arab Triangle, a region densely populated by Palestinian citizens of Israel to the west of the green line between Tulkarem and Qalqilyah, will be included in the future Palestinian state. Palestinians will have to give up the right of return, accepting the resettlement of refugees outside of Palestine or in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. TSC findings show that even those concessions are too far reaching for Israeli public opinion.
This offer will be rejected by Palestinian public opinion and all Palestinian political forces, including Fatah, and could be imposed on the Palestinian society only by force.
Public opinion polls show that Israelis and Palestinians have lost their trust in a peace resolution based on the “two states” formula. Moreover, this formula in its various interpretations is at the core of the current stalemate. Thus, the conference summoned by the United States will not be able to break this stalemate, because this conference will attempt to dictate a specific interpretation of the meaning of two states.
The time for bilateral negotiations is over and vanishing along with the idea of a “two states solution.” It may only be possible to renew negotiations based on this formula through multilateral agreements.
Today, the only multilateral framework proposed is by the Arab League, which would include multilateral negotiations between Israel and members of the League, where, after completion, Israel would sign peace agreements with and be recognized by all of the League states, in exchange for a full retreat to its 4 June 1967 borders and a resolution of the Palestinian refugee question. Alternatively multilateral talks can be hosted in the framework of the United Nations according to the stipulations of international law and the relevant UN resolutions.
However, we must also consider the possibility that the concept of two states has faded away in the reality created by more than 40 years of Israeli occupation. If this is the case, the only democratic outcome is the making of one shared state. Any other alternative will merely be establishing an apartheid state.