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Israeli-Palestinian-American relations in the era of unilateralism


Saeb Erekat has a problem with George W. Bush. The American president, he writes in the Washington Post, has usurped his job as chief negotiator for the Palestinian side in talks with Israel.

If that's so, I've got to ask why Mr. Erekat has failed to show up for work since late 2000. As the saying goes, time and tide wait for no man.

In September of 2000, the Palestinian Authority abandoned wholesale its never fully embraced commitment to nonviolence. Now Erekat wants to know why the U.S. government treats the PA so lightly:

Until the Bush-Sharon press conference on April 14, I was the chief negotiator for the Palestine Liberation Organization, the only internationally recognized entity that has a mandate to negotiate a permanent peace with Israel. But then Bush appeared on television, standing at the White House next to a beaming Prime Minister Ariel Sharon of Israel, and announced that he had accepted Israel's claim to illegally occupied Palestinian land. He further determined that Palestinian refugees would never be allowed to return to their homes in Israel and would instead have to be resettled in a Palestinian state, vast tracts of which he had just given away.

In so doing, Bush reneged on the 1991 U.S. Letter of Assurances provided to the Palestinians by his father's administration; the letter said that "no party should take unilateral actions that seek to predetermine issues" and that "the United States has opposed and will continue to oppose settlement activity in the territories occupied in 1967." Bush, as the self-appointed Palestinian negotiator, finally exposed the "Middle East peace process" for the charade that it has become -- a mechanism by which Israel and the United States impose a solution on the Palestinians.

In this era of unmatched and unchallenged U.S. power, Bush abandoned America's historical role as facilitator and mediator of Middle East peace and instead simply adopted the positions of an expansionist, right-wing government in Israel.

The part of President Bush's April 14 statement that Mr. Erekat apparently finds so objectionable is this:
As part of a final peace settlement, Israel must have secure and recognized borders, which should emerge from negotiations between the parties in accordance with UNSC Resolutions 242 and 338. In light of new realities on the ground, including already existing major Israeli populations centers, it is unrealistic to expect that the outcome of final status negotiations will be a full and complete return to the armistice lines of 1949, and all previous efforts to negotiate a two-state solution have reached the same conclusion. It is realistic to expect that any final status agreement will only be achieved on the basis of mutually agreed changes that reflect these realities.
Should we take Erekat's qualms at face value? That's a tall order. The point of the "no unilateral actions" statement at the Madrid talks was to establish the principle that Israeli settlement-building would not, in and of itself, revise the "Green Line" boundary. If that principle is gone, then Israel theoretically has some new incentive to build more settlements. But with this same statement, which heralds an Israeli removal of several settlements, the settlement enterprise has reached its high-water mark. Israel now seeks to extricate itself from a trap of its own making in the occupied territories.

Two other points ought to be painfully obvious, but apparently need to be made as well. One is that what the U.S. President considers "realistic" or "unrealistic" might be essentially accurate, but lacks determinative force in future Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. Erekat is making too much of the matter. The other is that there are no longer any Israeli-Palestinian negotiations on a final peace settlement to speak of, and there aren't going to be any for a long, long time to come. Mr. Erekat is missing the point.

Actually, he's not missing the point. He's raising the bar for all of us in the chutzpah department. Palestinian leaders, it seems, can lie, cheat, and kill all they like, disregarding whatever commitments they might have made to the U.S., to Israel, or to Arab states, yet they expect to pay no price for it.

In truth, Israeli-Palestinian relations left the Oslo phase and entered the brave new era of unilateral actions some three and a half years ago. The Palestinians have led the way, with figures like Erekat voicing disdain for the the very idea of the PLO's core commitment in Oslo: cooperation with Israeli security forces against terrorists. The PLO allegedly accepted Israel's existence in 1993, but now Erekat seems to demand a say in deciding the nature of a Jewish state. What's mine in mine, he announces. What's yours is negotiable.

In such an environment, the Palestinians do not truly require an American facilitator or negotiator. There's nothing left to facilitate or negotiate. If anybody thought it possible for the Israeli government to make a permanent status agreement with the Palestinians under conditions of open war, the fate of the Taba talks and the government of Ehud Barak should have disillusioned them.

Nevertheless, Ariel Sharon ran against Barak on a peace platform. Only with painful slowness has he moved away from that stance towards an Israeli brand of unilateralism, embodied in the so-called "separation fence" and the withdrawal from Gaza, as well as some parts of the West Bank. Israel's leaders appear to have absorbed the failure of all last-ditch efforts to revive the peace process in some form or guise, and are now removing settlements and repositioning forces, the better to weather "post-peace" conditions over the long haul.

Clarification. When I say that Sharon ran on a peace platform, what I mean is that he did not run against Oslo or the idea of peace. He did not threaten to abrogate existing agreements, and he held open the possibility of future ones. As prime minister, he stuck to that position, at some cost. Nevertheless, everyone understood that he was the "security" candidate, not the "peace" candidate.

Will leaving Gaza instantly change everything for the better? I doubt it. But it should reduce points of friction between Israelis and Palestinians, making it more difficult to Palestinian terrorists to attack Israelis, and removing pressure for Israeli reprisals. Both sides stand to benefit as a result. Hopefully, that will be the case with the West Bank barrier as well, although it is fair to harbor doubts on any number of grounds.

The deeper significance of the Bush-Sharon meeting and exchange of statements seems to be an American recognition that the road map is now just as dead as Oslo, despite ongoing lip service. The "Gaza plus" withdrawal could make America's Middle East headache a little less nagging, and it's the best thing going. To boost its chances of success, offering Sharon a few non-binding assurances that he can present to the Israeli public as a victory is really the least the White House can do, especially when they relate to nonexistent, theoretical peace talks.

Perhaps Erekat still held to false hopes. Perhaps he thought that the U.S. sooner or later would push Israel back to the peace table in the absence of a cease fire, allowing the Palestinians to realize diplomatic gains from their resort to force following Camp David. But nobody is considering peace talks under fire, and that may be precisely what irks him. He's out of a job.


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Replies: 2 comments

I'm still amazed to see Sharon move as far Left as he has just to remain on good terms with Bush Jr. Israel is once again paying terrorists off with land and giving Arafat his reward for starting the Oslo War in the first place.

Posted by Amir Stamper @ 04/26/2004 04:05 PM CST

I wonder whether Mr. Erekat is expressing the profound fear that once Isreal unilaterally disengages and withdraws from Gaza, it may subsequently repeat the same for the majority, if not all, of the West Bank at some later date. Further the effectiveness of the "wall" demonstrates that physical separation results in reduced threat of violence to Israeli citizens. There is a compelling argument from the combined security, social and economic perspective that unilateral withdrawl to approximately the Green Line and the erection of the "wall" along its length would meet Israel's needs while meeting its obligations under 242.
From the Palestinian perspective a unlateral withdrawl would be a further "Nakhba". The territories would be isolated from employment markets in Israel, the PNA would not be able to derive income from tax collected from Palestinian workers in Israel, the loss of access to modern transportation links to facilitate trade and most importantly the loss of the platform of indignation and victimhood which has placed the Palestinians at the forefront of world news for decades. Instead they would be left with the kleptocratic administration, that Mr. Erekat is associated with; a growing population; all the constituents parts for a civil war; mass unemployment; no evident means to kick-start their moribund economy. And perhaps more importantly the Palestinian ruling elites would no longer be able to blame the Israelis for their predicment.
My sense is that the US and EU are starting to express a degree of ennui with the PNA and the Palestinian cause. If Isreal were to unilaterally withdraw, it think that the PNA would rapidly find itself "out in the cold".

Posted by Rod Davies @ 04/29/2004 02:28 PM CST

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