Breaking point

Print edition : December 18, 2009

A VIEW OF the West Bank Jewish settlement of Maale Adumim from the outskirts of Jerusalem.-MUHAMMED MUHEISEN/AP

THE United States-sponsored West Asia peace process may be on the verge of being declared officially dead. For the beleaguered Palestinian Authority (P.A.), the last straw was the endorsement of Israels expansionist policy in the occupied territories by the visiting U.S. Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton. She praised Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahus commitment to peace, despite his refusal to freeze new settlement construction in Jerusalem and the West Bank. At the beginning of the Barack Obama administrations tenure, statements emanating from the White House as well as the State Department had indicated a tough line on Israels settlement-building activity.

After President Obamas first meeting with Netanyahu in May, Hillary Clinton said that the new administration wanted an immediate stop to all settlement activity. Obama had told the Israeli government to stop all construction activity in the occupied territories as he was serious about a peace agreement. The Obama administration now seems to have wilted under the pressure mounted by the Jewish lobby in Washington. Obama even formally criticised the United Nations Human Rights Councils Goldstone Report, which accused Israel of war crimes in Gaza. The U.S. House of Representatives voted 344 to 36 in favour of rejecting the report. The report has been welcomed by the international community barring a few countries.

Another wake-up call to the Palestinian leadership in Ramallah came from the White House Chief of Staff, Rahm Israel Emanuel. At the annual conference of the United Jewish Communities on November 10, he said Israeli settlements should not be a distraction to the peace process.

Gideon Levy, the noted Israeli columnist, wrote recently: Before no other country in the planet does the United States kneel and plead like this. In other trouble spots, America takes a different tone. It bombs Afghanistan, invades Iraq and threatens sanctions against Iran and North Korea. Did anyone in Washington consider begging Saddam Hussein to withdraw from occupied territory in Kuwait?

MAHMOUD ABBAS, PALESTINIAN Authority President.-ABBAS MOMANI/AFP

Meanwhile, P.A. President Mahmoud Abbas, in a speech delivered on November 5, admitted that the peace process had collapsed completely. On that occasion, Abbas announced dramatically that he would not seek a second term. He has since stated that he is firm on his decision to step down from the leadership of the Palestinian movement. The Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) has rejected his resignation offer and is urging him to seek another term as P.A. leader. His supporters and well-wishers cautioned that the entire edifice of the P.A. would collapse if Abbas stepped down and feared that the political vacuum created by his action would be filled by Hamas. Israeli President Shimon Peres has asked Abbas not to quit. Peres was quoted as saying that it was in Israels interests that Abbas continued to lead the P.A. Influential European nations have also swung into action to persuade the Palestinian leader to reconsider his decision. French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner said that Abbas decision not to contest again was a threat to peace in West Asia and would be harmful to the interests of the West. Kouchner publicly questioned whether Netanyahu was really interested in peace. There is also a view in the Arab world that Abbas resignation drama is only a tactical move.

Abbas in his speech said that the Palestinian people would have to seek new ways to achieve statehood. He said the failure of the peace talks and the Obama administrations embrace of Israeli expansionism were the main reasons for his decision to quit. In his speech he also mentioned the failure to mend fences with Hamas, which controls Gaza, as another factor. The failure to forge an accord with Hamas has forced the P.A. to postpone the general elections, which Abbas had said would be held on January 29. Hamas has refused to recognise Abbas as President as his constitutional term expired in January. Weve called for unity, Abbas said. Hamas has been trying to use some indefensible excuses to avoid signing this reconciliation agreement, namely the Goldstone Report.

Abbas accused Israel of exacerbating the tense situation in Jerusalem by desecrating some holy sites near Al Aqsa mosque. The mosque is the second holiest site in the world for Muslims. Abbas also suggested the need for more serious international mediation into Arab-Israel conflict instead of the Americans being allowed to remain the sole arbiters. He emphasised that the Palestinian side had remained committed to the two-state solution throughout the long years of negotiations. However, month after month, year after year, we have nothing but complacency and procrastination from the Israeli side, Abbas said. In another speech, delivered on the fifth anniversary of Yasser Arafats death, he told a cheering crowd that the P.A. would not go in for negotiations without a framework. And we say the framework is U.N. resolutions, meaning a return to the 1967 borders, he said.

Saeb Erekat, a key adviser of Abbas and the chief Palestinian negotiator, said in early November that it was time the P.A. leadership told the Palestinian people that the deadline for a two-state solution to resolve the Palestinian issue had lapsed. Until recently, Abbas swore by the peace process and told the Palestinian people that peace with Israel was imminent. The P.A. stopped negotiations with Israel after the January assault on Gaza and refused to return to the peace talks until Israel announced a halt to all settlement activity. The Obama administration wants an immediate resumption of the peace talks without making the freeze on settlement activity a precondition.

BENJAMIN NETANYAHU, ISRAELI Prime Minister.-GALI TIBBON/AFP

Since the Oslo peace accord was signed, Israel has put up 500,000 settlers and doubled the settlements in the occupied territories. Abbas was the key Palestinian negotiator in Oslo. His decision to step down could mean the death knell for the Oslo Accord and the two-state solution it envisaged. Abbas proposed resignation has been welcomed by many Palestinians. They remember that the P.A. under Abbas had bent over backwards to please Washington and Tel Aviv on crucial issues connected to the peace process. Abbas initially supported the move of Washington to postpone the debate and vote on the Goldstone Report.

Palestinian outrage at the decision forced the P.A. to reverse its stance. The UNHRC and the U.N. General Assembly have endorsed the Goldstone Report and referred it to the Security Council for discussion. International legal experts have concluded that the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) violated the Nuremberg Principles as well as the Geneva Conventions during Operation Cast Lead in Gaza. The Nuremberg Principles are a set of guidelines established after the Second World War to try Nazi party members.

Under Abbas watch, American forces trained the Palestinian security forces. The Palestinian national forces were taught to look at those resisting Israeli occupation as terrorists. The attempt by Fatah to oust militarily the democratically elected Hamas government from Gaza in 2007 was said to be instigated by Washington. At a meeting near Ramallah between top Israeli and Fatah commanders in 2008, the highest-ranking Fatah military commander in the West Bank was quoted as saying that we have one common enemy, and the name of the enemy is Hamas.

The search seems to have begun to find a new Fatah leader. The most popular one with the Fatah rank and file is Marwan Barghouti. Barghouti has been cooling his heels in an Israeli prison for the past couple of years, serving a long sentence for his role in the last Palestinian intifada (uprising). The popularity of Fatah among Palestinians had declined after the death of Yasser Arafat.

Palestinian security forces parade on November 19 in the West Bank city of Jenin in support of Mahmoud Abbas.-SAIF DAHLAH/AFP

Hamas, despite the efforts of Israel to stigmatise and eliminate it, continues to be a force to reckon with in Palestine. Leading Israeli figures, including former military men, are now talking of engaging Hamas diplomatically. Phillipe Martini, a senior senator belonging to the ruling party in France, issued a report in the second week of November that called for the lifting of the diplomatic cordon sanitaire around Hamas and ending its isolation.

Meanwhile, as the Western world celebrated the 20th anniversary of the collapse of the Berlin Wall in the first week of November, Palestinians in big numbers were demonstrating against the wall that Israel has constructed in the West Bank. Palestinian protesters managed to demolish a small section of the wall, which prevents Palestinians from visiting neighbours and moving around freely. It has gobbled up significant chunks of Palestinian territory since its construction started in the beginning of the decade. The World Court, in a 2004 judgment, ordered the Israeli government to tear down the portion that runs through Palestinian territory. Almost 85 per of the planned wall is inside Palestinian territory.

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