Stonewalled state

Print edition : May 30, 2014

An Israeli road protected by a security barrier cutting through the West Bank town of Beit Jala near Bethlehem. Photo: THOMAS COEX/AFP

Palestinian Authority President Mahmud Abbas at the PLO's Central Council meeting in Ramallah on April 26. Photo: ABBAS MOMANI/AFP

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a Cabinet meeting in his Jerusalem office on May 4. Photo: AP

Palestinians working in Israel wait to cross the Israeli-controlled Jalama checkpoint near the West Bank city of Jenin on May 1. Photo: Mohamad Torokman/Reuters

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry. He has been trying to broker a peace deal since July 2013. Photo: REUTERS

Israeli intransigence derails the U.S.-brokered peace agreement on a two-state solution, but the Palestinian Authority retaliates with deft political and diplomatic moves.

THE stonewalling tactics adopted by the Israeli government, leading to the collapse of the peace talks, has angered even its staunchest ally—the United States. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, who had made the clinching of a comprehensive peace agreement a major foreign policy priority of the Barack Obama administration as it prepares to bow out of office in 2016, told a closed-door meeting of the U.S. Trilateral Commission in the last week of April that the failure to achieve a peace agreement would carry the risk of Israel becoming an “apartheid state”. Many Israelis believe that Israel has already become an apartheid state. Palestinians residing in Israel and in the occupied territories have remained second-class citizens. Things got worse for Palestinians with the growth of exclusive Jewish settlements on the most productive land available in the West Bank. The best land and water resources have been monopolised by the Jewish settlers.

As Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas recently pointed out, even a junior officer from the Israeli security services could enter his office easily “and disperse this meeting because we have no authority here”. Palestinians need special permits to pass through roads criss-crossing the many Jewish settlements in the West Bank, reminding one of the apartheid South Africa. While the settlers can freely enter and leave the West Bank, Palestinians, who are native to the land, cannot do so. Even as the latest round of peace talks were going on, the Israeli government gave permission for the construction of an additional 14,000 settler apartments in the West Bank.

Kerry’s remarks about the dangers of Israel becoming an apartheid state attracted a chorus of criticism from leading Israeli politicians and a pliant U.S. media. Right-wing American politicians joined in the criticism. The Republican Senator Marco Rubio described Kerry’s comments as “outrageous and disappointing”. Since he restarted the peace process in July 2013, Kerry had repeatedly warned that a failure on Israel’s part to reach a compromise would leave the country open to economic and political pressure from the European Union and the rest of the international community. Israel’s refusal to recognise an independent state of Palestine, he said, would lead to a situation where the Jews would be reduced to a minority within the borders of their own state. It is projected that the combined Palestinian populations of Israel proper and the occupied territories will outnumber that of the Jews within a short span of time. The “ticking demographic time bomb” has already led the right-wing government in Israel to institute apartheid-like regulations in housing, education and other fields. When the apartheid system existed in South Africa, Israel was the staunchest ally of the Pretoria regime. It even recognised the “Bantustans” the blacks were forced to live in.

However, it did not come as a surprise when Kerry, given his long track record as a supporter of Israel, quickly issued a clarification. He said he did not believe that Israel was an “apartheid state” or intended to become one and all that he intended to say was that a “two-state solution” would allow the Jewish state to coexist peacefully with a Palestinian state. “In the long term, a unitary, binational state cannot be the democratic Jewish state that Israel deserves or the prosperous state with full rights that the Palestinian people deserve,” he said.

Annexation plans

Kerry’s comments came in the wake of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s demand that Israel should be officially declared a Jewish state. Netanyahu has even talked of formally annexing the West Bank and confining the Palestinian population in small enclaves.

Danny Danon, a close ally of the Prime Minister and a senior leader of the Likud Party, which leads the coalition government, had advocated the takeover of the West Bank if the Palestinians sought United Nations recognition for statehood. After the collapse of the peace talks, Netanyahu, according to reports in the U.S. and Israeli media, asked his Cabinet to consider plans to annex parts of the West Bank.

Israel has already annexed Jerusalem and the Golan Heights. Now, it has set its sight on two-thirds of the West Bank, known as Area C, which is home to 350,000 illegal Jewish settlers. The Israeli right wing always had a grandiose vision of a Jewish state. It always refers to the West Bank as Judea and Samaria, invoking the biblical Old Testament names for the territory. Former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who died recently, had said that a true Jewish state would also include Jordan. A Zionist hawk, he had maintained that there would be no return to the pre-1967 border.

Hamas-PLO reconciliation

The Palestinian Authority, seemingly with its back against the wall, retaliated with deft political and diplomatic moves. In the third week of April, the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO), led by Abbas, signed a reconciliation pact with Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip and has been at loggerheads with the Palestinian Authority since 2008. Hamas won the first democratic elections held in the occupied territories. But inter-Palestinian rivalry, aided and abetted by outside powers, led to the break up of their unity and the takeover of Gaza by Hamas.

Israel used the split to great advantage, characterising Hamas as a terrorist organisation bent on the destruction of the Jewish state. Successive Israeli governments had blockaded the hapless million and a half people crammed in the Gaza Strip, depriving them of basic necessities. Hamas has been under immense pressure since the return of the military, in July 2013, to centre stage in Egypt. The brief interregnum of the Muslim Brotherhood rule had lifted the economic stranglehold on Gaza as the Egyptian authorities had turned a blind eye to the smuggling of essential supplies into the Gaza Strip. Hamas is an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood. The ouster of Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi was a serious blow to the Hamas administration in Gaza. General Abdel Fattah El-Sisi, Egypt’s military strongman and former Defence Minister, has accused Hamas of being hand in glove with the Muslim Brotherhood in spreading political turmoil in his country. The Hamas leadership had to find an honourable way out of the dire straits it finds itself in. The new deal between the PLO and Hamas has the support of the Egyptian government.

Under the terms of the latest agreement, the two main factions of the Palestinian movement have agreed to form a unity government. Long-delayed elections in the West Bank and Gaza are scheduled to be held later in the year. Immediately after Hamas and the PLO signed the agreement, Israel formally withdrew from the peace talks, accusing the PLO of entering into a deal with a terrorist organisation. The reconciliation between the Palestinian groups came in for criticism from Washington. Both Tel Aviv and Washington have argued that Hamas has so far refused to recognise the state of Israel. The Hamas leadership had, on several occasions, indicated that it was willing to recognise Israel provided it vacated the West Bank and moved back to the pre-1967 borders. Although it felt the U.S.-sponsored peace process was futile, Hamas said that it would abide by any two-state settlement provided it was approved in a referendum by the Palestinian people.

When Israel called off the talks, the “road map to peace” negotiations had in any case reached a dead end. The nine months allotted for the conclusion of the process were over. Senior U.S. officials blamed Israel for the impasse on a two-state solution. President Obama is not fond of Netanyahu. The Israeli Prime Minister had the gall to support Mitt Romney, the Republican candidate for the U.S. presidency in the 2012 election, along with the influential pro-Israeli lobbying group, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC).

The latest round of peace talks collapsed because of Israeli intransigence. Netanyahu’s decision to allow further settlement building, when the talks according to the U.S. were delicately poised, proved to be the final straw for Abbas. Netanyahu had also reneged on his commitment to release a fourth batch of long-incarcerated Palestinian political prisoners. Kerry condemned the Israeli construction activity and questioned the Israeli government’s rationale for giving the go-ahead for the construction of buildings in a place “that would eventually be Palestinian”.

Abbas' moves

Abbas made his diplomatic move by applying for membership for the state of Palestine to 15 major international conventions. The Palestinians had gained “observer state” status in the U.N. in 2012 despite opposition from Washington and Tel Aviv.

The Palestinian Authority plans to sign around 40 international treaties and conventions and eventually join the International Criminal Court (ICC) at The Hague. The ICC was established in 2002 to prosecute perpetrators of war crimes, genocide and crimes against humanity. Israel is well aware that there is plenty of evidence against its security services and armed forces relating to war crimes. Millions of Palestinians have been displaced, thousands more killed or assassinated by the Israeli state. Israel also risks prosecution for its settlement policies in the West Bank and Jerusalem. Israeli settlements in the West Bank, according to international legal luminaries, constitute a serious crime against humanity. Mustafa Barghouti, a member of the PLO’s central executive committee, told the media recently that the Palestinian Authority could seriously pursue cases against Israel in the ICC. “There will be a moment when Israel will be brought to justice,” he said.

State under occupation

Abbas is now threatening to disband the Palestinian Authority and its security services and let the occupying power, Israel, own up to its responsibilities and openly run the West Bank. Palestinian leaders have said that with the signing of the Geneva Conventions, Palestine has been recognised as a state under occupation, effectively undermining the Israeli position that the territories are still under dispute. “If the negotiations fail finally, then we will say to the Israeli government, ‘Here is the Authority. Take it. You have emptied it of all content. Take it’,” Abbas said in a recent television address. He has repeatedly maintained in recent weeks that Israel was never serious about discussing a two-state solution during the nine-month-long peace talks, despite the Palestinian side agreeing to a demilitarised state and the replacement of the Israeli security presence in the West Bank with a North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) force.