Letter from Blonay No. 8


Part three: Possibilities and pitfalls for further negotiations

Since the breakdown at Camp David, new discussions have already taken place, with a view to defining the strategy for further negotiations. It would be useful to consider some of the reasons for earlier failures and their implication regarding the coming talks.

The weakness of the Palestinian side

For decades the Palestinian leadership lacked any kind of international status. For the Israelis and their friends, and initially even for many others, the PLO was simply a group of terrorists without any real claim to represent the Palestinian people, except of course in the eyes of Arab and many other muslim countries. This position of weakness only changed with the spontaneous outbreak of the Intifada in the occupied territories and its being taken over by the PLO, which thereby became the voice of a much larger segment of the Palestinian population. Nevertheless its proclamation of a Palestinian Government in exile in 1988 remained without echo outside the Arab and Islamic world. The only tangible progress was the granting of observer status to the PLO by the United Nations, but not as a government in exile.

The Oslo agreement for the first time acknowledges the existence of a Palestinian entity and its at least temporary representation by the PLO leadership. But this is a far cry from Israel acknowledging a Palestinian State or even the possibility of such a state being set up. Indeed, for several years after Oslo, the very idea was anthema for all mainstream Israeli politicians, although gradually the public opinion in the country came to accept such a possibility.

No permanent settlement of the Palestinian issue is possible by such unequal partners as the State of Israel and the Palestinian Authority. The proclamation, and acceptance by Israel, of a Palestinian State, however imperfect with its undefined territory and its ficticious capital, would therefore appear to be an essential step towards a more balanced approach to a final solution.

The issue of concessions

Although the Oslo agreement provides relatively clear guidelines regarding its implementation, in practice every step in this direction by Israel had to be paid for by an additional concession of the Palestinian side. If it is true that a workable arrangement always requires concessions from both sides, in the case of Palestine great problems arise from the completely different starting points of the parties concerned.

Israel is of the view that it made a tremendous concession by simply acknowledging the existence of a Palestinian entity and accepting to discuss with it. It does not consider that this entity has any fundamental claim to the occupied territories and even less to East Jerusalem which has been formally annexed. Israel has always denied that the occupied territories were governed by the international law of armed conflicts and in particular the Fourth Geneva Convention. For a long time the view prevailed that the Palestinian Arabs had forfeited any right to a state by refusing to accept the UN partition plan of 1947 and then calling upon their Arab neighbours to militarily destroy the Jewish State in 1948. Even now, the religious parties in Israel consider that they have a God-given right to all biblical territories and that Palestinians should not be allowed to govern any of them.

The Palestinian side feels that it made a tremendous concession by accepting the existence of Israel, a state largely populated by immigrants from abroad whose claim to a God-given right to live in Palestine is considered absurd. Having thus capitulated before the realities, the Palestinian side very much resents being constantly confronted by new fait accomplis and asked to accept them as a necessary condition for any further steps towards the implementation of the Oslo agreement.

As already indicated in a previous Letter, one major problem on negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians is publicity. Each side has a very strong and well organised rejectionist segment in its population, which considers even minor concessions as treason with regard to basic, mainly religious, principles. A meaningful discussion possibly leading to a new compromise should therefore be conducted in private and come to the knowledge of the public only when it is concluded, as was the case with the Oslo negotiations.

The problem of the US involvement

The United States has long claimed to be the only honest broker capable of nudging the two sides towards an acceptable compromise. This claim is in part based on the success of the earlier US brokered Camp David negotiation of 1978 between Egypt and Israel. The reality however looks quite different. It would appear that the two basic motivations for US policies in the Near East have always been, and largely remain, the world strategy of the government and the power of Jewish and Christian fundamentalist lobbies at home. Neither is at all helpful to the Palestinian cause.

Cold war startegy led to unconditional support for Israel as the only reliable ally in the region. But cold war stategy also meant that in spite of this support of Israel the Arab world should not be allowed to fall into the Soviet camp. Hence the efforts to keep tolerable and even friendly relations with Egypt, even in the face of strong criticism from such an essential European ally as Britain. It is in this light that the US attitude in 1956 and 1967 must be seen. In both cases a collapse of an Egyptian regime that tried to keep some distance from the Eastern bloc in spite of maintaining close relations with it had to be avoided. When President Sadat cut off the privileged links with the Soviet Union, he was welcomed as an ally and henceforth got nearly as much military assistance as Israel. Thus, in the 1978 Camp David negotiation, the US could truly act as an impartial broker between Egypt and Israel, with possibly even a little favouring of the former. This may be the reason for the inclusion of some clauses regarding the Palestinians in the preliminary agreement reached at Camp David, which mostly disappeared when the final peace treaty was signed in 1979 and in any case remained totally ineffective.

Jews and Christian fundamentalists in the US are unconditional supporters of Israel and its "right" to the Biblical Lands. Between them they have enormous influence in Congress and can seriously affect the outcome of national elections. Thus, if there are no important other reasons to the contrary, any US government will naturally favour Israeli positions. This has become very evident since 1993, when no major geo-strategic reasons were militating any longer against favouring Israel.

It has been a major mistake of the Palestinian leadership not to realise this and to rely excessively on the hope that in the interest of peace and stability in the Middle East the United States would pressurise Israel to reliquish the occupied territories, possibly to dismantle some settlements there, and even to accept giving back some part of Eastern Jerusalem to become the capital of the Palestinian State. The shocked surprise at President Clinton's announcement, after the failure of Camp David, to move the US embassy to Jerusalem only reveals how much unjustified hope had been invested in a possible support from the USA.

Towards a greater European role?

Europe is very much occupied with itself. The EU wants to reform its institutions and their procedures while negotiating the admission of several more countries as members. The larger OSCE is very much involved in the Balkans and the former Soviet Union and moreover counts the USA as a powerful member. For the moment at least the other big member, Russia, looks too involved in internal problems to provide some kind of counter-weight.

Peace and stability in the Near East appears of more immediate importance to the EU than the USA or even OSCE. It is a pre-condition for a more successful pursuit of its Mediterranean policies and it is certainly likely to facilitate relations with Turkey. There would also accrue far more economic dividends from peace in the Near East to the EU than to the USA. Finally there are no powerful forces within the EU that would favour without restraint either Israel or the Palestinian side. The preconditions for acting as an honest broker would thus appear to exist. Moreover, European diplomacy is still capable of acting discreetly without its pursuits being splashed over the headlines as soon as they are dcided. Indeed, anything comparable to the urge that made President Clinton convene the Camp David meeting before the end of his term of office does not existe at all in Europe. The problem, for the moment, appears to be to convince the government and public opinion of Israel the the EU is not supporting the Palestinians the way they are themselves supported by the USA. If this can be achieved, the great reticence of the USA towards a heavier EU involvement in the peace process would most likely disappear in its turn.

Blonay, August 2000.