Special Reports





The prospects for a two-state solution to the Israeli – Palestinian conflict remain as intractable as ever. Israel will not withdraw from the entire Golan Heights in return for a peace deal with Syria, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's top policy adviser said in an interview published Friday, rejecting Syria's key demand for an agreement. Israel must remain on the Golan Heights to a depth of several miles and cannot withdraw in full even in return for a peace agreement. The area is also home to crucial water sources, a profitable Israeli winery, and Israeli settlements with about 18,000 residents. About 17,000 Druze Arabs loyal to Syria also live there. Indirect peace talks mediated by Turkey between representatives of Syrian President Bashar Assad and former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert have not been renewed under Netanyahu, who replaced Olmert in April. Direct talks between Israel and Syria broke down in 2000. Netanyahu has said repeatedly that Israel would not cede the Golan to Syria. The presence of Iran as a strategic and military counterweight to Israel is an important element in accelerating the need for the achievement of Middle East peace; so long as the United States fails to address the lop-sided nature of Israel’s position as compared to the Palestinians, the best that can be achieved is a peace plan bound to fail. The United States must also address the asymmetric position of the (divided) Palestinian leadership vis-à-vis the Israelis, determined as ever not to compromise over the former’s principal demands. For all his talk of peace, prime minister Netanyahu makes it very difficult for even the most compromising ANP to participate in negotiations, let alone to form a separate state.

The Aftermath of Iranian elections
The harsh government crackdown following the contested elections in Iran last June, may have eroded any enthusiasm that Arabs may have had for the Islamic Republic and the measure of partial political freedom it promises. President Ahmadinejad and the Guardian of the Revolution, Ayatollah Khamenei - and the Revolutionary Guards – showed their autocratic colors, making them no different from the rulers in Egypt, Libya, or Saudi Arabia. The Islamic Republic has lost its veneer as a viable alternative model of governance. Had the Iranian ruling elites managed the elections more fairly, they would have enhanced the appeal of the Islamic Republic becoming even more of a threat to the Arab autocracies, monarchic or Republican as they may be. However, much of the Islamic Republic’s appeal for the ‘Arab street” has rested on its anti-Americanism. In the past eight years, the Bush administration has helped to fuel it with effects not seen since the early 1980’s.

The United States is now in a position to neutralize this sentiment. President Obama’s speech at al-Azhar University in Cairo last May was an important blow to the Iranian hardliners; it now remains for the US administration to uphold the laudable goals of resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict with the creation of two states. President Obama has been careful to moderate criticism of the Iranian regime’s handling of the elections and the post-electoral protests, so much so that the UK and France have replaced the United States as the ‘great Satan’ over the past few weeks. The United States must see the Middle East as a matter of self-interest. Should it apply pressure on the Israeli government to relent its position on the peace talks and ending the building of illegal settlements in the West Bank, it will restore a position of leadership, defusing the potential Iranian military threat (perceived by Israel as well as Washington’s main Arab allies) without resort to weapons or threats. Ironically, the very need to confront Iran’s potential development of nuclear weapons gives such urgency to the American drive behind the two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

As for Syria, even as it is interested in finding a solution to the peace in the greater Middle East, it is even more interested in pursuing the return of the Golan from Israel. For the Alawite regime to pursue any democratizing reforms – it has already launched partial economic reforms – president al-Asad must achieve the return of the Golan. Netanyahu has shown no interest in the Turkish-mediated indirect talks between Syria and Israel, which were suspended in December when the Gaza conflict erupted. The United States, even as it has established closer links to Syria (which will be easier to pursue thanks to the victory of the March 14 Coalition in the recent Lebanese elections), would still prefer to see Syria loosening its ties to Iran and Hamas, before getting involved in the negotiations over the return of the Golan. Yet, Syria cannot afford to give up its Hamas bargaining chip; doing so would leave it more vulnerable and isolated. The Obama administration can promote a rapprochement with Saudi Arabia, but Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s presidential victory in Iran, suggests little will change in Syro-Iranian relations in the short term. Ideally, president Obama should have pursued the easier problem of the Golan before embarking on the Israeli-Palestinian question and the two-state solution as the centerpiece of its Middle East policy

Intra - Palestinian Fractures
The G8 also noted that Palestinian unity is necessary before any viable peace talks can begin. Palestinian unity hinges on a more cohesive Arab position. To this effect, the Obama administration has established much closer links to Syria, having sent back an ambassador to Damascus. The United States is also brokering a rapprochement between Syria and Saudi Arabia.

Leaders of the G8 countries meeting at the summit in Italy last week confirmed their interest in promoting a two-state solution and the so-called ‘Roadmap’ (the document drafted by the ‘Quartet’ – UN, EU, Russia and USA – in 2003) obligations, which urges an end to terrorist activity as well as an end to Israeli settlements in the Palestinian Territories. Days after the G8 summit, speaking officially during the weekly Cabinet meeting, Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu has asked the president of the Palestinian National Authority (ANP) to resume the peace talks “anywhere in Israel”. Abbas was not enthusiastic. He remarked that before any ‘talks’ may resume Israel should freeze all construction of settlements in the West Bank; as president Obama emphasized in his Cairo speech, Abbas’ condition has also become an important aspect of the official position of the United States.

Netanyahu’s offer was only partially conciliatory; even as the Israeli prime minister discussed the economic merits, the interest of investors and the easing of some restrictions in the West Bank, he did not discuss the key problem of the settlements. In fact, even as he has banned the building of new settlements in the West Bank, Netanyahu reiterated that he would authorize settlements to be built in East Jerusalem and in any settlements that Israel intends to keep for itself apart from any potential peace deal. Responding to rumours that Washington may ease its pressure to allow extensions to current settlements to allow for the absorption of ‘natural growth’ of the area, the ANP warns that no half-measures would be sufficient and that all settlement activity must be categorically terminated.

Asymmetric Israeli Negotiating Position
Netanyahu’s failure to address the main Palestinian concern, now buttressed by the United States, suggests that for the time being Israel is not interested in peace. Moreover, while American policy has changed on paper, in practice it has changed little. Even as the US international aid agency USAID has become more active, helping the ANP build roads linking villages in the West Bank (not the main roads, while Israel has its own roads for settlers only), the US army is helping train the ANP to search and arrest real and alleged militants, much to the satisfaction of the Israeli authorities. The combined effect of the US ‘assistance’ policies has actually been to validate the Israeli settlement policy. The United States has not challenged in any way the Israeli separation wall in the West Bank, which add several portions of Palestinian territories along the course of the barrier to Israel. Should the United States continue to resist challenging the very idea of the ‘wall’, and how Israel has used it to annex land, suggests that any peace talks for a ‘two-state’ solution would be flawed from the very start.

For the record, the International Court of Justice, five years ago, ruled that the Separation Wall breaches international law. If the Obama administration wants to be seen as truly serious about re-launching peace talks, surely it would at least acknowledge the ruling. In fact, apart from the – welcome – conciliatory words of the Obama White House, there is not much difference in effect between Barack Obama and G.W. Bush. Even as US aid agencies have implemented more construction and improvement projects in the West Bank – US Aid estimates that it would spend USD 300 million in five years in infrastructure programs – Israel would plan and supervise all the projects. The Obama administration has not even challenged the Israeli practice of blocking Palestinians from using the highway (no. 443) road linking East Jerusalem to Ramallah, among the most populated areas. Even as it is helping Palestinians confront the road-access program through the small roads, by failing to address the wider issue of restricted highways access, the US government is enabling Israel to continue to uphold its more intransigent positions.

The United States must also put pressure on Israel to end its road segregation practices, which were championed by prime minister Ariel Sharon in 2004. Accordingly, Israel itself is building an alternative road network for Palestinians in their own territory. These projects are designed to normalize part of the settlements, which Israel will refuse to give up even in the context of possible serious peace talks. Israel maintains roadblocks in the West Bank, over 600, confirming also its outright refusal to negotiate the issue of East Jerusalem, the very city that Palestinians have designated to be the capital of their future state. The UN Humanitarian Affairs Office (OCHA) estimates that Palestinians are forcibly kept off some 20% of their territory in the West Bank. Should Israel even accept to terminate all settlements as asked by the United States and the G8 leaders, it would enter peace negotiations buffered by the road networks and additional Palestinian land demarcated by the Separation Wall.

The United States remain overly tolerant of these tactics and it would be impossible to create a Palestinian state, or to pursue an actual two-state solution, under what, for the time being, remain purely Israeli conditions. Netanyahu also said that an independent Palestinian state would not be able to exercise an independent foreign policy or control over its own airspace. It is unbelievable that any Palestinian leader would accept even the latter two humiliations alone. Quite apart from any considerations of East Jerusalem as capital, the right of return and the permanence of settlements, is bound to fail. The situation is far from acceptable for the ANP while the implicit compromises it is being asked to make, before negotiations even begin, will continue to cause mistrust between the ANP and Hamas in Gaza. Sunni Arab powers, whose leaderships have grown weary of the Palestinian problem, have become more absorbed by the re-emergence of Iran as a strategic power in the region.

There is no longer a ‘Sunni’ led Iraq to counter Iran. Whereas the ‘Arab street’ may have changed its perception of the Iranian leadership and model somewhat, due to the violent repression of post-election protests, the Iranian threat remains the only hope for the Palestinians. The Obama administration has shown a willingness to maintain links to Iran, even if led by Ahmadinejad and even in the wake of violent repression of post election protests. While, a more pro-Western Iran would make it easier to handle a presumable weaker Hamas (which is also financially supported by Iran), forcing it to come to terms with the ANP. It would also reduce the United States’ urgency in helping to reduce the excessive Israeli advantage in potential peace talks, leading to yet another outright failure of peace talks – for which few have patience – or to the creation of a very flawed and unworkable ‘two-state’ solution; one so fragile, that Israel would be justified to intervene and re-occupy.

The poverty, lack of economic opportunities and sheer dependence on Israel in the West Bank and Gaza, which has barely started to recover from the destruction of last January’s ‘Cast Lead’ offensive, have sentenced the majority of Palestinians to lives of bare subsistence, surviving on Israeli offerings. Gaza, which incurred over USD 1 billion worth of damages in the latest Israeli offensive, has not even been allowed to import construction materials to rebuild. Local engineers have been reviving the ancient Middle Eastern techniques for making mud bricks to use as construction materials. The daily hardships that Palestinians have to confront just to survive are waning their energy for organized civil disobedience, which also means that any manifestation of resistance may come in the form of indiscriminate terrorism and a resumption of Qassam rocket launches.

For a two state solution to work, Israel needs to make too many concessions and such is the state of Israeli politics, no Israeli leader has the mandate to grant them. In 1993, the number of Jewish settlers in the West Bank was about 100,000 according to the UN. Today, there are 300,000 while new frontiers have opened in the form of East Jerusalem, which houses an additional 200,000 settlers, the fastest growing segment of the Israeli population. In the past decade, the United States has ‘looked the other way’ and allowed it to get away with too many breaches, giving it, as is now clear, hugely disproportional negotiating strength compared to the Palestinians. President Obama’s speech in Cairo marked a welcome change of tone, but nothing will change until Washington takes a firm grip and holds Israeli leaders to account. Until that time the ‘two-state solution’ will be seen simply as a convenient and politically correct term to promote inaction.

Alessandro Bruno.

Middle East and African Affairs Analyst

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