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One for the shelf

Yesterday, the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz published what seemed like a significant development in the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, reporting that PM Ehud Olmert had presented Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president “with a detailed proposal for an agreement in principle on borders, refugees and security arrangements between Israel and a future Palestinian state”.

The “offer” is nothing too different to what we’ve seen before: Israel keeps the main settlement blocs, including around Jerusalem, Gush Etzion, Maaleh Adumim, and, the Ha’aretz article suggests, Efrat and Ariel too. There is no mention of arrangements for the Jordan valley, crucial territory that Olmert has previously declared his intention to annex.

While Israel apparently keeps 7% of the West Bank, the Palestinians are “compensated” with land from the Negev desert and a road connecting the West Bank and Gaza Strip. In fact, the overall borders are by and large determined by the separation wall, which the report rightly notes has created a “new physical reality”.

The Palestinian state would be “demilitarised”, the question of Jerusalem is postponed, and there is “a detailed and complex formula for solving the refugee problem” that does not (it would seem) include even a recognition of Israeli responsibility. But while the details are familiar, and from a Palestinian point of view, a joke, what’s more interesting is the way in which the package is presented as a “shelf agreement”.

What that basically means is that Israel does not actually need to do anything substantive until “the Palestinians complete a series of internal reforms and are capable of carrying out the entire agreement”. Indeed, Israel would immediately annex the illegal colonies, but the strip of desert and Gaza-West Bank connecting road would not be “delivered” to the Palestinians until “the PA [Palestinian Authority] retakes control of the Gaza Strip”.

All of which means that the proposal looks like it has been designed to never actually be implemented. Moreover, the Ha’aretz article reads at times more like a sales pitch, as the reader is assured that Olmert “feels there is time to reach an agreement during his remaining time in office” and is “now awaiting a decision from the Palestinians” – who, it was claimed, have already been given maps of the proposed borders.

The Palestinian response was swift. Abbas spokesperson Nabil Abu Rdainah denounced the plan as an unacceptable “waste of time” and demonstrating a “lack of seriousness”. Emphasising that the Palestinians will only accept a state on the 1967 boundaries, “free of settlements”, Abu Rdainah also accused Israel of trying to “escape the idea of two states”.

Later, veteran Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said that the report was “baseless“, mere “‘half-truths” that Israel was using “as a test balloon so they can blame the Palestinian Authority should the negotiations fail”. From the Gaza Strip, Hamas also reacted to the breaking story, with their spokesperson describing the proposal as “only a media report”, which if true, was intended to encourage further PA-Hamas confrontations, by linking any agreement to Abbas “retrieving” Gaza.

The Palestinian response was as fast as it was dismissive, a decision taken by people keenly aware that there can be no repeat of Israel and the US’s Camp David PR triumph; the Palestinians won’t (even unjustly) be able to receive the blame for peace talks collapsing this time around.

It is in this context that the comments by Ahmed Qureia on Sunday about the “one-state solution” should be understood. The senior negotiator and ex-prime minister declared that if Israel continued to prevent the realisation of a Palestinian state in the Occupied Territories, “then the Palestinian demand … [would be] one state, a binational state”.

It is what one journalist referred to as “the binational weapon“, a threat, or, perhaps “a bargaining gambit” during a critical stage in the talks. However, it is likely to be not so much the appliance of leverage, but rather an indication that the game is up; it could even be “prophetic”.

Taking a step back, as senior Palestinians discuss unilateral measures and shifts in strategy, and as Olmert prepares to leave office, the Ha’aretz report appears like the Israeli government’s own attempt at damage limitation. The newspaper itself even cited an anonymous Israeli official who confirmed that “there is going to be no agreement, period” (an understanding shared by the settlers).

Last week, Jamal Zakout, advisor to Palestinian PM, Salam Fayyad, stressed repeatedly the extent to which the two-state solution was being “endangered”. He also said that should there be no deal in 2008, and if the peace process fails, “This time no one can say the Palestinians are to be blamed”. Across the board then, Palestinians and Israelis are positioning themselves for the failure of the Annapolis “peace process”, though what comes next is far more unclear.

First published by the Guardian’s Comment is free.

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