Osama Al-Sharif<br />
Gulf News
September 14, 2010 - 12:00am

The risky business of forging peace between Israel and the Palestinians through a negotiated settlement has resumed after almost three years of forced interruption.

But few on either side are hopeful. The one-year process of direct negotiations under United States auspices aimed at concluding a final status agreement and the birth of a Palestinian state has its critics, and sceptics, on both sides of the divide and beyond. In fact few believe that this latest round of talks will lead to an historic deal. The chasm is simply too wide.

But the choice is not only between complete success and utter failure. There are other possibilities. While it is too early to make judgments, the Arabs, who have given their blessing to the Palestinians to join the talks in the absence of guarantees, must prepare themselves for all scenarios.

Israel joins the talks without giving up on its declared position from final status issues. It also calls on the Palestinians to be ready to make painful concessions. While it refuses to accept any Palestinian conditions, Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu has put forward a few demands of his own, the latest being Palestinian readiness to recognise Israel as a purely Jewish state.

Another test to the durability of this round of negotiations will come about when an Israeli decision to enforce a six-month colony freeze expires at the end of this month. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will be in the region this week to make sure that the colony freeze issue and Netanyahu's demand that Palestinians recognise Israel's Jewish character will not derail the fragile process.

Core subjects

Israel and the Palestinians will disagree on these and other issues, but eventually they will have to start tackling the core subjects. These include borders, colonies, water, security, refugees and occupied East Jerusalem. A just and durable peace deal, from a Palestinian, Arab and international standpoints, must be based on UN resolutions, previous agreements and references, the Arab Peace Initiative, among others. Israel has made it clear that a number of these issues are non-negotiable; occupied Jerusalem being the most important.

President Mahmoud Abbas has said, on more than one occasion, that he would not accept what his predecessor, Yasser Arafat, had rejected in the past, most notably in 2000 at Camp David. If that truly is his position and intent then it is difficult to see the two sides reaching an agreement. What would be the immediate consequences of that failure?

On the other hand, if both sides miraculously overcome their differences and bridge the divide separating them, then would that mean comprehensive peace has been achieved and that the Arab-Israeli conflict is finally over?

Between failure and success, in abstract terms, there is a third or maybe a fourth option. If the Palestinian leadership succumbs to US and Israeli pressures and accepts a deal of some sort that produces a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza, assuming that the latter will be liberated from Hamas, the reaction to such unrefined settlement will be tremendous at all levels.

Accepting this raw deal and recognising the new Palestinian state will surely divide and embarrass the Arabs. It is ironic that the new Palestinian state may be recognised by Israel, the United States and many western countries but not by Arabs. This dangerous outcome must be considered carefully by the US because of its regional consequences. It will divide the region and weaken moderate Arab states. It will fuel militancy and fundamentalism.

But if Abbas and his aides manage to withstand the pressure, coercion and threats and stick to their declared position even if that meant a final collapse of the peace process, what other options would they have after that?

Failure would spell the end of the PNA (Palestinian National Authority) which was created for the purpose of achieving the Palestinian goals of liberation and statehood. The loss of the PNA would not prove fatal because the PLO (Palestine Liberation Organisation), recognised as the sole and legitimate representative of the Palestinian people will continue.

The Palestinians can take their case back to the UN and make it the responsibility of the international community to solve their dilemma. But even that is not a hopeful result. Israel remains an occupying power that has divided and changed the status quo of the land it is usurping.

The losers will not only be the Palestinians. The collapse of the peace process will leave this troubled region and its leaders with few choices. Peace with Israel has been a strategic choice of most Arab countries after years of armed conflict. A state of no peace and no war will prevail and it will only make the region a breeding ground for extremism.

Peace in the Middle East has proved to be a risky affair. Lack of celebration and cheering at the resumption of direct negotiations after 18 years of the peace process is proving that people are fatigued and sceptical. The US has chosen to launch the final leg of this drawn out process that has yielded little hope for a better future for the people of the region. It is focused now on the process and not on its conclusion. The conclusion, whatever it may be, could prove hazardous and toxic to all involved.


American Task Force on Palestine - 1634 Eye St. NW, Suite 725, Washington DC 20006 - Telephone: 202-262-0017