In the light of the ongoing Arab uprisings, the Western capitals in general, and Washington in particular, are preoccupied with securing their interests in the region. These interests include the protection of the Israeli security through the continuation of the Palestinian-Israeli peace process. The US seeks to present “ideas” to create a new framework for direct negotiations between the PA and Israel. This framework includes the recognition of a Palestinian state within the borders of June ’67, yet without putting any pressure on the Israeli government to make concessions. Washington hopes to appear for the Arab public opinion that it is keen for a just solution for the Palestinians. On another hand, it tries to prevent the tide of change from reaching Palestine.
Based on the above, the Israeli position is expected to assume one of the following trends:
1. Continued intransigence, thus the impasse in peace negotiations will continue.
2. A West Bank unilateral deployment.
3. The re-launch of direct negotiations regarding the establishment of the Palestinian State according to the Israeli-American criteria.
The world is busy with the transformations in the Arab world. However, this concern is more apparent in the major Western countries, particularly the US. Much of this concern is focused on the attempts to contain the influence of the Arab transformations on the future of the Arab-Israeli conflict and the Palestinian-Israeli peace process. Amidst a volatile situation, the West seems to move within two determinants: securing its major strategic interests and protecting Israel, which is practically one of those interests.
Washington, along with Paris and London, believes that it is very important to maintain the peace agreements signed between Israel on one hand and Egypt and Jordan on the other. It also believes that a political settlement concerning historic Palestine represents, together with the said agreements, a guarantee for Israel and the major Western interests. At the same time, Washington does not want to put any serious pressure on the Israeli government but rather on the Arab side, including the Palestinians. Therefore, it might seek to separate the Palestinian issue from the Arab emerging reality, but this option seems impossible now. It might, on the other hand, try to exploit the current situation to establish a new system which forms a basis for the coming peace settlement. This basis would be different from any previous ones, including the Arab Peace Initiative.
In light of the above, the Palestinian and Israeli stances seem decisive in defining the Western options. However, time remains an essential factor because both stances would not be as efficient when the features of the Arab scene become clearer.
The political settlement of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict has always been affected by major transformations. After the defeat of June 1967, there were efforts to impose a peace settlement. However, the Arab regimes which were largely defeated militarily, refused to conclude a conciliation from a weak position. After the 1973 October War, there were suggestions to hold an international conference based on the inconclusive Arab military achievement. International efforts led to presenting the PLO as the sole and legitimate representative of the Palestinian people, then to the signing of Camp David Accords between Egypt and Israel.
Following the 1982 invasion of Lebanon, a number of initiatives emerged. The Arabs had their own initiative which diverged from the then Crown Prince Fahd bin ‘Abdul ‘Aziz peace plan. On the other side, there was the Reagan Initiative and Brezhnev Initiative.
The major attempt to enhance the peace process was represented in the Madrid Peace Conference in 1991. Back then, the Arabs participated in the conference at a time of extreme weakness; following the war on Iraq, the expulsion of its forces from Kuwait, and the rupture of the Arab regimes. This conference led to the Oslo Agreement in 1993 and Wadi Araba in 1994, yet the peace settlement was not achieved.
After 11/9/2001, and amidst the Palestinian second intifadah and the concerns of the official Arab regime, the Arabs proposed the Arab Peace Initiative in Beirut Summit 2002. In the following year, Washington proposed the road map for peace, where Bush’s vision of the two-state solution was supposed to lead to the establishment of a Palestinian State by the end of 2005. However, the prevailing conditions that followed reflected the futility of the negotiations and detailed plans for the Oslo Accord and its consequent annexes.
In the midst of the major transformations in the Arab world, no genuine political initiative has been proposed to bring the parties to the negotiation table. This is not strange as talking about a political initiative needs different conditions and forces willing to seize them.
The absence of an initiative proposing specific provisions does not mean that efforts in this sense are stalled. Indeed, there is dire need for a continuous political process from at least three sides: the USA, Israel and the PA. Thus, these three sides would always stress the need for negotiations and their importance.
The US, along with some Western countries and Israel, has made great efforts to maintain Camp David and Wadi Araba Agreements and ensure the continuation of the political process in Palestine. Besides, there are information about demands to change the Syrian conduct and enter into negotiations with the Israeli government.
In its justification for what happened in Egypt and Tunisia, American discourse focused on the economic factors and other demands, leaving behind any reason related to the Arab-Israeli conflict. Washington has promised to provide financial aid to the two countries to help them overcome the economic difficulties. At same time, it has demanded Egypt, publicly and secretly, to maintain the peace treaty with Israel. The same applies for Jordan. The American President Obama has repeatedly talked about the need to find a solution for the Palestinian and the establishment of the Palestinian State.
For its part, the military council in Egypt has declared its commitment to the peace treaty and its provisions. However, the US considers with suspicion the voices of the Arab street, especially in Egypt, Tunisia and Jordan, demanding the cancellation of the agreements with Israel and the expulsion of its ambassadors. It also fears the voices demanding their governments to play a greater role in supporting the Palestinian people and its resistance. Washington is also concerned about the Palestinian popular movements besides the achievement of the inter-Palestinian reconciliation and the lack of a genuine popular support for a peace settlement.
There is more concern on the side of the Israelis who are receiving disturbing signals from the Egyptians despite the overt official declarations. In addition, there is suspicion about the Jordanian street and confusion regarding the incidents witnessed in Syria. The Israelis have also realized that imposing political settlement according to their conditions is no more possible. The emotional boost they recently received from President Obama and his recurrent declarations concerning the absolute commitment to Israel’s security and protection, were not enough.
The concerns on the Israeli side are enhanced by the popular movements at the borders, the Palestinian conciliation, and the fear of the outbreak of a third Palestinian intifadah.
Despite the signals that re-launching the negotiations is almost impossible according to the minimal Palestinian conditions, the PA shows adherence to the negotiations which it considers essential to its existence. On the other hand, the PA is proceeding with its approach towards the United Nations next September. It is employing this issue to exercise pressure to return to negotiations. In case the latter was not achieved, it will continue to seek international support for the recourse to the United Nations.
Unless there is a peace settlement in Palestine, Washington realizes that the protection of previous treaties has become very difficult. Thus, it sincerely seeks the re-launch of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. At the same time, it tries to isolate Arab changes and even derail them from their objectives in order to isolate the Palestinian issue from its surrounding.
Practically, the US considers the negotiations or the launching of a political process will lead to:
1. Containing the popular Arab position and the repercussions of the Egyptian and Tunisian uprisings.
2. Thwarting the Palestinian (and Arab) recourse to the UN, and preventing the formation of an international position that adopts the establishment of the Palestinian State within the ‘67 lines.
3. Filling the vacuum which might urge the Quartet, or some of its members, to adopt a political initiative which confuses Israel amidst Arab and international changing conditions.
It was noticed that the American President Obama has identified his stance with the Israeli position regarding the borders, Jerusalem and the refugees. Thus, he considered in one of his statements that the ‘67 lines would be a starting point rather than final borders. He also talked about land exchange and taking demographic variables into account. Further, Obama demanded the postponement of discussions regarding Jerusalem and the refugees until after the agreement which paves the way for mutual concessions.
The American President and his administration might resort to this approach to convince Netanyahu to accept a Palestinian State within the conditions appropriate to the Israelis. It is likely that they would pressure the Israelis through presenting the difficulty of the expected alternatives to negotiations. Nonetheless, Washington will continue to hinder the Palestinian recourse to the UN in case Netanyahu adhered to his position.
On another hand, there is an increasing demand in Israel to launch a political initiative. For the Israelis are concerned about the internal and regional changes cause. Many Israeli sectors believe that launching an initiative which accepts the establishment of a Palestinian state will lead to:
1. Thwarting the Palestinian recourse to the UN.
2. Maintaining Camp David and Wadi ‘Araba Agreements.
3. The continuation of security coordination.
4. Weakening the position of Israel’s enemies.
The Netanyahu government does not reject, in principle, the establishment of a Palestinian State yet it reduces it to a state with curtailed sovereignty and narrow borders. Israel realizes that the Palestinian negotiators would not accept such a state and it is aware that adhering to this position involves high costs in the near future.
The successive Arab developments made the Obama administration realize the seriousness of the Israeli position in case of lack of any political advancement on the Palestinian track. However, the insistence of Netanyahu’s government that Washington guarantees Israel’s security and its protection participates to limiting the prospect scenarios to the following possibilities:
1. The continued freezing of negotiations: This possibility represents a dedication of the status quo. The scenario is based on the fact that Netanyahu’s government is formed from the right and the extreme right and it is not willing to change its tactics or show any kind of flexibility. This means that the Israeli government will adhere to its position, including: rejecting the settlement building freeze, rejecting the negotiations on Palestinian state within the ‘67 lines, considering unified Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, demanding the PA to recognize the Jewishness of the state of Israel and declaring the continued Israeli presence along the Jordan Valley. Since this government considers its involvement in any of the available options a kind of military “suicide,” it is expected to try to gain time—or better waste more time—one way or another. It will hope that new developments would emerge on the Arab, Palestinian or regional levels which would help it out of the crisis.
2. Return to direct negotiations: In order to avoid the repercussions of the Arab uprisings, the Obama administration may pressure the Netanyahu government to change the Israeli tactics. This scenario is enforced by the increased internal pressures on Netanyahu and the increased Israeli concern about the repercussions of the September entitlement on international image of Israel. It should be noted here that these negotiations will be held under the title of preparation to establish the Palestinian State according to the Israeli-American criteria.
3. Implementation of unilateral deployment: It is easy to consider this scenario as a withdrawal, especially if it is accompanied with the transfer of some security powers to the PA. The likelihood of this scenario is enhanced because of its ability to ease the tension in the Palestinian street. It will pave the way for some international powers to value this Israeli gesture and consider it a step in the right direction. In its turn, the PA could perceive this scenario as a national achievement without political price and the Palestinian arena would be distracted with its interpretation and determining the next steps.
1. The Arab transformations (particularly in Egypt) are a great asset to the Palestinian issue and to the rights of the Palestinian people. Thus, it is necessary to proceed with supporting the trend which rejects derailing the uprising and demands the reconsideration of the Camp David Agreement.
2. The Palestinian reconciliation is a huge benefit which should be preserved without submission to the American will seeking to undermine it. Nor should the Palestinian factions submit to the American-Israeli will to change their positions.
3. The recourse to the UN to gain recognition of the Palestinian State is a political step which should be put within the pressure to achieve the Palestinian rights. However, it should not be an impediment to putting the Palestinian inner house in order, including the reform of the PLO and the PA.
4. The current situation is highly meticulous and the developments are pacing successively in unprecedented manner. On the other hand, accepting negotiations with the Netanyahu government will help Washington contain the positive Arab impact on the Palestinian cause and extract concessions under pressure. It is a priority now to adhere to the September deadline and watch the changes in the Arab region and the world.
Al-Zaytouna Centre thanks Nafith Abu Hasnah for authoring the original text on which this Strategic Assessment was based.