Here We Go ‘Round the Mulberry Bush

By Joharah Baker – West Bank, Palestine

It’s amazing how the Palestinians and Israelis can twist and turn, flip and flop and go round and round and always end up almost exactly where they started. What’s even more flabbergasting is that after all this water-treading, leaders on both sides still insist that all is not lost and that their peoples should not lose faith in them in or in this process they call negotiations.

Yesterday, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert reportedly offered his Palestinian counterpart, Mahmoud Abbas a proposal in which 93 percent of the West Bank and all of the Gaza Strip would be returned to the Palestinians under a final settlement, but without a commitment to establishing Jerusalem as the capital of the future Palestinian state.

According to the proposal, in exchange for the seven percent of West Bank land Israel would annex, it would offer the Palestinians 5.5 percent of land in the Negev Desert. The seven percent, is of course, land on which Israel’s illegal settlements are built in and around Jerusalem and also in the northern West Bank. These areas, Olmert maintains, must remain in Israeli hands and will never be relinquished in any final solution with the Palestinians.

The Gaza Strip, which Israel really has no strategic or ideological interest in unlike the West Bank, would only be returned to the Palestinians after Hamas relinquishes control over it. Olmert made it clear that Hamas retaining control over the Strip is a definite deal breaker.

More importantly, the plan offers a proposal for permanent borders, which unsurprisingly would run along the line of the ever-encroaching separation wall around and through the West Bank and include all of the major settlement blocs not only in Jerusalem but also the Ariel and Efrat settlements for which Israel recently approved further expansion.

This so called-shelf agreement would ostensibly lay down the foundations for a Palestinian state but would only be fully implemented once the Palestinian Authority carries out a number of reforms and is, according to the proposal, "capable of carrying out its part of the deal."

The Palestinians, as is expected, rejected the plan outright. Presidential advisor Nabil Abu Rdeineh called the proposal "a waste time" and maintained that the Palestinians would accept nothing less than a settlement-free Palestinian state on the 1967 borders with Jerusalem as its capital.

Are we ordinary citizens missing something? Since the Palestinian declaration of independence in Algiers in 1988, the Palestinians have been saying the same thing – Jerusalem must be the capital of the Palestinian state, settlements must go and Israel must end its illegal military occupation over all Palestinian territory occupied in the 1967 War.

Likewise, Israel has upheld its own mantra. Jerusalem must not be divided and Israel would undeniably retain major settlement blocs in the West Bank as part of a final deal with the Palestinians. Furthermore, no one understands better than the Palestinians that Israel has not even committed to these unreasonable guidelines. Since 1994 when the Oslo Accords were signed and Israel agreed to an interim agreement with the Palestinians that were to supposedly end in the establishment of a Palestinian state, illegal Jewish settlements have grown at exponential rates. Furthermore, under the guise of their security, Israel began constructing the separation wall in the West Bank in 2002, which has devoured wide swathes of Palestinian land and which Israel intends to become the de facto border between the two states.

Needless to say, the two positions are no closer than they were months or even years ago. Israel continues to claim that it is offering "painful concessions" for the sake of peace [such as a withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and the dismantling of selected settlements] while at the same time continuing its oppressive measures and land grab in Palestinian territories. What many may not know is that Olmert’s most recent plan is based – with slight alterations – on the Allon Plan of 1967 which entailed the annexation of 35 – 40 percent of the West Bank to Israel. The rest would be "self-ruled" by the Palestinians in the remaining territories.

The question here is, who is fooling whom. If both sides are so adamant in their positions, then where is the wisdom in negotiating the same points only to return to square one? Should there not be some other mechanism for solving this decades-long conflict? The only reasonable explanation is that, like all other political processes, there is much more than meets the eye. What we see on the table most likely pales in comparison to what is underneath it.

We do know one thing. Israel stands strong in its opposition to a bi-national state in which all of this country’s citizens live in equality. That would defeat their ultimate purpose of a Jewish state. At the same time, we also know the demographic factor is the very thing Israel fears and which is the reason it actually does want a final solution that would keep the Palestinians on their side of the border.

Furthermore, Olmert, already shamed by the corruption charges against him, does not want to go down in Israeli history as the leader who not only took money that was not his, but who also failed his people politically. This is not a legacy any leader would want, which brings us to our president, Mahmoud Abbas.

Weak from day one, Mahmoud Abbas has only grown increasingly weaker as the political situation in the Palestinian territories has deteriorated with each passing day. With his rival party Hamas threatening an internal Intifada against Fateh in the West Bank and the political divide that has split his people down the middle, Abbas has only a few months to prove his worth. If he can leave office with even a promise of a final solution, he would at least have left something behind.

However, how much hope does any solution have when it is being hammered out by two leaders with little popularity and even less clout with their own people? If Abbas accepts an agreement that entails less than the historic concessions already given by the Palestinians, this will not go over well with the people and only weaken him more. Likewise, Olmert has already lost enough credibility with his people with the corruption charges. He cannot push an agreement on his people that they are not ready for, especially if it only to save his own face.

In all cases, the people are the key to any lasting solution. The Palestinian people are clear about one thing. Without an end to the Israeli occupation on their land, neither Abbas nor Olmert can convince them to accept anything less.

-Joharah Baker is a Writer for the Media and Information Programme at the Palestinian Initiative for the Promotion of Global Dialogue and Democracy (MIFTAH). She can be contacted at mip@miftah.org. (Originally published in MIFTAH – www.miftah.org – and is republished by PalestineChronicle.com with permission.)

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