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Israel endangers Obama's peace plan

Atul Aneja

As a result of the recent Israeli moves, the plan conceived by Barack Obama to achieve independent Palestinian statehood lies in tatters.

Israel has with rapid speed mounted a ruthless political offensive to dominate its future direct negotiations with Palestinians.  The latest round of talks, which began in September, is about achieving a two-state solution — the emergence of Palestine as a nation-state co-existing with its Israeli neighbour.

But as a result of the recent Israeli moves, the 12-month plan conceived by President Barack Obama, to achieve independent Palestinian statehood — following direct talks between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President, Mahmoud Abbas — lies in tatters. In fact, there is now a real danger that the negotiations, which began in Washington with much fanfare, may be on the verge of collapse.

The immediate problem, of course, is Tel Aviv's decision not to extend the expired 10-month construction freeze on Israeli settlements in the West Bank. Apart from the West Bank, Israel occupied Gaza and East Jerusalem during the 1967 Arab-Israeli war.

Faced with Israel's obduracy and backed by the 22-nation Arab League, the Palestinians have now given the Americans a month's notice to rescue talks by persuading Tel Aviv not to re-start settlement activity in the West Bank. Else, they said, they would have no option other than retracting from the already battered two-state peace process. The Americans have accepted the ultimatum. They are, however, well aware that President Abbas' threats cannot always be taken at their face value.

While the revival of West Bank settlements is the immediate provocation, there is plenty happening within the Israeli political circles that bodes ill for the future of a fruitful dialogue. The crux of the problem lies in two issues.  Israel's fierce fixation with dismissing anything that could even remotely question its Jewish majority status is a key impediment. Its perception of what it would take to safeguard national security is the second major stumbling block. In trying to achieve both objectives — a Jewish majority status in perpetuity and foolproof security — Israel is giving the Palestinians very little which they can sell to their domestic audience as a fair deal.  As a result, the peace talks — which, in any case, had to traverse a web of minefields — are in deep trouble, though not quite dead as yet.

What is happening in Israel that offends Palestinians so much? For starters, they are deeply troubled by its assertion that it does not want within its borders Palestinians, in numbers that are large enough to challenge its Jewish majority status. The Israelis argue that there could be a huge influx into the country if an agreement on the “right of return” is reached with the Palestinians. This would mean allowing those Palestinians displaced during the 1948 and 1967 wars the right to return to their homes in Israel. The war-displaced Palestinians can be found all over the world, but a large number reside in shabby refugee settlements in West Asia, especially Jordan, Syria and Lebanon.

Because of Isreael's paranoia over demographics, and also to keep the ultra-right flock together, Prime Minister Netanyahu has announced that he would be inclined to meet the demand to freeze West Bank settlements for a longer period, provided the Palestinians formally recognise Israel as the homeland of the Jewish people. The Palestinians obviously have not taken the bait for, recognising Israel as a Jewish state would, in effect, mean relinquishing the right of around four million Palestinians to return to their homeland. On the contrary, they have stressed that the freeze over the settlements cannot be linked with any other issue. The former Palestinian Foreign Minister, Nabil Shaath, has, in fact, asserted that Israel should not only halt settlements in the occupied West Bank but also extend the moratorium to East Jerusalem as well. The Palestinians view East Jerusalem as their future capital. However, Israel did not cover this area under its 10-month settlement freeze, which expired in late September.

In recent weeks, there have been several indications of the Israelis considering removal from their territory a large number of Palestinians who have acquired Israeli nationality in order to preserve their country's Jewish majority status. The mercurial Foreign Minister, Avigdor Lieberman's recent address at the United Nations was the first major indication that Israel was looking seriously at this possibility. He shocked many when he officially proposed that a population-territory swap be part of a final Israeli peace deal with the Palestinians. Under his plan, part of the Palestinian Arab population should be shifted to the future Palestinian state. In exchange, Israelis who vacate their settlements as part of the peace deal should be brought inside Israel, thus reinforcing the country's Jewish character.

As resentment mounted against Mr. Lieberman's proposals, which would inevitably involve extensive displacement and migration of people from their homes, an apparently embarrassed Mr. Netanyahu distanced himself from his Foreign Minister's remarks. Nevertheless, subsequent developments in Israel suggest that the idea of an Arab and Israeli population-territory swap has not been abandoned. In fact, the Netanyahu administration may be actively preparing to implement some of the measures, which were part of Mr. Lieberman's acerbic narrative.  

The Israel Prisons Service, for instance, carried out a mock exercise in early October to detain a large number of Arabs following staged riots. According to Israel Radio, the drill was undertaken under the assumption that civil disturbances erupted following a deal between the Israelis and the Palestinians over population swaps. Another aspect of this exercise was to arrest and send to prison people on board aid ships, thwarted by the Israeli forces in their bid to reach the Palestinians on the Gaza coastline. Obviously, the Israelis are preparing for more Mavi Marmara-type incidents. The deck of the Gaza-bound Turkish aid ship became a battleground for Israeli commandos and pro-Palestinian activists on May 31.

Alarmed at the conduct of this exercise, the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI) has written to Mr. Netanyahu, seeking his clarification on whether transfers of Israeli Arab citizens to the Palestinian Authority is part of a peace agreement that has already been discussed, or whether it is on the agenda of future talks. “The holding of such a drill testifies to the fact that thoughts of transfer, called by such names as the exchange of territories or the exchange of populations, are not merely an election slogan or the personal fantasy of certain politicians and ministers but a subject for discussion on the agenda of the government and of those who are behind holding the exercise in this form,” ACRI wrote.

The Israeli Arabs, too, appear to be in the line of fire yet again as Israel recently adopted fresh measures to reinforce its Jewish national identity. Under the proposed amendment to the citizenship law, which the cabinet has passed, it would be imperative on non-Jewish immigrants to pledge under oath their loyalty to Israel as a Jewish and democratic state. The liberal Israeli daily Haaretz slammed the bill in its editorial as “discriminatory and exclusionary.”

Israel's sweeping proposals to keep out security threats emerging from its eastern borders have also upset the Palestinians greatly. Israel wants to establish an extensive security presence in the Jordan valley, a thinly populated stretch of barren land, which has the town of Jericho as its famous landmark. Its security experts have argued that Israel needs to dominate the area in order to stop weapon smuggling and infiltration by terrorists from neighbouring Jordan. Israeli vigilance is also perceived as necessary to prevent missile launches that could target Israeli mainland, including Jerusalem which is not too far away, from this area. Besides, Israel fears that terrorists, armed with anti-aircraft weaponry, can target its airliners overflying this area.

The Palestinians, on the other hand, consider the Jordan valley an area of prime importance to a future Palestinian state. Given its thin population profile, the area would be ideal for building new cities and settling a large number of Palestinians who are expected to return to their homeland once it is reborn.  Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad has already broken ground for an agro-industrial Park south of Jericho, and aired his ambition to turn this hot wind-swept area, steeped in its Biblical past, into a major industrial hub. Resenting the proposed Israeli military deployments in the Jordan valley, but responding positively to Israel's perceived security threat, President Abbas has offered to host NATO forces there once independence is achieved.

Israel's refusal to extend the settlement freeze has deeply embarrassed President Obama, who has publicly exhorted it to stall West Bank construction for some more time. But with the Netanyahu administration refusing to budge from its maximalist positions, and President Obama unwilling to exercise Washington's leverage over Israel to force it to change course, a rare opportunity for a meaningful and fair dialogue between the Israelis and the Palestinians may once again rapidly slip from grasp.

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