Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas comes to India seeking political support when there is very little hope for his people to realise their right to a distinct international identity
The British ambassador to Israel, Matthew Gould, the first Jewish envoy to Israel from Britain, warned the Israelis in a recent television interview that anyone who cares about Israel should be concerned about the erosion of international support for the country. “Israel might wake up in 10 years’ time and find out that suddenly the international community has changed, and that patience for continuing status quo has reduced.”
There are two interesting aspects to Mr. Gould’s observation. Firstly, he is convinced that there will be no solution to the Palestinian problem for at least 10 more years and, secondly, that Israel will be more isolated than at present with the passage of time. The ambassador’s remarks were made on record and obviously reflected his government’s assessment.
The fact that the peace process has been long dead is well known and widely recognised. The Palestinian-Israeli dispute has always been about land. “One land for two peoples” is the only possible answer to the problem. For decades, the Israelis refused to acknowledge the existence of the Palestinian people. Theodore Herzl, the spiritual father of Zionism, sent two Austrian rabbis to the holy land in 1897 to explore it. They reported that “the bride is beautiful but she is married to another man”, meaning that there were people living there. Nevertheless, when the Jewish migration started in earnest in the 1920s, the official Jewish line was that Palestine was a land without people for a people without land. The present situation is that there is, in fact, very little land left for one of the two peoples and that too would disappear before long.
When the current Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in the American Congress a few years ago that he was ready to accept the principle of a two-state solution, he was applauded in the western world as a great statesman who had made a huge concession for the cause of peace. He has his hand on the pulse of the American people and knows what to say when and where. He says he is ready to talk to Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas any time anywhere without preconditions. This sounds very reasonable. However, his conduct ceaselessly imposes conditions which make it impossible for the Palestinians to agree to resume talks. The pace of settlement construction in the occupied West Bank has increased to the extent that it has already become impossible for a viable, secure and geographically contiguous Palestinian state to emerge. The Palestinians argue, reasonably, that they will not talk so long as Israel continues to create facts on the ground in the form of settlements. With great fanfare, Mr. Netanyahu decided to respect the decision of the court to dismantle an illegal outpost with about 30 families in the West Bank but compensated it by ordering the construction of 800 more settlement units.
Sara Roy, an eminent and widely respected scholar of the Palestinian issue with Harvard University, in a recent article in the Journal of Palestinian Studies, has written about the paradigm shifts in international discourse on this subject. For one, the world seems to have reconciled itself to the territorial and demographic fragmentation of Palestine. Secondly, no one talks any more about occupation, the root cause of the problem, declared to be illegal by the United Nations. She points out that settlements control 42 per cent of the West Bank. There are now more than 500,000 settlers in West Bank and east Jerusalem as compared to a little over 200,000 in 1967. This unilateralism of Israel continues unabated, making the two-state solution less and less feasible. The third paradigm shift is the ‘humanitarianisation’ of the problem. By laying stress on the inhuman living conditions of the Palestinian population, especially in the Gaza strip, the problem is reduced only to humanitarian considerations, conveniently ignoring the root cause which is occupation. The Palestinians are being ‘engineered into perpetual beggars’.
Realising the hugely unequal power relations, and concluding that the Israeli lobby will prevent Democrats as well as Republicans from exercising real pressure on Israel, President Abbas devised a new strategy to inject external pressure, not to undercut negotiations but to enter negotiations from a more balanced position. He applied for an enhanced status for Palestine in the United Nations. His move succeeded in UNESCO but not in New York.
When the phenomenon referred to as Arab Spring broke out at the beginning of 2011, this writer, among others, had expected that the new regimes emerging in the Arab world would be more and more vocally supportive of the Palestinians. This has not happened. On the other hand, every successive ‘revolution’ in Arab countries has greatly strengthened Mr. Netanyahu’s position internally as well as internationally, and weakened domestic Israeli support for any kind of talks or negotiations with the Arabs.
Reacting to the Arab Spring, Mr. Netanyahu said last November that it was Islamic, anti-liberal, anti-secular and anti-democratic. He said history would judge the present leadership very negatively if it engaged in any kind of negotiations. As it happens, in all the countries affected by the new phenomenon — Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Yemen — the Islamists have won the elections. The most consequential of them, the Brotherhood in Egypt, has had the elimination of Israel as a part of its ideology. True, Mohamed Morsi has made statesman-like pronouncements about the peace treaty with Israel; his Defence Minister called up his Israeli counterpart and assured him of Egypt’s continuing commitment to the treaty. The fact that Egypt needs American and western aid and tourists to repair its economy is probably not reassuring enough for Israel, given that the new President of Egypt is a former leader of Muslim Brotherhood. The attack by jihadists in August on an Egyptian military post near the border with Gaza, which caused the death of 16 Egyptian soldiers and who had managed to infiltrate into Israeli territory, even if only for a short while, has convinced the Israeli public that the time is not at all propitious for holding any talks. The events in Syria have further added support to Mr. Netanyahu’s anti-talks stance.
Yossi Beilin, an Israeli left-wing politician, a former minister and someone for whom this writer has high regard for his intellectual integrity, has suggested that the Palestinian Authority should be dissolved. His argument is that the PA has control only over ‘A’ area of the West Bank and even there, Israel has overriding security control. The PA’s writ does not run in the rest of the West Bank. It is widely accepted that according to Mr. Netanyahu, as and when the time comes — and that time is far into the future — the state of Palestine will have no more than 40 per cent of the West Bank. Mr. Beilin believes that it would be better for the Palestinians to make Israel legally responsible to pay salaries of the thousands of PA employees, etc. With the dissolution of PA, foreign funding will cease. The point, however, is that even a person like Mr. Beilin, who advocates the most generous terms of settlement of the problem, seems to have given up on the possibility of a two-state solution.
The Egyptian-brokered reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah has not amounted to anything in practice. However, Israel has categorically stated that there is no question of holding any talks with a government of which Hamas would form a part. The United States has also threatened to cut all aid if Hamas comes into the government. Mr. Abbas has hardly any room for flexibility.
The Quartet, comprising America, Russia, the Secretary-General of the United Nations and the European Union, the self-appointed pilots of the peace process, has given up the pretence of attempting to restart the negotiations and to work towards the two-state solution.
President Abbas comes to India at a time when there is very little hope for his people to realise their dream and the inalienable right to have a distinct, sovereign, viable and contiguous international identity of their own. Mr. Abbas’s visit is principally to obtain India’s political support which, of course, he will receive in full measure. India will also renew its offer of economic and technical support for capacity building, etc. We have built the parliament building for the future Palestinian state. As an additional measure, India could indicate a willingness to ban the import of items produced in the settlements; this would be in keeping with international law.
(Chinmaya R. Gharekhan served as India’s special envoy to the Middle East and is a former U.N. Under Secretary General.)