If the Palestinian problem was difficult to resolve a decade ago, it is infinitely more so today, thanks to the growing radicalisation on both sides and the involvement of new and influential players in the region.
The Palestinian issue seems to have disappeared from television screens around the world and receded from the consciousness of the international community, lending substance to the view that the only way to ensure attention to a cause is to cause mayhem and violence. Afghanistan hogs all the publicity and concentrated focus of governments, and for very good reason. But it ought to be kept in mind that a key argument of terrorists is the denial of justice to the Palestinian people. If the world is serious about peace, about tackling terrorism, it must get serious about solving the Palestinian problem. This is not to suggest that a resolution of the Palestinian issue will eliminate terrorism, but without such resolution, terrorism will not be effectively tackled.
Any solution will have to be based on the following principles:
— The right of the Palestinian people to national self-determination must be recognised. Amelioration of living conditions in occupied territories is important, but it cannot be a substitute for the political rights of the Palestinian people. What is needed is an end to Israeli occupation of the Palestinian lands.
— A future Palestinian state must have territory equal in size to 22 per cent of the total area of what used to be Palestine under the British mandate until May 1948. At the end of the 1967 war, Israel came to occupy 78 per cent of historic Palestine, which is more than what it was supposed to get under the original United Nations partition plan. At the same time, the Palestinians must resign themselves to the fact that Israel will simply not agree to vacate the huge settlement blocs it has established, however illegally, along the ‘green line’; they can, however, insist on compensation in the form of an equal amount and quality of land elsewhere in Israel proper.
— No Israeli government will ever agree to the ‘right of return’ of the refugees, whatever its legitimacy in terms of U.N. resolutions and international law. An eventual solution of the refugee problem will have to provide for a token return of some refugees on the ground of family reunification; the bulk will have to go to the future Palestinian state or be absorbed in the ‘host’ countries which will have to be given the necessary financial and other incentives.
— The capital of the future Palestinian state will have to be accommodated in some area of Jerusalem. It cannot be in the old city, but it will have to be somewhere which the Palestinians can refer to as Al Quds.
— Equitable solution will have to be found to the problem of sharing common and scarce water resources. This is one area in which a regional approach, involving Jordan, Syria and perhaps Turkey, will have to be sought.
— The security of both states and peoples will have to be ensured, with the help of the international community if necessary. If the parties accept and abide by the previous five principles, it would automatically ensure the safety of both sides, since neither side will have any reason to threaten the other.
If the Palestinian problem was difficult to resolve a decade ago, it is infinitely more so today, thanks to the growing radicalisation on both sides and the involvement of new and influential players in the region. The demonisation of Yasser Arafat, and his eventual disappearance from the scene meant that the one Palestinian leader who could carry his people with him in a less than satisfactory package deal is no longer available. Mahmoud Abbas is a pragmatic leader, not afraid to take tough decisions, but Israel has done nothing to strengthen his position vis-À-vis his own people. Leaving aside Israel, if at all Barack Obama is serious about solving the Palestinian problem, the window of opportunity will disappear as and when Mr. Abbas is succeeded by another leader who, most certainly, will be more hard line.
Numerous and detailed formulae have been worked out jointly by the two sides over the years to find answers to the complex issues involved. There is the Abu Mazen-Yossi Beilin plan prepared about 15 years ago. There is also the Geneva Initiative, again drafted by the two sides, a few years ago. As Saeb Erakat, the chief Palestinian negotiator, has repeatedly said, enough progress has been made to thrash out the issues so that an agreement can be reached in less than six months, provided the political will to make necessary and unpopular decisions exists on both sides.
The present situation of ‘no terrorism, no peace process’ perhaps suits Israel and is not unwelcome to the ‘international community’. Israel claims that since the construction of the ‘barrier’ or ‘wall’ roughly along the green line, it has been spared acts of terrorism or suicide bombing. As for the rocket attacks from Gaza, Israel feels that after the Cast Lead operation of December-January last winter, the ability of the Hamas rulers of Gaza to launch such attacks has been largely diminished.
All in all, though Israel suffered some loss of its ‘fair name’ because of the indictment of the Goldstone report, it feels quite smug; it certainly feels no pressure from anyone to do something to restart the peace process. Even the ‘Quartet’, which cannot by any stretch of imagination claim to represent the international community, has not met for a long time.
Israel’s approach seems to be to keep the Palestinians divided, both ideologically and territorially.
Mr. Abbas is under pressure from his people as well as from the Arabs to reconcile with the Hamas. Egypt has worked hard to bring about such reconciliation. Mr. Abbas supports the Egyptian efforts but faces a dilemma. Israel has made it clear that it will break off all talks with him if he makes up with the Hamas and forms a coalition with it. On the other hand, the Arab street wants him to make up with the Hamas. Saudi Arabia, which has given up its traditional reluctance and shown a willingness to play an active role, tried its hand at bringing the Hamas and the Fatah together in Mecca over two years ago, but the agreement, though good on paper, broke down when the Hamas staged its coup in June 2007. The net result is that there are in effect two Palestinian entities today. The one in Gaza is facing enormous difficulties and has been under siege for the past two-and-half years.
The entity in the West Bank, on the other hand, is relatively well-off. Significant sums of foreign aid have poured into it to strengthen its terrorism-fighting capability. The people in West Bank have benefited from the infusion of foreign money. The calculation of Israel, and of others perhaps, could be that if the West Bank Palestinians were somehow kept materially happy, with their children even being offered scholarships to pursue studies in western universities, they would over time dilute their urge to fight for an independent, unified Palestinian state. But the Israelis, an intelligent, history-minded people, will know that their ‘cousins,’ the Palestinians, will never give up their dream, just as the Jews did not give up theirs for over two millennia.
The irony is that Israelis should want a two-state solution as much as the Palestinians do. Time is not on their side, demography is against them. The Palestinians multiply themselves twice as fast as the Jews. Gaza has perhaps the highest birth rate anywhere in the world; its population will explode and turn violent sooner rather than later. The people in the West Bank, nearly all of whom have close relatives in Gaza, will not permit their government to forget the fate of fellow Palestinians. Even more serious perhaps, the Palestinian population of Israel, which Israel calls Arab, and which constitutes 20 per cent of Israel’s population, is getting increasingly bold in expressing solidarity with the mainstream Palestinian nationalist movement. In January 2009, a record 1,00,000 ‘Arabs’ demonstrated in Haifa against the government for the excesses committed against the Gaza population.
President Abbas suffered a loss of credibility when he agreed, under Israeli and American pressure, not to raise the Goldstone report in the U.N. Human Rights Council. He will, if he has not already, come to the conclusion that ‘talks’ have not led to anything, not even the release of a significant number of Palestinian prisoners from Israeli jails. The Oslo process has long been dead, the road map of President George Bush led nowhere and the Annapolis process came to a dead-end even before it got going. Once bitten, twice shy Mr. Obama is likely to be more cautious and less ambitious in his future Middle East policy.
Under the circumstances, the possibility of another intifada cannot be ruled out. Violence might not always pay, but it does pay sometimes. It was the first intifada that paved the way for the Oslo accord. (There are other instances elsewhere in the world.) The Palestinians will know that the next time round they will face heavy odds and a more ruthless Israeli reaction, but a desperate people will do anything for a cause they believe in.