Monday, March 8, 2010

Going Backward? Understanding and Attempts to Resolve the Israel-Palestinian Conflict

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By Barry Rubin

Last September, President Barack Obama said before a large audience at the UN that within two months there would be intensive, direct, final status talks between Israel and the Palestinians. Sort of a Camp David III. Now, six months later we are back in the pre-1992 era of indirect talks.

Yet reporters still ask, and write, that this might be the prelude to some grand breakthrough and a comprehensive peace deal. When will they ever learn? Never, apparently.

Note that it is important for the two sides to meet but the reason is to deal with far more immediate tasks: coordination on economic and security issues particularly. I guess I'm going to have to go on for decades saying that there won't be a comprehensive peace agreement for decades.

Before we start, though, one more point that is very important. When I say that the continuation of the conflict is mainly the fault of the Palestinian side, I'm not doing that to score political points. Who cares? The world will go on in precisely the same way whatever people think after reading articles.

You need to understand whose fault it is because it's impossible to understand what's going on without comprehending that reality. Nothing makes sense. After all, if Palestinians yearn for their own country and are suffering so horribly, why do they keep rejecting a peace agreement on the basis that they might--at worst--have to give up, say, five percent of the territory they claim?

But to return to the timeline, a simple reminder about one small point regarding Israel-Palestinian issues tell more than 100 op-eds. The Palestinian Authority (PA) will now probably engage in indirect talks with Israel and this will be hailed as a great step forward by Western media and governments, a triumph for the Obama Administration.

In fact, however, this sets the conflict back to around 1992, before direct talks began in Washington for the first time. And the PA must be dragged, kicking and screaming, into doing even that much.

Aren’t they in a hurry to get a state? No.

Here are four misunderstandings that block Western understanding of the issue:

--The importance of the Arab-Israeli conflict has fallen steadily in the Middle East. Yet it is widely viewed in the West as the central issue in the region.

--The Israel-Palestinian conflict is not solvable at present. Yet it is widely viewed in the West as easily and quickly solvable.

--The reason the conflict is not solvable at present is because of the extremism of Hamas and the intransigence of the PA. Yet it is widely viewed in the West as all being Israel’s fault.

While some Israeli positions would certainly cause problems in reaching a compromise peace agreement—most notably over small areas of east Jerusalem—the PA’s official leadership is too weak to make the necessary deals, the PA’s ruling party is too radical and has the goal of total victory, and the PA’s public has not been prepared for the necessary steps.

The best way to stop building on, and even fully remove, settlements on the West Bank would be to make a peace treaty in which all settlements would be removed from the territory of a Palestinian state. (Though, with Palestinian agreement, some could be incorporated into Israel as part of territory swaps. Indeed, the Obama Administration has accepted this idea.)

--Finally, the PA has full control over all the Palestinians in the West Bank except in about 20 percent of Hebron controlled by Israel according to an agreement made by the PA in 1997 . West Bank. While Israel still occupies part of the land and east Jerusalem, there is no occupation regarding the Palestinian population itself. Israeli soldiers and roadblocks only appear in response to periods of high terrorism. It is in the hands of the PA to avoid these problems.

Come to think of it, while the PA, and its supporters abroad, constantly complain about the arrangements on the ground as being unfair and oppressive, every aspect of these things was agreed to by the PA in exchange for other concessions in previous agreements.

If the Palestinians are so desperately oppressed by the settlements and so miserable because of the occupation, why has it taken 16 years, until March 2010, for the PA to get around to ordering 30,000 Palestinian workers not to hold jobs on the settlements and to bar settlement products from Palestinian stores?

And if the Palestinians are under such Israeli control how could it do so with no Israeli effort to block the PA from doing so?

Indeed, even this step comes only after the PA was embarrassed into doing so by internal political criticism and the fact that it has fallen behind European countries in their stance.

Incidentally, the PA will do nothing to help these additional unemployed, nor will oil-rich Arab states kick in additional money for the creation of jobs. Perhaps Western donors will support them through welfare payments. If someone is found working despite the ban he might be killed, either by the PA’s militias or after a trial for collaboration.

At any rate, these misunderstandings and realities shows the difference between the image and reality of the issues which bedevils any comprehension of what’s going on and hence any possibility of improving the situation.

Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley), and The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan). His new edited books include Lebanon: Liberation, Conflict and Crisis; Guide to Islamist Movements; Conflict and Insurgency in the Middle East; and The Muslim Brotherhood. To read and subscribe to MERIA, GLORIA articles, or to order books. To see or subscribe to his blog, Rubin Reports.

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