Israel’s ‘Red Lines’ Pre-Empting Negotiations

Israel’s ‘Red Lines’ Pre-Empting Negotiations
Osama Al Sharif, osama@mediaarabia.com
Few hours before the first meeting between Mahmoud Abbas and Ehud Olmert since Israel’s brutal incursion into Gaza last February was to take place, a senior Israeli minister made an intriguing announcement. Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni told Israel Radio that there are “red lines” that her country will not cross during the peace negotiations with the Palestinians. The red lines, she added, refer to fundamental issues in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict such as refugees, borders and Jerusalem.

Livni’s “red lines” are not new. They form the core of the conflict and collectively have made up the remaining obstacles standing in the way to a final peace settlement. Historically, and since the Oslo process was launched, the two parties negotiated in Camp David, Taba, Sharm El-Sheikh, Aqaba, and in many world capitals. The Road Map was supposed to lead both sides to a final status deal over these very issues

For them to become red lines, i.e. non-negotiable, means that the ongoing talks, which were kick- started in Annapolis last year, are out of context and useless. What they also mean is that Israel has finally negated all of its obligations under Oslo and thereafter, and that all the Palestinians can hope for at this stage is a modified version of the self-rule proposal first floated by Menachem Begin less than 30 years ago.

It is difficult to imagine Abbas and Olmert reaching a peace deal by the end of this year — fulfilling the vision of a two-state solution as promised by President George Bush — if Israel will not make concessions on these three crucial issues. Abbas has made it clear that he will not accept what his predecessor, Yasser Arafat, has rejected in earlier rounds.

We will never know for sure what Arafat had rejected, or what was offered to him, but we know that no Palestinian leader can accept a final deal that excludes Jerusalem, cedes occupied land to Israel or denies refugees their legal rights under international law and UN resolutions.

Israeli intransigence has been a hallmark of the peace negotiations from the onset. But even then, Israel found an excuse to wriggle out of its previous commitments. Ariel Sharon, the former prime minister, effectively discarded previous agreements and sent his tanks to re-occupy PNA-controlled areas.

Restarting the derailed negotiations has become an end in itself rather than a mean to achieve peace. Teams spent many hours working out modalities, logistics, schedules and other marginal issues, instead of delving into the crux of outstanding issues. As a result, the agenda today is more about removing checkpoints, easing the Gaza siege, releasing tax money and deploying Palestinian police in towns and villages.

At this rate, the future of occupied East Jerusalem, the fate of Jewish settlements in the West Bank and the rights of millions of Palestinian refugees will take many years, if ever, before they are formally discussed.

Israeli procrastination is not only deliberate, it serves a sinister goal. Last week an Israeli newspaper reported a plan to build more than 2000 apartments in West Bank settlements and 600 homes in Arab East Jerusalem in spite of earlier promises to freeze such activities. More interestingly, the plan was adopted right after the Annapolis meeting last November.

For Olmert such activities are perfectly legal since in his words the expansion is taking place in areas under Israeli sovereignty. Such a statement coincides with Livini’s talk of red lines which Israel cannot cross.

Furthermore, Israel’s position on the refugees question has been made clear in the past. And more recently President Bush and Israeli officials underlined the need to keep Israel a state for Jews; a Jewish homeland. Such a position pre-empts Palestinian refugee’s right to return, and more dangerously it raises questions over the fate of Israel’s Arab minority.

It doesn’t take much to make a reasonably sober judgment on the futility of the ongoing peace process in light of Israel’s pre-position on the fundamental issues that remain. If Jerusalem, the settlements and refugees are Israeli red lines and therefore out of reach for Arab negotiators, the issues that stay on the table, the Gaza siege, checkpoints and police deployment, can hardly contribute to the creation of an independent state for the Palestinians. This is a far cry from the minimalist conditions set out by Arab leaders in their famous peace initiative in return for normalizing relations with the Jewish state.

With time and territory running out fast for the Palestinians, demographic, political and economic realities in the West Bank makes it impossible for a viable and healthy state to emerge. Settlement activities and the loss of additional territory to the barrier wall, and Israel’s declaration that it will keep control of the Jordan Valley have created isolated cantons of Palestinian towns and villages. Gaza is already politically and geographically estranged.

Under the Bush administration Israel was able to carry out a unilateral plan to liquidate the foundations of a future Palestinian state. By dismantling the PNA and its institutions, aggressively expanding settlements and isolating Jerusalem from the West Bank, it has predetermined the outcome of its negotiations with the Palestinians. To believe that Abbas and Olmert can reach a deal this year or in the near future is both audacious and capricious.

Israel’s red lines are a reality, but only because the Jewish state negotiated, or pretended to negotiate, with the Palestinians in bad faith. The frightening conclusion is that even as Israel enforces its own deal on its victims, with US complicity, the conflict will be far from over and peace will remain elusive.

— Osama Al Sharif is a veteran journalist based in Jordan.

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