Israeli and Palestinian demands kill chances of peace talk restart
Recognition of Israel rubs against call for end to bulldozers clearing land for settlements
An Israeli soldier keeps watch as the children of Israeli settlers play outside the Abraham Avinu settlement in the divided West Bank city of Hebron on May 29th. Photograph: Menahem Kahana/AFP/Getty
Fifty years on from the June 1967 war, which demonstrated that Israel could not be destroyed by military means and changed the regional balance of power, peace has not been achieved with the Palestinians despite multiple plans and high-powered initiatives designed to secure a political settlement.
Israeli foreign ministry spokesman Emmanuel Nahshon told The Irish Times, “Our peace agreements with Egypt and Jordan were consequences of the Six-Day War [which] brought about a profound change of mind. [The Arabs realised] they could not destroy Israel by military means. The war was a turning point when Israel stopped being threatened by its neighbours.”
Israel’s 1967 defeat of Egypt, Syria and Jordan and occupation of East Jerusalem, Gaza and the West Bank did not, however, effect an early change in Arab attitudes. The Arab League held a summit in Khartoum in August 1967 and proclaimed, “no peace with Israel, no recognition of Israel, no negotiations with it”.
It took the October 1973 war mounted by Egypt and Syria against Israel to in- tiate peace talks between Egypt and Israel and the 1987-1993 Palestinian Intifada, or uprising, to bring about secret talks in Norway that led to the Oslo accord between the Palestinians and Israel.
This deal failed to realise the “two-state solution”, the emergence of a Palestinian state alongside Israel, and leaves Arabs without the ability to wage war against Israel and the Israelis unable to secure a peace with the Arabs as a whole.
Today, Israelis and Palestinians put forward incompatible conditions for the early resumption of talks and cannot renege on their contradictory demands without ceding their main objectives: for Israel, recognition as a “Jewish state” and for the Palestinians their long-promised state.
Nahshon stated, “We want to see a return to two-state negotiations with the Palestinians, and the US is deeply engaged in trying to restart negotiations. The problem, from the Israeli prospective, is the Palestinian refusal to recognise the legitimacy of Israel as a sovereign Jewish state. Israel would not exist if it had not been created by the Jewish people . . . We can show flexibility on Jerusalem, Gaza and settlements but not on legitimacy. If the Palestinians do not recognise our legitimacy [as a Jewish state], the conflict will go on forever.”
When The Irish Times pointed out the Palestine Liberation Organisation, regarded as the legitimate representative of the Palestinian people, had formally recognised Israel’s existence as a state in 1993, he asserted, “We will not negotiate over our legitimacy. This is a fundamental precondition” for talks.
The Palestinians flatly reject this demand. Former foreign minister Nabil Shaath stated, “We are not selling our past for our future”, meaning the Palestinians have not recognised Israel as a Jewish state and the state of the Jewish people and do not intend to do so.
“We want two democratic, secular states side by side” without reference to religion, he said. He argued that more than 20 per cent of the citizens of Israel were Muslims or Christians and recognition of Israel as a Jewish state would make them “second-class citizens”.
“We do not want to be recognised as an Islamic state or an Arab state, although the majority of Palestinians are Muslim Arabs. In 1993, Israel did not recognise Palestine as a country [it is now recognised by 137 of the UN’s 193 member states], but [only] the PLO as the representative of the Palestinian people. We have called for a state in only 22 per cent” of historic Palestine, accepting Israel’s existence in 78 per cent of the country, he said. He pointed out neither Egypt nor Jordan, which recognised and made peace with Israel in 1979 and 1994 respectively, had recognised Israel as a Jewish state.
The Palestinian condition for the resumption of negotiations is a halt to Israeli settlement expansion in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Since the Oslo accord was signed with great fanfare on the White House lawn in September 1993, the number of Israeli settlers in the West Bank and East Jerusalem has risen from 262,000 to 600,000. They live in 130 government-sanctioned settlements and 100 unsanctioned but tolerated “outposts”.
The settlements are deemed illegal under international law and are considered obstacles to a peace deal as they involved expropriating land Palestinians require for a viable, contiguous state. Even the Trump administration, seen by Israelis as more favourable to their positions than its predecessor, has called for restraint on settlement expansion. Instead of curbing construction, the Israeli government has approved thousands of new homes in existing settlements and authorised the first new settlement in 20 years.
Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas cannot afford to negotiate as long as settlement expansion continues. He has lost all credibility by failing to secure Palestinian statehood through negotiations and is deeply unpopular. For the Palestinians, bulldozers clearing land for Israeli settlements speak louder than words.