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Preventing 'Politicide' in the Middle East

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The bilateral peace process that the U.S. has doggedly sought to insulate from outside "interference" is not only an empty exercise but has served to provide Israel with cover for its settlement project. From its outset the goal of this project has been to subvert Palestinian statehood, a goal from which Israel is but a hair's breadth away. By insisting that Palestinians return to this empty exercise, and by continuing to block attempted interventions by other parties, including the UN and its various agencies, the U.S. has in effect been collaborating with Prime Minister Netanyahu's goal of "politicide"--the violent termination of Palestinian national political existence.

The only remaining hope for the achievement of a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict now depends entirely on the international community's readiness to sweep aside America's claim to a monopoly over Middle East peace making--a claim that has lost all credibility with President Obama's humiliating capitulation to Netanyahu in his September speech before the UN General Assembly--and to intervene vigorously in order to seek to alter the peace process' disastrous trajectory.

The UK Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg's recent public condemnation of Israel's settlements as "vandalism" was but the latest in a growing chorus of challenges to Netanyahu's credibility, to Israel's predatory activities in the West Bank, and to America's hegemonic Middle East peacemaker's role. Last February, when Netanyahu called Chancellor Angela Merkel to express his "disappointment" over Germany's support of a UN resolution condemning Israel's continued construction in the settlements, she responded angrily "You are the one who disappointed us. You haven't made a single step to advance peace." And she made a point of "leaking" the private exchange.

More recently (January 12), the UK's The Independent reported that the EU issued its starkest critique yet of "how a combination of [Israeli] house and farm building demolitions; a prohibitive planning regime; relentless settlement expansion; the military's separation barrier; obstacles to free movement; and denial of access to vital natural resources, including land and water, is eroding Palestinian tenure of the large tract of the West Bank on which hopes of a contiguous Palestinian state depend." According to the report, Palestinians are being systematically dispossessed from 70% of the West Bank.

The mounting international criticism indicates a welcome, if much-belated, refusal by major European, Latin American and Asian countries to defer any longer to the U.S. on this issue, and their readiness to expose what they long knew but were reluctant to express: that Netanyahu's declared commitment to a two-state solution has been a lie.

If these interventions are to have a chance of success, their first goal must be halting the erosion of an existing international consensus about parameters that must frame negotiations for a permanent status agreement. Such an effort must focus primarily on the requirement that negotiations over territory and borders begin at the June 1967 line, for the erosion of that line has been critical to Israel's politicide.

The U.S. may well decide to veto a Security Council resolution that seeks to formalize these parameters. But its ambassador would not only have to acknowledge America's longstanding support for such a framework, most recently reconfirmed in President Obama's speech of May 19, but insist on America's continued commitment to it. She would undoubtedly argue that the U.S. opposes the resolution not for its substance, which the U.S. continues to support, but for "procedural" reasons.

The importance of such international reiterations of these parameters and of their insistence that unilateral changes in the pre-June 1967 line will not receive international recognition cannot be exaggerated. For the elimination of the 1967 line is crucial to Netanyahu and his government's campaign to gain support from at least some countries for his government's outrageous claim that the West Bank is not occupied territory but contested territory, the pretext they invoke to justify Israel's "vandalism" in the West Bank.

That is the reason Netanyahu reacted with near hysteria when he was alerted to the fact that Obama would confirm in his speech of May 19 America's support for the 1967 border as the starting point for resumed negotiations. It is also why Netanyahu has resisted to this day every effort to get him to say where Israel proposes to draw the new border that would replace the 1967 line. Were he to do so, he would undoubtedly provoke condemnation even from countries that have until now pretended to believe his proclaimed support of a two-state solution.

In the period between now and the coming U.S. presidential elections, during which the U.S. is likely to veto any repeated effort to obtain Palestinian membership in the UN and to oppose any international intervention in the peace process, such interventions should have two goals.

First, as indicated, is obtaining a Security Council resolution nailing down clear parameters for permanent status negotiations. A short version of those parameters was formally presented last February at the UN by the E3 (UK, France and Germany), all members of the Security Council, when they called on the parties to return to direct negotiations "on the basis of clear parameters":

  • An agreement on the borders of the two states, based on 4 June 1967 lines with equivalent land swaps as may be agreed between the parties;
  • Security arrangements that, for Palestinians, respect their sovereignty and show that the occupation is over; and, for Israelis, protect their security, prevent the resurgence of terrorism and deal effectively with new and emerging threats;
  • A just, fair and agreed solution to the refugee question;
  • Fulfillment of the aspirations of both parties for Jerusalem. A way must be found through negotiations to resolve the status of Jerusalem as the future capital of both states.

The second goal is obtaining an unambiguous UN affirmation of the Palestinian right to national self-determination. That right is considered a "peremptory norm" in international law, which means that it takes precedence over conflicting obligations, treaties and bilateral agreements. If challenged by Israel or the U.S., it is a challenge that European and other countries should join Palestinians in bringing to the International Court of Justice.

Palestinian governmental institutions having been found by relevant international agencies (the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the UN Secretary General's representative) to be "well positioned for the establishment of a state at any point in the near future," Palestinian national self-determination is subject neither to Israel's approval nor to a prior conclusion of a peace agreement between the parties. In fact, not only does Palestinian self-determination not conflict with bilateral negotiations of the permanent status issues called for by the Oslo agreement, it improves prospects for their success. The just demands of a sovereign nation that has recourse to international institutions and the ICJ are taken far more seriously than the pleadings of a subject people deprived by its occupier of all rights.

Recognition of the Palestinian peremptory right to self-determination would lead to recognition of Palestinian statehood by nearly all of even those countries that have so far withheld it. In those circumstances, Israel's continued defiance of the world's rejection of its claims to the West Bank may well trigger a global campaign of isolation and de-legitimization that no Israeli government is likely to survive.

Those circumstances may also induce the Security Council to invoke the "default setting" of Security Council resolutions 242 and 338, which clearly is not the permanent retention by Israel of the occupied territories and the permanent disenfranchisement and dispossession of the Palestinian people, for resolutions 242 and 338 explicitly rule out the acquisition of territory as a result of war, no matter which side started the war. Instead, the default setting is a return of the conflict's resolution to the Security Council. The next U.S. administration is not likely to join such an initiative, but Israeli governments cannot count on a U.S. veto to protect their colonial project. The cost to the U.S. of casting such a veto--in its standing in the world and to its interests in a post-Arab Spring region--may be much too high.

Bottom line, any effort to reconfigure peace strategies without first delinking the search for a peace agreement from the Palestinian right to statehood is doomed. Obama's assertion in his speech at the UN that Palestinians can obtain their state only as a consequence of a peace accord with Israel reached in bilateral negotiations in effect assigned to Netanyahu and Avigdor Lieberman the exclusive right to grant or deny Palestinians their independence. Given Israel's determination to complete its settlement project, no conceivable diplomacy, short of the prospect of broad international and UN intervention, can halt Israel's nearly-achieved goal of denying Palestinians anything other than one or more Bantustans.

The new outspokenness on this issue of key European countries, Turkey, Brazil and other countries part of the BRICS regional grouping, as well as other Asian countries, has created a last opportunity to alter the current hopeless trajectory of U.S. controlled Middle East peace diplomacy to a more promising one--provided these countries and regional groupings will now follow-up their brave new rhetoric with brave new action.

Henry Siegman is the president of the U.S./Middle East Project. He also serves as a non-resident research professor at the Sir Joseph Hotung Middle East Program, School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London.