HIJAB: The ‘peace process’ won’t go away December 9, 2010

by Nadia Hijab  -  Foreign Policy -  6 December 2010

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu barely had time to enjoy the way the WikiLeaks revelations seemed to bolster his case for an attack on Iran when a catastrophic fire raged through northern Israel. Both events swept talk of peace talks off the front pages, buying Netanyahu more time to deal with the US push for the resumption of direct negotiations. That push continues even though some reports claim Israel turned down the incentives the US offered for a three-month settlement moratorium intended to entice the Palestinian Authority (PA) to come back to the table.

What the American administration promised was never publicly divulged, but it now seems that the incentives were less enticing than was first reported. An alleged US promise to support a long-term Israeli presence in the Palestinian Jordan Valley was the first to fade. Then a US official said the proposed freeze would be expected to include East Jerusalem. And then there were reports that Israel might have to pay for those additional 20 top-of-the-line F-35s.

The Israelis and Americans appear to be at a stand-off, but there is no sign that the US will abandon its efforts despite its failure to date. “We’re not focused on Plan B,” the State Department spokesman recently said because  “it’s a good Plan A.” But whatever new ideas or carrots America dangles, the truth is that Netanyahu does not want to give up most West Bank land and will only tolerate a Palestinian entity shorn of sovereignty, as WikiLeak cables of his meetings with US Congressmen detail.

Lost in this whole charade is the way that the American-Israeli courtship has completely sidelined the Palestinians. For many Palestinians, talk of US incentives evoke 1917, when the British Empire’s foreign secretary, Arthur Balfour, promised the fledgling Zionist movement a national home in a land that belonged to neither. As Balfour later wrote, “In Palestine we do not propose even to go through the form of consulting the wishes of the present inhabitants of the country.”

The US administration can, of course, claim it is consulting the Palestinians because it talks to the PA. But there are two problems with this argument. First, America has backed the PA into a tight corner. If the PA agrees to go back to direct talks with an Israel bolstered by US support — and a US determined to push a border agreement within three months — any room for maneuver disappears.

Should Israel agree to talk and the PA refuse, it will be blamed for killing the peace process and will alienate its main donor. US aid is key to the PA’s survival. It just transferred an additional $150 million to help plug the PA deficit and chivvied Arab and European donors to deliver their contributions. However, the US previously has made clear that its aid to Palestinians (unlike that to Israel) depends on the PA doing what it’s told. That’s why the PA finally agreed to return to direct talks just before the last “freeze”  — which did little to slow Israel’s illegal settlement enterprise — ended. It may also be why the PA has not yet moved to other options it has mooted like going to the United Nations for recognition of statehood.

The second problem with arguing that the US consults with Palestinians is that, whatever the PA decides — or is forced to decide — it simply does not speak for the Palestinian people. At best, the PA represents West Bankers who benefit from US-led aid to the experiment of state building under military occupation.

Nor does Hamas represent the Palestinians. A Hamas-Fatah reconciliation would be a positive development, but it would not solve the Palestinian crisis of representation. Mahmoud Abbas’ mandate as president of the PA has long since expired and, while the PA is in theory accountable to the Palestine Liberation Organization, the PLO itself has withered since the Oslo process began in 1993.

The un-consulted Palestinians, who include the millions of refugees and exiles within and outside of the occupied territories, have not yet forcefully challenged the PA’s claim to representation. However, the US should not be surprised by a strong pushback from this seemingly silent majority if it tries to impose a solution that excludes much of the West Bank, most of East Jerusalem, most attributes of sovereignty, and, indeed, most of the Palestinian people.

The Balfour Declaration and its implications remained hidden from public view for a long time. The Oslo process ran up thousands of pages, obscuring the disastrous and self-defeating nature of the agreements the Palestinian leadership signed. Today, as WikiLeaks revealed, there are few secrets. Whatever the US promises and plans, the Palestinian silent majority will find a way to reassert its voice, reject an imposed deal, and continue to work for a just solution that recognizes Palestinian rights in the land of Palestine, whether alongside the state of Israel or in a single state of Palestine-Israel.

Nadia Hijab is co-director of Al-Shabaka, the Palestinian Policy Network.

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