Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Palestinians command when they unite

When Palestinians unite they command
April 4, 2007.

The Palestinians are now better positioned than before in deciding their future. In recent weeks the two rival Palestinians factions, Hamas and Fatteh, united in a national reconciliation cabinet. With unity and non violent struggle the Palestinians have unlimited potential.

The two parties formed a new government that offered Israel a truce and expressed respect for past PLO-Israeli agreements. They also showed signs of willingness to recognize Israel once the Jewish state defines its borders, eases the burden of occupation and responds humanely to the right of return of the Palestinian refugees. The Israelis have so far rejected the new Palestinian government and its agenda. The political and economic siege on the Palestinian community continues. A harsh occupation, illegal settlements and a wall of punitive isolation extend and expand.

Last week, in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, the Arab states renewed a peace offer to Israel. The Arab proposal exchanges normalization of relations with the Jewish state for restoring “1967 borders”. The renewed Arab peace plan asks Israel to withdraw from the territories it occupied in 1967 (Gaza, the West bank and East Jerusalem) and from the Golan Heights in Syria. More significant, the Saudi initiative includes an important pre-requisite for a political settlement: the return of Palestinians refugees to their homeland. But in the Riyadh declaration, the “right-of-return” term was phrased with some ambiguity to allow compromise. The compromise means programming a brighter future for Palestinians living in camps without overwhelming Israel’s demography.

In a short period of time the dynamics have changed in the peace process. For the last seven years Israel, claiming that there is no serious “partner” on the Arab side, has been distancing itself from peace negotiations. Now the Palestinian partner, backed by the Arab states, is ready to tango, but Israel seems to have twisted ankle.

Despite the hesitation, the latest word from Israel is that Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is now willing to meet with the heads of Arab states to discuss peace. Olmert is being dragged to the peace table. Israel is examining the significance of the new Palestinian/Arab landscape: Palestinian unity, a diplomatically softened Hamas and Arab unanimity seeking normalization. Never before have Arabs articulated peace terms with such harmony and reason.

One would hope that with US support Olmert would seriously explore the Arab peace offer. Since its creation, Israel has been situated in a culturally alien regional environment. It will take a strong leader to transform a crippling Jewish fear of its milieu (and the constantly changing conditions of the region) to a position of trust in partnership with Palestinians and the wider Arab community.

In response to the Riyadh peace plan Israel claims that the right of return of Palestinians to their homeland is “ridiculous, as it would change the Jewish character of the nation”. The Zionist state ignores the recent Arab flexibility on the refugees because its leaders are much divided on this issue. Israel should take note that the concept of “return of refugees to their homeland” could, in principle, mean “return to a future Palestinian state”. Financial compensation and a program of economic empowerment for the refugees could play a key role in the restitution process.

There are already in the record of debate some useful ideas for dealing with the predicament of Palestinian refugees. In 2003 a group of politicians representing both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict negotiated a framework for peace which was called the Geneva Accord, the Geneva Initiative or Draft Permanent Status Agreement. This extra-governmental (private) initiative provided creative guidelines for the future of the displaced Palestinians and the Israeli settlers. The Draft proposed that Israel recognize some moral and financial responsibility for the suffering and displacement of the Palestinian people. In the Geneva Accord only a fraction of the Palestinian refugee population would be allowed to return to pre-1967 Israel and only a fraction of the settlers' communities would remain in the West Bank.

The peace activists of Geneva were clever in postulating that Israel’s acknowledgement of Palestinian displacement of 1948 and 1967 wars would represent a reconciliation breakthrough, with far reaching political implications. The reconciliation process would have to start with admission of wrong doing and by sharing responsibility for the future of five million displaced Palestinians and five million residents of a future Palestinian state.

When Israel acknowledges the wrong doing it has committed against the Palestinians over the past six decades it is likely to encourage other accomplices to take responsibility in the Palestinian tragedy. Following Israel’s lead, the West as well as the Arab world should join in the process of assuming responsibility for the plight of the Palestinians.

When viewed in business terms the peace plan that Riyadh offered to Israel last week is a bargain: 78% of the land goes to Israel and 22% goes to the Palestinians. Israel continues to argue for so called “defensible borders” beyond the 1967 limits. But protecting borders, through space, walls or superior militarization would never assure safety to Israelis in the absence of a climate of understanding and mutual acceptance between the two conflicting sides.
For how long will this Arab peace offer be valid? Israel should aggressively pursue the new peace offer, or risk being a hostage of insecurity for a very long time. Today the terms of peace are more equitable, the Palestinians are more ready for compromise and the Arabs are backing up Palestinian conditions. The (Jewish Daily) Forward has the following to say: “The Saudi plan contains risks for Israel, but those are risks that Israelis are capable of navigating. The greatest danger right now is that a genuine opportunity for peace will be lost. The Saudis are taking an enormous risk in exposing themselves to hardliners as Israel’s advocates. They need encouragement, not abuse” (March 30).

If Palestinians can maintain their unity Israel will soon have to think of withdrawal on reasonable terms of peace. And as history shows, Palestinians can only unite for long through peace oriented resistance. The stronger the unity is among Palestinians the shorter will be the period of waiting for Israel to end its oppressive occupation.

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