Recycling the old, with one difference

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The widespread anticipation among what seems like just 27 people in the United States who follow the ongoing Palestinian-Israeli peace negotiations is that U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry will soon table a set of American positions or proposals for the key elements of a “framework agreement” that would define the next phase of the permanent-status talks and extend them beyond the April deadline.

We are also told two other significant things by some among the 27 faithful followers: that the U.S. positions on key issues are not fixed and could change before the framework is made public. And, more significantly, that the Palestinian and Israeli leaders can signal their willingness to keep negotiating within the framework particulars but without formally accepting them all. What has been leaked to date, especially to Israeli media by leaders of Jewish organizations who were briefed last week by the leader of the American negotiating team, Martin Indyk, suggests that with only one big exception, the framework contains little of major new significance.

The leaked reports say that the U.S. would support 85 percent of Israeli Jewish settlers staying in their colonies built on occupied Palestinian lands that will become part of Israel, in return for land swaps; the U.S. would support Israeli troops staying in the Jordan Valley for a period of time while Washington also provides significant new security guarantees; the two parties would formally accept Israel as the homeland of the Jewish people and the Palestinian West Bank-Gaza state as the homeland of the Palestinians; compensation would be paid to Palestinians who fled or were evicted from their homes inside present-day Israel, and also to Jews who fled or were forced out of Arab countries; the Palestinian state would have its capital in parts of Arab East Jerusalem that Israeli has not yet colonized; and, reportedly, Palestinian refugees would return to the new West Bank-Gaza state but not to Israel itself.

All these are variations on themes that have been aired by both sides during decades of discussions and negotiations. If the leaks are accurate, it seems the U.S. continues its old habit of avoiding an even-handed attitude that is anchored in the international rule of law and U.N. resolutions, and instead sides with the Israelis on the two most important issues for both sides: the fate and right of return of the Palestinian refugees, and formal Palestinian acknowledgment and acceptance of Israel as the – take your pick – home, state or homeland of the Jewish people. The formal unveiling of the American positions soon should clarify these and other points that nevertheless have the look, smell and feel of reheated old coffee dregs.

The one noteworthy new element is that the U.S. is offering its own proposals for permanent-status agreements that it feels both sides could accept. Washington has long pushed both sides to make small gestures of good intentions while negotiating, such as releasing prisoners or stopping military or media attacks. These have always failed to move beyond the symbolic. So for the U.S. to put on the table its concept of a workable peace agreement is new and perhaps significant – depending on the details and fairness of the proposals, and how hard the U.S. and others work to have them accepted by both sides.

From what has been leaked, Kerry-Indyk are offering a new framework that continues to operate within the boundaries and the fatal constraints of the failed frameworks that shaped American mediation since the 1970s. This lame approach has always failed for three key reasons: It never touched the core issues of the conflict for both sides (ending the refugee condition for many Palestinians and securing formal acceptance and legitimacy for Israel in the region); it left the most difficult issues for a future date while concentrating on short-term confidence-building measures that always collapsed because the core issues remained unresolved; and, it made the security and Zionist Jewish nationalist identity of Israel the anchors and guidelines for a final-status agreement, with Palestinian rights and demands made to comply with Israel’s dictates.

The short-term logistical problem that Kerry-Indyk face is that both the Israeli negotiators working for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the Palestinians under President Mahmoud Abbas face precarious domestic political situations that are being exacerbated by steadily hardening rightward drifts among both their publics. Neither side can make the needed major concessions that Kerry-Indyk need to make their framework agreement plan succeed. This includes Netanyahu dropping or Abbas accepting the “Jewish homeland” demand that the Americans now accept and often repeat in public; or, Abbas dropping or Netanyahu accepting the principle of the Palestinian refugees’ right of return to their original homes, which obviously would be negotiated in practice by mutual consent.

Rami G. Khouri is published twice weekly by THE DAILY STAR. He can be followed on Twitter @RamiKhouri.
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(The Daily Star :: Lebanon News ::


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