By George Browning
“NO, he’s not. He is not. Let me make it absolutely clear: None of the agencies that President Abbas signed tonight involve the UN. None of them,” replied John Kerry when a confused correspondent challenged him on Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’s decision to send letters of accession to 15 international treaties.
His answer is correct. Last July Abbas agreed that the Palestinian Authority would not join any international institutions for nine months in return for Israel’s release of 104 Palestinian prisoners. Treaties are not institutions. There is no denying, however, that Kerry’s peace initiative has collapsed.
Though the Palestinians had dropped their demand for a freeze in Israeli settlement activity in return for the prisoner release, the talks were dogged by a surge in settlement expansion throughout the occupied territories. Last month Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics reported that in 2013 Israel began construction of 2527 settlement housing units (excluding East Jerusalem), the highest number in 13 years. Over the same period, the UN reported the displacement of 1100 Palestinians whose homes had been demolished by the Israeli army.
Against this backdrop of colonisation and displacement, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu opened up a new front in the negotiations by insisting that no peace would be possible until Abbas unconditionally recognised Israel as “the state of the Jewish people”.
Under normal circumstances, states recognise other states, leaving each other to define their own ethnic and religious identities. In its peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan, Israel made no such demand. Nor did Netanyahu raise the issue when he was prime minister in the 1990s. So why its sudden elevation to the sine qua non of Israel’s demands upon the Palestinians?
In 1948, the state of Israel was founded upon the mass displacement of Palestinians, whose homes were either destroyed or taken over by Jewish migrants. Today a minority of Palestinians still live in Israel, subject to a host of restrictions on their employment, housing and education, while the majority live as refugees in the rest of the Middle East.
By recognising Israel as a Jewish state, Abbas would be not only waiving the right of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes but undercutting the demands of Palestinian citizens of Israel for equality. In December Israel’s ruling Likud party further complicated negotiations by introducing a bill to annex the Jordan Valley, constituting roughly one-third of the West Bank and its only non-Israeli border. When the Palestinians and Americans offered to address Israel’s security concerns by stationing NATO forces in the valley, the offer was brusquely rejected.
Israel’s refusal to honour its promise to release the last tranche of 26 Palestinian prisoners on March 29 proved the final straw for Abbas, who responded by signalling his intention to sign the treaties. Rather than bridging the differences between the two parties, the Kerry peace initiative has served to underscore them.
The Palestinians are prepared to recognise Israel’s right to exist on 78 per cent of their historic homeland and agree to certain territorial swaps that would allow Israel’s annexation of major settlement blocs, but are determined to accept nothing less than an independent state with a capital in East Jerusalem.
Israel has made it clear that it is prepared to grant the Palestinians no more than a patchwork of reservations in the occupied territories, while maintaining effective sovereignty over their airspace, borders, infrastructure and natural resources. The last time such an arrangement was tried was in 1970 when apartheid South Africa set aside certain “Bantustans” for its black population, which it claimed were independent states. The scheme failed because no other country (apart from Israel) was willing to recognise the Bantustans.
Although Kerry has been careful to note that Abbas has not violated the terms of the peace process, his decision to cancel his trip to Ramallah indicates he regards the Palestinians’ recourse to international law as a greater threat to the peace process than Israel’s settlement activity and home demolitions conducted in flagrant breach of international law. Peace is not possible without justice. In the 21st century, however, the term “peace process” has become a euphemism for normalising the violent dispossession of an occupied population.
“Unilateral moves by the Palestinians will be met with unilateral moves by Israel,” Netanyahu announced on Sunday.
As they prepare themselves for the punishment that is certain to follow their show of insubordination, the Palestinians might at least find some comfort in Nelson Mandela’s adage that there is no easy walk to freedom. Turning to international law will not end their suffering but their participation in a succession of sham peace processes for the past 20 years has only served to mask the reality of their ongoing colonisation and displacement.
George Browning is the former Anglican bishop of Canberra and the president of the Australia Palestine Advocacy Network.