The Israeli-Palestinian summit scheduled for July 11 at Camp David carries high stakes for the principal parties. President Clinton’s hoped-for legacy as a statesman rests to a large degree on mediating a comprehensive settlement to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The future of Prime Minister Barak’s fragile government depends on reaching some agreement on the Palestinian track, especially after his recent surrender to Shas on domestic issues. Chairman Arafat’s political survival requires an agreement that is most Palestinians do not see as a capitulation to Israeli (and American) hegemony.
Media hoopla about the undoubted differences between the Israeli and Palestinian positions at Camp David obscures a fundamental confluence of interests in the Oslo process between Israel, the PA and major Western donors: a globalized economic order in the region. Further, media pundits misread the differences themselves. There is little dispute over Palestinian statehood. The real dispute concerns the level of Israeli control over this state, and the resolution of the crucial issues of land, refugees and Jerusalem. Israel holds all the cards on these issues, having created numerous “facts on the ground”–former Prime Minister Rabin’s euphemism for annexation, settlements and military control. Arafat has been publicly reluctant to attend the summit because he does not want to enter history as the first Arab leader to legitimize Israeli military conquest. For Arafat, the summit presents a Catch-22: lose Palestinian and Arab legitimacy by accepting an imposed final status framework agreement that effectively repudiates basic Palestinian rights under international law, or lose international (and especially US) support by choosing the path of resistance.
The Logic of Israeli Hegemony
During the interim phase of the Oslo process, differences between the two sides have consistently been resolved by Israeli diktat followed by Palestinian complaints. All disputes over central issues such as Israeli military withdrawal, construction of settlements and bypass roads, cantonization of Palestinian land, imposition of closure and travel restrictions and refusal to release all political prisoners have been settled in this fashion.
Israeli dominance is an inevitable result of the structural logic of the Oslo process. Bilateral negotiations between the strongest political, economic and military power in the region and the weakened and corrupt leadership of an occupied people are bound to produce one-sided agreements and even more one-sided implementation of those agreements. This imbalance in negotiating power is exacerbated by the rejection of UN participation in the Oslo process in favor of active mediation by the US, often through the CIA. The US is not only Israel’s staunchest ally and military supporter, but also the only Western country not to extend full diplomatic relations to the PLO.
Indeed, seven years after the famous handshake on the White House lawn, Oslo’s balance sheet is decidedly skewed in favor of Israel. Palestinian concessions–rejection of armed resistance and full recognition of the state of Israel–were made up front. In contrast, Israel has bestowed its main concession–ending the military occupation and enabling Palestinian self-determination–grudgingly, gradually, and always subject to unilateral Israeli interpretation. While Palestinians today retain few bargaining chips beyond the threat of sporadic violence, Israel continues to occupy Palestinian land and deny Palestinian self-determination. Israel is also winning the battle for world public opinion, having transformed partial withdrawal from an illegal occupation into the appearance of “giving” land to the Palestinians.
Despite Israel’s advantages, the Camp David summit is unlikely to secure a total Palestinian surrender. Arafat’s room for maneuver on the domestic front has been limited by recent events, notably Hezbollah’s success in driving Israeli forces out of South Lebanon. Despite Arafat’s effort to muzzle media coverage, Hezbollah’s victory galvanized the Palestinian street and placed an unflattering spotlight on the meager territorial returns of the Oslo process. Combined with President Asad’s refusal until his death to recognize Israeli control over any Syrian territory, the example of Hezbollah undermines the legitimacy of Arafat’s past and potential future compromises on land.
Until now, the PA’s multiple security forces have crushed all manifestations of dissent through security sweeps, military courts, torture and other repressive tactics. The PA has justified its failure to deliver either political or economic self-determination by the temporary nature of Oslo’s interim arrangements. But a final status agreement that fails to recognize Palestinian claims to their land, to Jerusalem and to the rights of refugees could spark an explosion of long-suppressed opposition.
The dilemma of Camp David therefore seems to be that while Israel retains the power and American backing to dictate terms, Arafat may no longer be able to satisfy Israeli demands without delegitimizing his own leadership. According to inside accounts of the negotiations, the likely solution to this dilemma will conceal the reality of continued Israeli control under the guise of Palestinian rights and independence.
On the issue of land and borders, Arafat will reportedly accept Israeli annexation of major settlement blocs (including the new “suburbs” of Jerusalem) and connecting bypass roads in the West Bank, possibly in exchange for the return for some Arab towns inside the Green Line. Less significant settlements will be dismantled, and the settlers returned to Israel. On Jerusalem, Barak appears willing to cede certain Arab neighborhoods to the Palestinian state. To maintain the illusion of Palestinian sovereignty over most, perhaps even 90 percent of the West Bank, Israel will control land in the Jordan Valley through a long-term lease rather than outright annexation.
The solution to the refugee issue also appears calculated to serve Israeli interests while at the same time enabling Arafat to claim symbolic victory. The plans call for a long-term formula of host country absorption, third country resettlement, repatriation to Palestine and very limited return inside the Green Line (through family reunification). An enormous international bribe, in the form of an aid package worth up to $100 billion to be allocated among the PA, Israel and frontline Arab states, will soften official governmental opposition in the region. Of course, the effective abandonment of the Palestinians’ human right to return to their homes will be couched in language purporting to recognize the very right.
Under this scenario, Arafat’s claim to have liberated most of 1967 Palestine will enjoy broad international and even Arab regime support. But Israel will maintain effective control over Palestinian political and economic independence through the mechanism of closure and separation, already tested and deployed successfully during the interim phase of Oslo. Military deployments at settlements, bypass roads and border areas will still cut the West Bank into separate cantons and restrict travel between the West Bank and Gaza, enabling Israel to expand or contract the Israeli market for Palestinian labor and to decisively influence Palestinian social and economic welfare. Many Palestinians, especially refugees, will reject the agreement, but they lack organized mechanisms for dissent and will face brutal repression inside the new state.
Globalized Oppression or International Law?
Underlying the negotiating positions of all the parties is a push for a Middle Eastern free trade regime–with the ultimate goal of accessing Arab markets, Arab consumers and cheap Arab labor. Various development plans put forward by the PA, Israel, the World Bank and donors during the Oslo process share a common vision of free trade zones and industrial estates at the Palestinian-Israeli borders. Modeled on the maquiladoras at the US-Mexican border, these zones will employ cheap Palestinian labor, repressed by a corrupt, authoritarian state and unprotected by the rule of law, in the service of Israeli and foreign capital. Goods and capital will flow freely across the borders, but people will be divided within (relatively) ethnically pure states.
This future of globalized oppression is by no means inevitable, even if Camp David produces a one-sided agreement. Organized opposition has thus far been ineffective, but dissent is growing as the final agreement comes into view. Voices from inside Palestine are increasingly confronting the corrupt and repressive PA, despite significant personal risk. Palestinian communities in the diaspora, working with solidarity groups, are organizing broad public campaigns to protect the right of return. A growing minority of Israeli and Palestinian intellectuals are rejecting the entire Oslo formula and promoting the idea of secular, democratic binationalism.
Could international law serve as the basis for resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, as these diverse efforts envision? Given the current balance of forces, Israel is hardly likely to dismantle the settlements, withdraw to the pre-1967 borders, and recognize Palestine as a fully equal and sovereign state. Nor is the PA likely to end corruption, tolerate opposition and respect the rule of law. But international law is nonetheless important as a long-term alternative vision and strategy to the current drift towards ethnic separation and economic exploitation.
In this regard, it should be recalled that resolution 181, in addition to providing the legal basis for Israeli and Palestinian statehood, mandates full equality and human rights for all citizens of these states. Such basic concepts of rights and democracy pose a radical challenge to the ideology of separation and discrimination underlying not only the final agreement formula under Oslo, but also Israel’s treatment of its Arab citizens inside the Green Line. Genuine implementation of international law would collapse the differences between the two-state and binational solutions by ensuring the full and equal rights of all citizens, including the right of return for Palestinian refugees, and thereby promoting a future for all people of the region based on liberation and justice.