The flurry of diplomatic activity designed to achieve an Israeli-Palestinian treaty prior to US President Bill Clinton’s January 20 departure from the White House appears to be bearing fruit. January 3 the White House announced that Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat had accepted “with reservations” the Clinton plan for resuming negotiations. A January 4 meeting of Arab League foreign ministers in Cairo tacitly supported Arafat’s conditional assent, paving the way for a final conclave between the three leaders. With Israeli negotiator Gilad Sher in Washington January 5 and CIA director George Tenet on his way to Cairo for more tripartite talks about “security arrangements,” an Arafat-Barak-Clinton summit looks probable.
Although some kind of agreement is possible at such a summit, the likelihood of a permanent settlement is extremely slim, and the Palestinian uprising in the Occupied Territories will not end. Israel, with continued US support, remains unprepared to meet the bare minimum conditions articulated by the Palestinian leadership. Palestinian activists—including those of the mainstream Fatah movement—will continue to confront occupation forces and settlers directly. Probably, the most the Clinton plan can hope to achieve is a further round of negotiations, leading to an agreement to continue negotiating.
The substantive details of the Clinton plan remain unknown, but the plan appears based on the “five nos” publicly enunciated by Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak on the eve of the July 2000 Camp David summit as Israel’s conditions for a peace treaty with the Palestinians: no withdrawal to the pre-1967 boundaries, no (full) withdrawal from East Jerusalem, no (complete) dismantlement of Jewish settlements, no right of return for Palestinian refugees and no additional army west of the Jordan river. These “five nos” denied the Palestinian Authority (PA) even symbolic achievements on the questions of Jerusalem and refugees necessary for Palestinian and Arab political support. The summit collapsed, setting the stage for the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian confrontation which erupted on September 28.
Camp David was predicated on the assumptions that Arafat was prepared to establish a state at any price, and that authoritarian rule in the PA-controlled areas and elsewhere in the Arab world meant that only Israeli public opinion mattered when addressing sensitive final status issues. Israel offered the PA statehood and a presidential office in Jerusalem’s Old City, on condition that they sign away the more pertinent Palestinian demands — chief among them real sovereignty, Israel’s full withdrawal from territories occupied in 1967 and the right of return for Palestinian refugees. The Israeli-US refusal to take Palestinian positions seriously has characterized the Oslo process from the outset.
Achievements of the Uprising
The Palestinian uprising, and the massive Arab popular support for it during its initial phase, have reminded the US, Israel, the Arab regimes and the Palestinian leadership of the existence of Arab public opinion, which in turn has influenced official policy despite the undemocratic political milieu in which it is expressed. For Arafat and the PA, the intifada has provided a powerful counterweight to US and Israeli pressure. Arafat can exploit the intifada, but he cannot afford to ignore it.
As such, the existence of the Clinton plan can be seen as an achievement of sorts. Whereas Barak’s initial response to the Palestinian uprising was to issue one ultimatum after another for Arafat to “halt the violence,” both Israel and the US are now openly engaged in detailed political discussions with the Palestinians, effectively accepting the continuation of the intifada during negotiations as a given. The terms of the Clinton plan—vague as they remain—do contain a number of amendments to Camp David proposals favorable to the Palestinians. Most notably, the “end of conflict” clause—by which the PA would declare an end to Palestinian claims against Israel—would come into effect at the date of the agreement’s completed implementation, rather than the date of signature. The plan also adds some minor embellishments to previous proposals regarding the issues of Jerusalem and refugee repatriation.
The official Palestinian reaction to the plan also has the intifada’s fingerprints all over it. The magnitude of Palestinian concerns about the Clinton plan fortified Arafat to demand clarifications and maps prior to providing a response, and compelled Clinton to reverse his refusal to discuss the proposals prior to obtaining one. Thereafter, it was left to a White House spokesman to issue a rather meaningless statement which suggested Arafat would agree to the Clinton plan if it met with his agreement.
Scant Diplomatic Achievements
Still, the contours of what should be called the Barak-Clinton plan reveal Palestinian diplomatic achievements to be scant. The plan remains rooted in the “five nos,” seeking Palestinian acquiescence to a settlement which the uprising has unambiguously rejected. Palestinians object that the plan would split the West Bank into three encircled enclaves without free access to the Jordanian border, isolate Palestinian neighborhoods within East Jerusalem from each other and from the rest of the West Bank and leave the grievances of most of the several million refugees without redress. The reported clause dividing East Jerusalem according to the criterion that what is currently Jewish will become Israeli and what remains Arab will be part of a Palestinian state allows Israel to retain what it gained illegally over three decades of military occupation.
The Palestinian agenda articulated at Camp David, and particularly since the beginning of the uprising, is irreconcilable with these proposals. The point of departure for any permanent settlement cannot be the current reality on the ground, but rather international law, as embodied in the relevant UN resolutions. While the Palestinians do not reject modifications to the 1967 borders on principle, these must be minor and reciprocal. In Palestinian parlance, any Israeli annexation of West Bank land should be matched by awarding the Palestinian state territory within Israel’s pre-1967 boundaries “equal in quantity and quality.” Israeli concepts such as “Jerusalem in exchange for the right of return,” according to which Arab East Jerusalem will be shared if the PA gives up the rights of Palestinian refugees enshrined in international law, simply cannot work.
Tougher in Public
Increasingly and bitterly critical of the Oslo process and its “apartheid” concepts, Palestinian negotiators such as Yasser Abed Rabbo have been emboldened by the intifada to take tougher public negotiating positions. The Palestinian leadership now says it is determined not to revert to a process—whether Oslo or any other—in which Israel continues to build and expand settlements while final status issues are delayed. The only document the PA is prepared to sign is a final status agreement. Second, the Palestinians will no longer accept a US monopoly over any peace process. Third, the Palestinians demand to see detailed maps which reveal exactly where the annexed regions and areas with which Palestinians will be compensated are located. So-called “constructive ambiguity”—such as the proposed “divine sovereignty” over the Haram al-Sharif—will no longer be tolerated, and if proposed final status maps divide the Palestinian state into non-contiguous “bantustans” they will be rejected. Palestinian negotiators have renewed demands for Israel’s explicit recognition of its responsibility for the creation of the Palestinian refugee problem, and recognition of the relevant UN resolutions, before negotiations on this question can proceed.
According to Palestinian negotiators, the substance of any eventual agreement is only half the story. Any treaty which does not contain binding international guarantees that the treaty will be fully implemented according to the agreed schedule, without any further negotiation on the either the terms of the agreement or its implementation, is a non-starter.
Neither Yes Nor No
Most Palestinians are prepared to support the public position adopted by the Palestinian leadership, although Israel’s retention of any Jewish settlements is going to be an extremely hard sell. The more immediate controversy concerns the conduct of negotiations — including Arafat’s exploratory contacts with the US — prior to Israeli-US acceptance of the above Palestinians demands. Herein lies the Palestinians’ dilemma: with the Bush administration eager to see the conflict resolved prior to its assumption of power, the PA does not want to be seen as the spoiler that caused the conflict to continue after Clinton leaves office. The PA is particularly afraid that it will be seen as the main reason for an eventual victory by Likud leader Ariel Sharon in Israel’s February 6 elections.
But the field leadership of the intifada is more concerned with how the uprising can affect Jewish settlers and Israeli soldiers’ perceptions of their own security than with what regional or international powers may think. To them, the current negotiations are premature at best and serve to undermine their efforts, and should therefore be abandoned until Palestinian demands are accepted by Israel and Washington. Faced with these contesting pressures, and for additional reasons of his own, Arafat is likely to continue with his policy of saying neither yes nor no, neither refusing to discuss and negotiate—perhaps making additional gains in the process—nor accepting to sign an agreement which would split Palestinian society down the middle like Oslo did. This time, his position is much more precarious than in 1993. Meanwhile, mindful that the only agreement Israel has largely respected since Oslo is the April 1996 accord with Hizballah, Palestinian activists are not going to lay down their arms without concrete gains on the political issues underlying the uprising.