Illusions and manipulations

Israeli demand for Palestinian up-front recognition of this country as a Jewish state is as artificial as the Palestinians’ demand for up-front cessation of settlement construction.

Settlement building ceremony (photo credit: Associated Press)
Settlement building ceremony
(photo credit: Associated Press)
There is no doubt that the settlement issue now figures as the centerpiece of public attention both locally and internationally, above all the other no less important negotiating issues, such as Jerusalem, refugees, borders, security and water.
Undoubtedly, the issue is a relevant political and legal one, of concern to the international community which has consistently questioned the legality of Israel’s settlement policies. But there are many other issues of far greater legal and political import than settlement policy, and one may thus wonder if this is the real reason for its having become the central and decisive issue in the negotiating scene.
In fact, the real reason for the “upgrading” of settlement- building from being merely one among other agreed-upon negotiating issues is a concerted policy of manipulation by the Palestinian Authority leadership – Mahmoud Abbas, Saeb Erekat and Nabil Sha’ath – to enhance the international pressure on Israel.
Clearly, this manipulation has been extremely successful, as is borne out by the fact that US President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, as well as the EU leadership and those same PA leaders, are all voicing one consistent demand – to renew the freeze on building in the territories.
THE QUESTION arises as to how such a major manipulation succeeded when there exists no mention in any of the Israeli-Palestinian agreements of any restriction on building by Israel in those parts of the territories still under its jurisdiction? Thus, the 1993 Declaration of Principles on Interim Self-Government Arrangements (commonly termed Oslo I) lists “settlements” as a negotiating issue for the permanent status negotiations, along with Jerusalem, refugees, borders, security arrangements and cooperation.
In the Agreed Minutes attached to this document, the Palestinians acknowledged that they will have no jurisdiction in those areas of the West Bank and Gaza Strip that are the subject of permanent status negotiations.
In the Civil Affairs Annex to the 1995 Interim Agreement on the West Bank and the Gaza Strip (commonly termed Oslo II), Article 27 sets out the agreed terms for planning and zoning and construction powers in the territories, stressing that powers and responsibilities transferred to the Palestinians would not cover those areas intended for permanent status negotiation, which remained within Israel’s jurisdiction. No limitations were placed on Israel in this field of planning and zoning.
During the course of the negotiations in 1995, realizing that the draft agreement contained no requirement to freeze construction, Yasser Arafat requested that the Israeli team add a “side letter” by which Israel would commit to freezing or restricting construction during the process of implementation of the agreement and ensuing negotiations. Several drafts of this “side letter” passed between the negotiating teams, until Israel indeed agreed to restrict its construction activities on the basis of a government decision that would be adopted.
At this stage the Palestinian leadership decided to cancel its request for a side letter, preferring no mention in the agreement of any limitation on construction.
Evidently, at this point, in 1995, the decision was taken by the Palestinian leadership to artificially turn the issue of continued construction in settlements into an international issue, and it commenced a concerted campaign in the international community, international organizations and media.
This gamble paid off, and continued construction was manipulatively inflated into the present decisive, separate and major issue of the present negotiating process. So much so that even the Israeli government found itself playing along with this manipulation by adopting a unilateral 10-month freeze on construction, without any Palestinian commitment to enter into negotiations. In so doing, the government gave credence to the artificial and manipulative upgrading of the settlement issue.
ONE MIGHT view Israel’s demand for Palestinian recognition of a Jewish state as a parallel artificial and illusory demand. In fact, no such demand was made during the earlier stages of negotiation on the various Oslo and other accords. In these accords, the Palestinians recognized Israel’s rights to exist in peace and security (Arafat letter to Yitzhak Rabin dated September 9, 1993) and its legitimate and political rights (preamble to both Oslo I and Oslo II). Nor was such a demand made in the peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan.
But it is patently clear that mutual recognition of sovereignty and political integrity, as well as the other standard components of a peaceful relationship as set out in the UN Charter, are tantamount to recognition of whatever religious, political and other character each respective state entity determines for itself.
Thus, if and when we reach the final stage of signing a peace accord with the Palestinians, recognition of each side’s religious and political orientation will be an inherent component.
Hence the present demand for Palestinian up-front recognition of Israel as a Jewish state would appear to be no less illusory and unnecessary. Israel does not need Palestinian authorization of its Jewish orientation, and the mere repetition of the demand is a sign of weakness as to self-confidence.
Now that we are once again returning to a direct negotiating mode, after the absurdities of indirect talks over the last months, it would appear to be incumbent on both leaderships to come down from the high trees they have climbed, to give up the manipulations and illusions and to face the practical realities of dealing with the negotiating issues in a pragmatic, constructive and positive-looking manner.
The writer is a former Foreign Ministry legal adviser and ambassador to Canada and a former member of the negotiating team with the Palestinians.