Bob Hawke is a respected former Labor PM, but in a recent article in the AFR he incorrectly elevated Israeli settlements in the West Bank as the major barrier to a peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians. Failure of the Palestinian leadership to pursue direct negotiations with Israel is the key blockage. The paths to a solution lie not in international resolutions and criticisms, but in direct negotiations between the parties.
Yes, Israel’s parliament passed a bad law on adverse possession of abandoned private property, which will, like bad law in Australia or the US, be overruled. Israel and the Palestinians agreed in the Oslo II Accords in 1995 that settlements and the location of a final border between Israel and a future state of Palestine will be among the ‘permanent status’ issues to be decided by direct negotiations. Such negotiations between Israel and Palestinian leaders were conducted at Camp David in 2000, in Taba in 2001, in Jerusalem in 2008 and in Washington DC in 2010.
During the 2008 negotiations, Israel made an offer (with a map) that would have connected the major settlement blocs and the East Jerusalem neighbourhoods to Israel. This would require Israel to get 6.3 per cent of the West Bank, which is where about 80 per cent of the settlers live, and within which all of the government-authorised settlement construction and expansion occurs. This area would be compensated with 1:1 land swaps from Israel’s pre-1967 territory, including an access way between the West Bank and Gaza. Only in November 2015 did Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas finally admit that the Palestinians had rejected the offer, and made no counter-offer.
In 2009 -10, Israel implemented a ten month freeze on new settlement construction. The Palestinians spent the first nine months dodging direct negotiations with Israel, and the final month seeking an extension of the freeze, without engaging on the core issues.
So despite many opportunities to conclude a fair two state agreement, the Palestinian leadership has gone out of its way to avoid coming to terms with Israel.
A far more powerful obstacle to the achievement of a Palestinian state has been the internal divide between the secular nationalist and theocratic movements within Palestinian society. The former is led principally by the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO), which controls the Palestinian Authority, based in the West Bank, and the latter is led principally by Hamas, based in Gaza. The bitter differences between these two movements, including over whether or not to make peace with Israel under any circumstances, have degenerated into internecine violence on many occasions.
In order to constitute a state in international law, the Palestinians must have an effective government; a single centralised administration capable of asserting its authority over the people within its claimed territory — the West Bank and Gaza Strip — and the capacity to deliver on any international agreements it may enter into. At present, given the PLO-Hamas split, neither criterion is satisfied.
Extending diplomatic recognition to a state of ‘Palestine’ that does not exist would be an exercise in wishful thinking, not realism. Hawke’s reading of the current realities rests on surprising historical errors, such as his throw-away reference to the Palestinians as the ‘indigenous’ people of the Holy Land. In contrast to the complete absence of Arabic writing or inscriptions to be found anywhere in the Holy Land dating before the Muslim conquests of the 7th century CE, and the absence of any reference to Palestine as a descriptor for a people before the late nineteenth century, there is a plethora of documents and other archaeological artefacts attesting to the unbroken chain of Hebrew, Israelite and Jewish language, culture, religion and civilisation in the Holy Land over the last 3,250 years. Coming from a Christian family, Bob Hawke must put some credence in the Bible, which attests to millennial Jewish ties to the Holy Land.
Hawke claims that the UN allocated the Jews ‘exactly 56.47 per cent’ of the best Palestinian land and that even though the Palestinians ‘owned more than 94 per cent of the land, they were given 47 per cent of their own country’. In fact, in the part of the country that became Israel, 8.6 per cent of the land was owned by Jews and 3.3 per cent was retained by Arabs who took up Israeli citizenship, while 16.9 per cent was abandoned by private owners who fled the fighting during the civil war or the Arab military invasion in May 1948. The rest of the land—over 70 per cent—had been vested in the British-administered Mandatory Power, and accordingly reverted to the state of Israel as its legal heir. The greater part of this 70 per cent consisted of the Negev, some 12,725 km2 all told, or close to 50 per cent of Mandatory Palestine. Known as Crown or state lands, this was mostly uninhabited arid or semi-arid territory, inherited originally by the British Mandatory government from the Ottomans. In 1948 it passed to Israel as the successor state.
No Palestinian demands were raised during the period of Jordanian rule (‘48 – ‘67) for the West Bank to break away from Jordan. Palestinians’ post- ‘67 claim of ownership of the West Bank is based on the right of national self-determination. Settlements are an important issue of the conflict, but the real obstacles to Palestinian statehood and a peace agreement remain political, not physical.
Australians should not view Israel through the prism of one law retroactively legalising ‘absent possession’. Such laws where quite common for abandoned property throughout the Western World. Israel is a creative bastion where the only growing population of Christians in the Middle East live undiscriminated. It is perhaps the epicentre of the world’s technological revolution, where in Tel Aviv 150,000 gay people peacefully parade or where an equal number can light the Christmas trees in Bethlehem or Jaffa.
Israel sits in a Middle East beset by war, economic failure and ugly sexual violence. Its attorney-general has said that this new law retroactively legalising 4,000 homes will be invalidated by Israel’s Supreme Court. As then US ambassador to the UN, Samantha Power, said in explaining the US’s abstention in the Security Council on the resolution Bob Hawke mentions — ‘even if every single settlement were to be dismantled tomorrow, peace still would not be attainable without both sides acknowledging uncomfortable truths and making difficult choices’. Recognising a state of Palestine will do nothing to encourage the Palestinians whose adamant, continuing refusal to negotiate directly with their Israeli counterparts is the key blockage to peace.
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