Bush & Congress Ignore Breakthrough in Peace Process

In what may be the most hopeful development in years to establish a permanent Israeli-Palestinian peace, an unofficial group of Palestinian and Israeli political leaders announced on October 12 that they had agreed to a detailed framework that would end the violence and establish an independent Palestinian state alongside a secure Israel.

Unfortunately, it appears that the Bush administration and the leadership of both parties in Congress are committed to making sure that such an agreement does not become reality.

The accord is based in large part on a tentative framework that was being developed during peace talks in Taba, Egypt in January 2001 between the Yasir Arafat’s Palestinian Authority and the Israeli government of Ehud Barak. The negotiations were suspended when the rightist Israeli leader Ariel Sharon assumed office early the following month. Efforts by the Palestinians to resume negotiations where they left off have been rebuffed by both the Israeli government and by the Bush administration.

These most recent talks were facilitated by the Swiss government and other European representatives and will be signed in Geneva shortly.

Outlining the Accord

In the agreement, Israel would withdraw from most of the Gaza Strip and West Bank, which were seized by Israeli forces in the 1967 War, as well as from most of its settlements in these occupied territories. Jerusalem would be the co-capital of both Israel and Palestine, with the state of Israel controlling Jewish holy sites (as well as the Jewish quarter of the Old City) and with the state of Palestine controlling Muslim and Christian holy sites.

The new Palestinian state would be demilitarized with strict international guarantees for Israeli security and there would be full diplomatic relations between the two countries, with the Palestinians recognizing Israel as the homeland for the Jewish people.

Instead of supporting this significant breakthrough, however, the Bush administration has dismissed it as “a private initiative” with which the United States is not to be involved. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher insists it is the stalled U.S-led “road map” that is the best way to peace.

In reality, this framework fills major gaps in the “road map” which have contributed to the breakdown in the peace process and the ongoing cycle of violence.

Significant Concessions

The exception to a full Israeli withdrawal from the occupied territories would be a swath of land around East Jerusalem where a large number of Jewish-only settlements have been built over the past three decades. This constitutes a major concession on the part of the Palestinians, since these settlements are a direct violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention — which forbids a government from moving its civilian population onto territories seized by military force—as well as UN Security Council resolutions 446, 452, and 465, which call on Israel to withdraw from such settlements.

In perhaps the most significant concession from the Palestinian side, their negotiators have waived the right of return of Palestinian refugees and their descendants into what is now Israel, despite such guarantees under a series of United Nations resolutions as well as the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights and other international treaties.

It appears that even with such major concessions, the agreement has the support of most of the Palestinian leadership. The head of the Palestinian negotiators was Yasser Abed Rabbo, a former minister in the Palestinian Authority and a very close associate of Chairman Arafat. He was joined not only by former ministers Hisham Abdel Razeq and Nabil Kassis, but also young Fatah militants like Qadoura Fares and Mohammed Khourani as well as top experts and security people from the Palestinian establishment.

Indeed, Rabbo declared categorically that “the Palestinian Authority supports our Accord” and that the details of the agreement were approved by Arafat, former Palestinian prime minister Mahmoud Abbas and current prime minister Ahmed Qureia. Indeed, few observers believe Rabbo would have not gone ahead with the talks without the Arafat’s approval and top Palestinian Authority officials have confirmed that Arafat was briefed about details of the agreement before it was finalized and gave his approval.

The Israeli negotiators were led by Yossi Beilin, a former Israeli justice minister who — as deputy foreign minister ten years ago — played an instrumental role in drafting the Oslo Accords. Other top Israeli officials in the negotiations included such prominent Knesset members as former Labor Party Leader Avram Mitzna and former Knesset speaker Avraham Burg.

Opposition to the Accord

In contrast to the supportive position of the Palestinian Authority, senior Israeli officials in the U.S.-backed right-wing government have lambasted those Israelis who took part in the negotiations. Deputy Prime Minister Ehud Olmert have called the negotiations “shameful” and “very grave and pathetic” and Prime Minster Ariel Sharon has denounced the agreement has damaging to the peace process.

In response, Beilin was quoted in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz as saying “Does anyone truly believe that Sharon is in the midst of serious negotiations? This is foolishness and nonsense. For three years, Sharon has been babbling on about his wanting peace—and he doesn’t do anything.”

Despite this, President George W. Bush has called Sharon “a man of peace” and has repeatedly denounced Arafat as “an obstacle to peace.” The administration has been joined by Congressional leaders of both parties in insisting that it is the Palestinians, not the Israelis, who are primarily responsible for the failure to reach a negotiated settlement.

For example, the entire Democratic leadership signed a public letter this September declaring that “Time and time again, the Israeli people have shown their willingness to take risks for peace” but that “The Palestinians have at best been ambivalent about their willingness to accept Israel’s existence.”

It is such distortions of reality that the Republicans and Democrats hope to perpetuate in order to justify their large-scale military, financial and diplomatic support of Sharon’s rightist government, its occupation forces and its colonization drive in the West Bank. As a result, it is likely that not only will Sharon feel no pressure to return to the negotiating table, but that Washington will simply ignore this last best chance for peace.