President George W. Bush has been using somewhat stronger language than he has uttered previously about the Israeli-Palestinian situation and has made some optimistic predictions of a peace agreement within a year. Nevertheless, there is little reason to hope that the president is any more serious about or is any more likely to be successful in bringing about a negotiated settlement to the conflict.
The United States still rejects the application of international law in settling the conflict, opting instead to use as its starting point the status quo based on Israel’s 40-year occupation. This underscores the longstanding and inherent contradiction between the United States simultaneously playing the role of chief mediator in the conflict and being the chief military, financial and diplomatic supporter of the more powerful of the two parties. As a result, Israel, the occupying power, has little incentive to compromise and the relatively powerless Palestinians under occupation have little leverage to advance their struggle for an independent viable state.
Harry Siegman, who headed the American Jewish Congress from 1978 to 1994 and subsequently served as a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, has faulted the Bush administration for failing to acknowledge “the consensus reached long ago by Israel’s decision-making élites that Israel will never allow the emergence of a Palestinian state which denies it effective military and economic control of the West Bank.” Observing what most independent observers of the peace process have noted since the election of a right-wing coalition government in Israel in early 2001, Siegman writes that “Israel’s interest in a peace process – other than for the purpose of obtaining Palestinian and international acceptance of the status quo – has been a fiction that has served primarily to provide cover for its systematic confiscation of Palestinian land….”
As far back as 2004, Dov Weissglas, senior advisor to the Israeli prime minister, admitted that the U.S.-backed Israeli government’s decision was to effectively suspend diplomatic efforts to create a Palestinian state. As Weissglas told the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, “When you freeze that process, you prevent the establishment of a Palestinian state, and you prevent a discussion on the refugees, the borders and Jerusalem. Effectively, this whole package called the Palestinian state, with all that it entails, has been removed indefinitely from our agenda.” Citing the support for this policy by both the Bush administration and Congress, he went on to observe that the Israeli government could do this “with authority and permission. All with a presidential blessing and the ratification of both houses of Congress.”
Indeed, the Bush administration, the leadership of both parties in Congress, and the leading Republican and Democratic presidential candidates have all made clear that they will not pressure Israel to move the peace process forward or even to comply with a series of relevant UN Security Council resolutions. For example, as reported by the BBC, when asked why the United States refused to insist that Israel abide by a series of UN Security Council resolutions addressing the outstanding issues in the peace process, President Bush responding by proclaiming that “the choice was whether to remain stuck in the past, or to move on.” This was necessary, according to the president, because “the UN deal didn’t work in the past,” ignoring the fact that these earlier UN efforts failed as a direct result of the United States blocking the Security Council from enforcing its resolutions regarding Israel’s international legal obligations.
The resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian impasse comes down to four major unresolved issues: Israeli settlements, Israeli withdrawal, the status of Jerusalem, and Palestinian refugees. Each of these issues is summarized below. In each category, the Palestinian position is far closer to the international legal consensus while the U.S. position is much closer to that of the Israel’s rightist government, underscoring the reasons for the failure of the much-vaunted Roadmap for Peace and the peace process in general.
The issue: Since its forces invaded and captured the territory in 1967, the Israeli government has colonized large segments of the occupied West Bank (including greater East Jerusalem), seizing Palestinian land to construct scores of settlements reserved for Jews only. A series of walls and fortified fences snake deep into the West Bank to separate these settlements and surrounding areas from much of the Palestinian population. Since the occupied Palestinian territory in which these settlements, the highways connecting them, and the surrounding farmland inside the separation barriers are integral to creating a contiguous Palestinian state, maintaining the settlements makes the establishment of a viable Palestinian state impossible.
International Law: The Fourth Geneva Conventions prohibit an occupying power from transferring any part of its civilian population onto lands seized by military force. UN Security Council resolutions 446, 452, 465, and 471 explicitly call on Israel to remove its colonists from the occupied territories. A 2004 advisory ruling by the International Court of Justice also ruled that the settlements were illegal.
Palestinian position: Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has demanded a freeze on the expansion of settlements as called for in the Road Map and supports the international legal consensus that the settlements are illegal and Israeli colonists should be required to return to Israel. Many Palestinians argue that these abandoned settlements would be ideal for the resettling of Palestinian refugees. It appears that Abbas would be willing to accept Israel maintaining most of the largest settlements in greater East Jerusalem and along the border with Israel, however, in return for an equivalent amount of sparsely-populated territory in what is now Israel.
Israeli position: With the exception of a few isolated outposts – consisting primarily of a small number of mobile homes in parts of the northern West Bank maintained without government sanction by religious zealots – the Israeli government wants to maintain these settlements and the surrounding areas and annex them to Israel. Despite hopes at the Annapolis meeting in November that the Israelis would agree to a settlement freeze, the Israeli government has recently announced the expansion of a controversial settlement on seized Palestinian land just north of Bethlehem and other settlements elsewhere in greater Jerusalem.
U.S. position: Though as recently as the early 1980s, the United States recognized that these settlements were illegal, the current U.S. position is that it is up to Israeli and Palestinian negotiators to determine the fate of the settlements. The Bush administration and a large bipartisan majority of Congress have gone on record condemning the 2004 decision by the International Court of Justice and supporting the Israeli position that it be able to maintain the majority of its settlements, which are increasingly referred to by U.S. officials simply as “Jewish neighborhoods.”
The Issue: The longstanding international consensus has been for the creation of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip – the Palestinian areas seized by Israeli forces in 1967 – presumably with a 40-mile highway connecting the two (without exits, like the roads connecting West Berlin with West Germany during the Cold War). These two areas constitute only 22% of historical Palestine. Currently, President Abbas’ Palestine Authority – under a coalition government dominated by the Fatah movement – controls most of the populated areas of the West Bank, while Israeli occupation forces, civilian settlers, and the infrastructure to support them has made 40% of the West Bank off limits to Palestinians. Israeli occupation forces control movement between areas controlled by the Palestine Authority through 450 roadblocks and 70 additional checkpoints. The Islamist Hamas movement controls the Gaza Strip, but Israel has effectively placed this crowded enclave under siege, shutting down with the airport and seaport and sealing the borders.
International Law: A cornerstone of international law and the UN system, as reiterated in UN Security Council resolution 242 – long seen as the basis for peace between Israel and its neighbors – regards the “inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by war.” Resolution 242 and subsequent Security Council resolutions call for Israel to withdraw from the territories seized in the 1967 war, though the wording implies a possible exception for very minor and reciprocal border adjustments. There is also a widespread legal consensus that Israel’s system of roadblocks and checkpoints in the West Bank and its siege of the Gaza Strip are excessive, going well beyond what is necessary for Israeli security and are therefore in violation of international humanitarian law.
Palestinian position: The Palestinians recognized Israeli sovereignty over 78% of Palestine in the Oslo Agreement in 1993 and are currently calling for sovereignty over only the remaining 22% conquered by Israel in the 1967 war. President Abbas has indicated a willingness to allow Israel to annex small segments of the occupied West Bank along the border in return for an equivalent amount of Israeli land. He has called for an immediately lifting of the roadblocks and checkpoints and – despite his intense rivalry with Hamas – an easing of the siege of Gaza Strip on humanitarian grounds.
Israeli position: Israel has already annexed occupied East Jerusalem and surrounding areas and plans to annex large swathes of West Bank as well, which would divide the West Bank into a series of non-contiguous cantons that would resemble the notorious Bantustans of South Africa during Apartheid rule. It has defended its siege of the Gaza Strip and its strict limitations on freedom of movement in the West Bank on security grounds.
U.S. position: While formally calling for “an end to the occupation that began in 1967,” President Bush refuses to call for a complete Israeli withdrawal, arguing instead that “territory is an issue for both parties to decide.” While calling for the creation of a Palestinian state that is “viable and contiguous,” he has failed to pressure Israel to withdraw from enough occupied land to make that possible. Indeed, during his recent visit to Jerusalem, President Bush explicitly stated that Israel’s internationally recognized pre-1967 borders must be expanded “to reflect current realities” – that is, Israel’s illegally-constructed settlements in the occupied West Bank – a position also backed by the Democratic Party in their 2004 platform. Bush has even defended the ubiquitous Israeli roadblocks and checkpoints as necessary for Israel’s security, though the vast majority are on roads connecting West Bank cities and do not run close to the Israeli border, and has backed Israel in its ongoing siege of the Gaza Strip.
The issue: Originally designated by the UN in 1947 as an international city under neither exclusive Israeli nor Arab sovereignty, Jerusalem was divided between Israeli and Jordanian control between 1948 and 1967 and has been under exclusive Israeli control subsequently. Israeli Jews were forbidden from entering the Jordanian-controlled half of the city prior to 1967, and Israel has in recent years severely restricted Palestinian Christians and Muslims from entering the city. Israel has substantially expanded the city’s eastern and northern boundaries, which it has populated with Jewish settlers, and has annexed all of greater East Jerusalem, including its large Palestinian population. Given the city’s significance to both populations, any sustainable peace agreement would need to recognize Jerusalem as the capital city for both Israel and Palestine.
International Law: Consistent with the prohibition regarding the illegitimacy of any country expanding its territory by force, the UN Security Council has passed a series of resolutions (252, 267, 271, 298, 476 and 478) calling on Israel to rescind its annexation of greater East Jerusalem and to refrain from any unilateral action regarding its status. The UN has also called for a negotiated settlement that recognizes the legitimate rights of all peoples.
Palestinian position: In addition to its religious significance for both Palestinian Christians and Palestinian Muslims, Jerusalem has long been the most important cultural, commercial, political, and educational center for Palestinians and has the largest Palestinian population of any city in the world. President Abbas has called for Palestinian sovereignty over Palestinian-populated areas and has expressed a willingness to accept Israeli sovereignty over Jewish-populated areas, even those areas seized from Arab landowners in the aftermath of the 1967 war.
Israeli position: Israel has unilaterally annexed Jerusalem and its environs and has categorically rejected these UN resolutions, insisting that – with the possible exception of administrative responsibility regarding Islamic holy places – there would be no Palestinian rule within the city, even over Palestinian-populated neighborhoods. The Israeli Knesset recently passed a law requiring a two-thirds majority to alter the status of the city, which makes it unlikely for a more moderate Israeli government in the future to compromise on this issue.
U.S. Position: President Bush has refused to call for Palestinian sovereignty over even the Palestinian-populated segments of the city, only going as far as declaring it to be “a tough issue” that is up to the two parties to resolve among themselves. An overwhelming bipartisan majority of Congress has effectively recognized Israel’s annexation of greater Jerusalem. Over the past 15 years, the United States has blocked a series of UN Security Council resolutions confirming previous calls on Israel to rescind its annexation and has even blocked resolutions which simply refer to Israeli-occupied East Jerusalem as “occupied territory.”
The Issue: As a result of both escaping from the fighting and, in some areas, a calculated policy of ethnic cleansing by Israeli forces, over 700,000 Palestinians fled into neighboring Arab countries in the late 1940s during Israel’s war of independence. Israel confiscated their land and refused to allow them to return. The surviving refugees and their descendents now total four million, most of whom still live in refugee camps and, with the partial exception of Jordan, are denied full citizenship rights. These refugee camps were the base from which the Palestinians armed struggle – including terrorist groups – emerged from the 1950s through the 1980s.
International Law: UN General Assembly resolution 194, reiterated annually, calls on Israel to allow refugees to return in accordance with international humanitarian law, which guarantees the right of anyone to leave or return to their country of origin. This right of return was codified with the assumption that such refugees would be able to return within weeks or months, however, not after several generations. The applicability of this international legal principle to the current situation is therefore open to debate. UN Security Council resolution 242 simply calls for “a just resolution to the refugee problem.”
Palestinian Position: The Palestinians continue to officially demand the right of return, though there are indications that this demand is largely a bargaining chip to force Israeli concessions on the other outstanding issues. It appears that the Palestinians would be willing to accept the resettlement of refugees within the boundaries of the new Palestinian state and in other Arab countries in return for financial compensation, Israeli acknowledgement of its culpability in the tragedy, and for the ability of a small number of first-generation refugees to return.
Israeli Position: Israel categorically rejects any right of return for Palestinian refugees or any responsibility in the origins of the refugee crisis, noting that the return of Palestinian refugees and their descendents would result in a non-Jewish majority in Israel.
U.S. Position: Both the Bush administration and a broad bipartisan majority of Congress have gone on record demanding that the Palestinians unilaterally renounce their right of return. During his recent visit, Bush only called for compensating the refugees and reiterated his support for Israel as a “Jewish state.”