The U.S. Must Pressure Israel to Compromise

As the Clinton Administration pushes for a high-level resumption of final status talks between Israelis and Palestinians, we are again hearing the mantra that both sides need to compromise, both sides cannot have everything they want and other familiar exhortations. This has been the administration’s approach since the singing of the Declaration of Principles in 1993.

As seemingly reasonable as this search for a middle ground may be, however, it is fundamentally flawed. It ignores the gross asymmetry in power between the Palestinians and their Israeli occupiers. It also ignores the fact that on virtually all the outstanding issues, the Palestinian position is far more reasonable than that of the Israelis. This is difficult for most Americans to appreciate. Israeli is a pro-Western democracy and a longstanding U.S. ally. The leadership of the Palestinian Authority is corrupt, autocratic and, in previous years, was engaged in heinous acts of terrorism against the Jewish state. However, by standards of international law and United Nations Security Council resolutions–adopted unanimously with U.S. support–it is Israel which must compromise the most in order to make peace.

The United States long insisted that U.N. Security Council resolutions 242 should be the basis of negotiations, even refusing to include the Palestinians in the peace talks until they agreed. The resolution expressly emphasized “the inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by war” and the need for Israel to withdraw from the territories occupied in the June 1967 war in return for security guarantees. Yet, in a departure from previous administrations, the Clinton team no longer sees Israel’s complete withdrawal as necessary or that 242 remain the basis of the talks. With such acquiescence from the U.S., the Israelis have defiantly insisted they will not withdraw to their internationally-recognized borders.

Meanwhile, the Clinton Administration has reinterpreted the definition of security guarantees for Israel to mean not just Israel’s reasonable demands to be free of the threat from foreign invasion, air and artillery strikes, or raids by armed commandos, but the physical security of every Israeli from any act of terrorism. No government–particularly a disempowered Palestinian Authority–can guarantee that no crazy individual might decide to plant a bomb on his body and kill people.

The most serious obstacle to peace is Israel’s ongoing settlement drive, which has escalated under the current Israeli government of Prime Minister Ehud Barak. The Israelis want to keep most of those settlements and annex them into Israel. However, the Fourth Geneva Convention forbids occupying powers from colonizing lands seized by military force with their own civilian population and engaging in any policy which makes such a military occupation permanent. It also violates United Nations Security Council resolution 446 calling for Israel to withdraw from these illegal settlements. In the Oslo Accords, of which the United States is a guarantor, Israel committed itself to “view the West Bank and the Gaza Strip as a single territorial unit, whose integrity will be preserved during the interim period” (Article IV). Yet the Clinton Administration appears to be willing to accept the continued presence of these settlements, making the establishment of a contiguous Palestinian entity in the West Bank impossible.

Similarly, Israel’s unilateral annexation of East Jerusalem and its surrounding areas was declared invalid and proclaimed null and void by the U.N. Security Council (resolutions 252, 271 and 478). Yet, the U.S. has effectively recognized Israel’s illegal annexation and has refused to push Israel to share the city, which traditionally served as the cultural, commercial, religious and administrative center for the Palestinians. It is ironic that the Clinton Administration is willing to starve Iraqi children and engage in a sporadic bombing campaign against that country on the grounds that the Iraqi government is in violation of one section of one Security Council resolution, yet is willing to let Israel get away with defying the world body on a much larger scale.

Throughout the past centuries, there have been manifold crimes committed by both Palestinians and Israelis against the other. Yet this does not remove the fact, however, that–at this stage–it is Israel which needs to do most of the compromising. The Palestinians are asking for only the West Bank and Gaza and half of Jerusalem. This is just 22% of their homeland. It is disappointing that the Clinton Administration is insisting that even that is too much to ask.

The United States cannot assume the mantle of mediator of the peace process, much less the mantle of world leadership, as long as the Clinton Administration chooses to so flagrantly ignore international law and basic principles of fairness. Nor can there be peace.