Ze'ev B. Begin
Published (in Hebrew) in Haaretz – 5 Dec 2009
"To this day, I cannot understand why the Palestinian leadership did not accept the far-reaching and unprecedented proposal I offered them," wrote former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert (The Washington Post, 17.7.2009). "It would be worth exploring the reasons that the Palestinians rejected my offer and preferred, instead, to drag their feet, avoiding real decisions."
The main elements of Olmert's proposal, as understood by Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mahzan) were: acceptance of the principle of the "right of return" for Palestinian Arab refugees and resettling thousands of them in Israel; Israel's withdrawal from 98 percent of the territory of Judea, Samaria and Gaza; and a land swap for the remaining two percent (Washington Post, 29.5.09). In addition, Olmert proposed a "safe passage" between Gaza and Judea; acceptance of the eastern part of Jerusalem as the capital of the Palestinian State; and relinquishing Israel's sovereignty on the Temple Mount, the Mount of Olives and the City of David while proposing a joint administration of these sites by Saudi Arabia, Jordan, the PLO, the United States and Israel (The Australian, 28.11.09).
What this means is that at the end of 2008 Mahmoud Abbas rejected a concrete proposal for the establishment of a state in all of Samaria, Judea and Gaza, with its capital in Jerusalem. The failure of the recent negotiations, following the failure of the previous round of negotiations in 2000, demands an explanation.
Saeb Erekat asserted that Jerusalem had been left unsolved (Al Jazeera, 27.3.09; translations from Arabic are by the Middle East Media Research Institute, and appear on its Web site). He later claimed that the problem had been Israel's refusal to acknowledge PLO sovereignty in the entire area up to the 1967 lines before attempting a detailed demarcation of the border (Al Dustour, 25.6.09). Recently, Mahmoud Abbas stated that it was the number of refugees who would be allowed to return to Israel that had remained in dispute (Al-Hayat al-Jadida, 10.11.09). However, of all these, the most precise and thorough explanation for the failure of the negotiations is to be found in the simple words of Abbas: "The gaps were wide" (The Washington Post, 29.5.09). Obviously, to narrow the gaps after all the concessions Israel offered, the PLO still demands more.
This means that the explanation for the rejection of Israel's far-reaching proposals is a profound one, and is to be found in the adherence of the PLO leadership to the traditional, extremist positions of the movement. While it has been argued that these positions are no longer valid, they were in fact recently reaffirmed by the sixth Fatah conference in Bethlehem, convened in August 2009.
Resolutions of the Fatah Conference
The principal ideological resolution of the conference reads: "The goals, principles and methods, as they are written in Chapter One of the [Fatah] charter, are the basic point of departure for our movement, and are part of the ideological and political identity of our people." The Charter is posted on the official Fatah Web site, and includes, in Chapter One, Article 19: "Armed struggle is a strategy, not a tactic. The armed revolution of the Arab Palestinian people is a crucial element in the battle for liberation and for the elimination of the Zionist presence. This struggle will not stop until the Zionist entity is eliminated and Palestine is liberated."
The practical translation of this declaration is reflected in the conference's resolution on the issue of refugees: "Efforts must be made to implement the right of return and restitution for refugees, and they are entitled to have their property restored. Likewise, the refugee problem should [be handled] uniformly, with no differentiation based on the refugees' location, including the refugees within the 1948 areas [pre-'67 Israel]." Before the Conference, Saeb Erekat explained that "there is restitution for each article: not return or restitution but return and restitution," (Al Dustour, 25.6.09).
The suggestion in some circles, that the PLO will eventually give up on the "right of return" but will only announce this at the very last moment, is not supported by facts on the ground: the very last moment has already passed twice - in 2000 and in 2009.
This unequivocal position regarding the "right of return" is well tied to another resolution of the Fatah conference: "There must be absolute opposition, from which there will be no withdrawal, to recognizing Israel as a 'Jewish state,' in order to protect the refugees' rights and the rights of our people on the other side of the Green Line [i.e., Arab citizens of Israel]." This statement is a direct echo of the announcements by Fatah leaders made several months prior to the conference. Ahmed Qureia (Abu Ala) said: "It's not fair to demand that we recognize [Israel] as the state of the Jewish People because that means an evacuation of the Arabs from Israel and a predetermination of refugees' future, before the negotiations are over. Our refusal is adamant," (Haaretz, 26.5.09). Abbas explained that the PLO refused to recognize Israel as a Jewish state, since it would imply renunciation of any large-scale resettlement of refugees within Israel (Washington Post, 29.5.09).
However, the source of Fatah's opposition to recognition of Israel as a Jewish state is deeper than that. It arises from the reaffirmation of the term "Zionist entity," meaning that the ideology of the movement is still based on the assertion that Judaism is not a nationality, but only a religion, which has no right to a sovereign state. Hence, recognition of Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people contradicts the profound ideology of Fatah, as explained by Erekat before the Fatah conference: "Whoever asks you to recognize the Jewish State asks you to fill a form requesting to join the Zionist movement. This movement maintains [the idea] that religion is nationality," (al Dustour, 25.6.09).
Hence, what we see is a solid ideology: "The liberation of Palestine" will come in the wake of the return of the refugees to Israel and the "elimination of the Zionist presence," and no decision contradicting this plan, such as acceptance of Israel as a "Jewish state", can be allowed. Whether such a plan can be realistically implemented in the near future is unimportant. Declaring it is aimed mainly at the movement activists, in order to keep them politically alert with a clear understanding of the common goal. Experience shows that Fatah resolutions and declarations by its leaders should be regarded seriously, and the competition for public opinion support between Fatah and Hamas increases Fatah's commitment to its stated policy.
In August 2009, attempting to improve its image, Fatah could have refrained from any discussion of its Charter, or could have adapted it to current political conditions by eliminating its extremist sections. However, by preferring a blatant reaffirmation of the Charter, the conference demonstrated the importance that its delegates attribute to adherence to their original goal. Abbas, who has been recently threatening to resign, did not try to prevent the acceptance of the extremist resolutions at the conference through a similar threat, and has not expressed any
reservations about them.
We can therefore assume that the updated platform of Fatah indeed defines the impossible Fatah conditions for an agreement with Israel. Fatah does not really accept the "two-state solution" and does not view an independent state within the 1967 lines as its final goal. This explains well the series of events since 1993: the Fatah leadership violently violated the Oslo Accords, it failed to reach an agreement with Israel in 2000 despite far-reaching concessions offered by Prime Minister Barak, and it turned down Prime Minister Olmert's proposals in 2008. This is in accord with the fact that in 2008, when the Israeli delegation asked the PLO delegation whether a final agreement with Israel would include an article declaring the end of conflict and an end to further demands, the reply was in the negative.
Refraining from reaching an agreement with Israel has served the PLO well, as explained by Erekat: "At first they told us that we would run hospitals and schools, later they were willing to give us 66 percent, at Camp David they reached 90 percent and today they have reached 100 percent. Why then should we hurry, after all the injustice caused to us?" (Al-Dustour, 25.6.09).
Those who urge Israel to reach an agreement with the PLO "now" should explain what they suggest doing if negotiations are resumed, as the PLO is demanding, at precisely the point where they left off in 2008. There is no indication that the PLO agrees now to terms it declined a year ago, and hence it is clear that in this situation the PLO will make additional demands. Those who prod us should suggest what else Israel is expected to concede? I have not heard an answer to this question, except for mutterings "but we have to try." As long as Fatah does not fundamentally change its platform, there will be no Zionist faction in Israel that is capable of reaching a final-status agreement with it.
Reality must not be artificially beautified. This is indeed a regrettable situation, but we cannot allow it to cause despair. As was the case 100 years ago, our future in our land does not depend on the ill-will of our neighbors' leadership. It is in our hands. We have proven that.
The writer is a minister in PM Netanyahu's cabinet.
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