Arab-Israeli Conflict: A Step or Two Behind Reality

By Harrison, Drew | The Middle East, January 1993 | Go to article overview

Arab-Israeli Conflict: A Step or Two Behind Reality

Harrison, Drew, The Middle East

So far, Arab-Israeli peace talks have proceeded with depressingly little result. Just as disturbing, there appear to be few reasons why they might be expected to move faster this year. From Jerusalem, Drew Harrison gives a gloomy prognosis.

JUST OVER A YEAR ago, at the opening of the Arab-Israeli peace conference in Madrid, the government and others spoke of their target of one year for negotiations to establish the groundwork for a functional autonomy for Palestinians in the Occupied Territories. It is uncertain whether they really suffered from such undue optimism or whether the pretence sufficed. A year later more American and Western peacemakers have come to see that the conflict between Arabs and Israel remains intractable for real and not imagined reasons relating to very different perceptions of security, identity and conflicting national consensus.

Although the cases of states making peace and dividing territory with independence movements are far and few between - indeed, in the West, such irredentist claims are denounced as secessionist - it is clear that regional integration between the Israeli model of government and society and that of the surrounding Arab states is a distant dream.

The Israeli position has been carefully outlined from the outset, in terms of the composition of the delegations with whom Israel was prepared to meet, to the items on the agenda acceptable for discussion, and the order in which they could be raised. The Palestinians first had to focus on gaining public sympathy for the justice of their case, and largely succeeded in this crucial undertaking through the gifted elocution of their delegation's spokeswoman, Hanan Ashrawi.

But the failure of the Palestinians' optimal scenario - to have the Americans hand back control of the Territories on the basis of a just Palestinian claim left them with few concrete proposals on the path to autonomy. They were condemned by officials of the US State Department for posturing and pursuing a strategy of public relations. Since then, they have worked with various technical teams, mostly composed of foreign academics with little understanding of the vagaries of life in the Territories, to outline a list of needs and a plan of action.

The principal source of conflict between the Israeli and Palestinian positions is over the power of the administrative body. The Israelis want a council that can issue orders, akin to the military government currently in place. The Palestinians want a full legislative assembly entitled to draft laws on par with (or superceding) the British Emergency Rules, Jordanian laws and Israeli military orders still in effect.

The Palestinians also seek control of resources and territory, while the Israelis have always spoken of a functional autonomy, dealing with people and not land and resources. Most recent estimates calculate that between 106,000 to 120,000 Israeli settlers now reside in the West Bank and Gaza. Another 150,000 live in East Jerusalem.

Palestinian autonomy as envisaged by the Israelis, therefore, does not apply to the Territories (which hold large numbers of Israelis) but to Palestinian inhabitants. After the three-year interim period in which the autonomy will be tested, questions of final sovereignty will be addressed. But as long as the Palestinians see that their minimum requirements for control, authority and jurisdiction are denied by Israeli negotiators, the autonomy talks - and therefore the peace process - will remain deadlocked.

The Israeli prime minister, Yitzhak Rabin, speaks of autonomy in terms of the Camp David Accords - "a transitional period that will give to the Palestinians what they have never achieved: their right to run their daily lives by even an elected body, if they chose to have it." The issue of elections is a sensitive one, as municipal elections were the main element of the original peace plan of the Shamir government in 1989.

Israelis stress the high voter participation in elections held in universities, trade unions and the chambers of commerce as evidence of how successful representative elections to choose an administrative council could be. …

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