by Ziad AbuZayyad
Prospects look rosy at first glance: the dream has finally come true. Arafat is in Gaza, the Palestinian National Authority (PNA) is already functioning, and the performance of the Palestinian police has surpassed everyone’s expectations.
But, it is premature to take a deep breath and to sit back and relax. Indeed, the challenges that still lie ahead are enormous and remind one of the saying: art is long; life is short. Many contentious issues have yet to be dealt with in the negotiations, such as the question of Jerusalem, the Jewish settlements, the refugee problem and the final status of the occupied Palestinian land, in addition to the multitude of other problems that have to be addressed at the present stage.
One major problem facing the PNA for the moment is financial: money is needed to enable it to function properly and effectively. Money is also needed for the running cost of all services and administrations, for investments in development projects in Gaza and Jericho, for the creation of jobs, the generation of income and the development of services.
To persevere in their support for the peace process and to lend their full adherence to the rule of law and the maintenance of public order, Gazans have to be encouraged by some concrete and positive changes in their living conditions. The manner in which this can be achieved is not within the scope of this article, but it is self-evident that a joint effort between Israel and the PNA, in addition to a committed and immediate support by the donor states, can make the fulfillment of this goal, or at least part of it, more attainable. Barring that, the already explosive situation might get out of hand with violence and extremism as the sole winners.
The Gaza-Jericho First Agreement was meant to present a breakthrough in the deadlocked peace talks in Washington and to facilitate the achievement of a comprehensive settlement to the Israeli-Arab conflict based on UN Resolutions 242 and 338. One should not be so dazzled, therefore, by the implementation of this Agreement to the extent of failing to see the long road that still lies ahead. Instead, one should proceed toward the final goal which the comprehensive settlement is guaranteeing a just solution to the Palestinian problem in all its aspects.
The next step should then be the early empowerment of the PNA with other spheres of administration in the West Bank. In other words, the process of transfer of authority from the Israeli military and civil administration in the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT) to the PNA should continue.
The talks which were resumed in Cairo in July 1994 over early empowerment reflected an Israeli inclination to preserve an upper hand in all the spheres to be transferred to the Palestinians. Why? It seems that the Israeli negotiators and their leadership fail to understand that this process, according to its terms of reference, should ultimately put an end to the Israeli occupation and lead to a situation whereby the Palestinians will govern themselves by themselves and for themselves. It further seems that the security argument has become so elastic in the eyes of the Israeli negotiators that they are demanding the right of veto and control over many aspects of Palestinian life. This, in effect, will enable them to keep on enjoying the privileges of occupation even in an era supposed to be one of peace following the long Israeli occupation of Palestinian land.
This Israeli approach must change. The new era that has been launched should be defined by a change in relationships: from the victorious and the defeated, to equal partners trying to establish strong and stable foundations for future relations between two states - Israel and Palestine - based on co-existence, equality, mutual respect and mutual recognition.
A change in this approach will not only promote the progress of talks over the full transfer of more powers and authorities from the Israeli administration in the West Bank to the PNA, it will also facilitate the running of elections in order to lay down the foundations for a Palestinian democratic system, including the building of democratic institutions and traditions to be observed in the future.
It could be argued that the Cairo Agreement did not make any mention of elections in the area of the PNA. Yet, for all concerned, the Declaration of Principles (DOP) reached in Oslo, September 1993, should continue to be the point of reference for the demand to run elections in the PNA area.
Some might speculate about the existence of a shared interest between Israel and the PNA to ignore the issue of elections. They will argue that for the PLO, elections might disturb the completion of the process of transferring its presence from exile (shatat) to the inside; and that some PLO leaders, who have invested most of their lives in the PLO, now fear elections might leave them out in the cold. Furthermore, the link between the PLO and any elected body in the PNA has not been clarified enough. Some may fear that an elected leadership in the PNA might substitute or undermine the role of the leadership of the PLO.
It is true that the issue of elections in the PNA area is a delicate matter that should be clearly defined. The executive committee of the PLO is regarded as the source of authority for the PNA Council. The PLO represents the Palestinian people inside the OPT as well as in exile (shatat), and thus will still be considered the higher body that supervises and leads the Palestinian national struggle. No elected body should dispute or conflict with the status and the role of the PLO.
Israel, on the other hand, has started to realize that elections in the PNA area mean the creation of conditions that allow free campaigning and freedom of expression. This entails, among other procedures, the withdrawal of all Israeli forces from the populated areas in the West Bank: cities, towns, villages and refugee camps. The Jewish settlements in the West Bank are located around these populated Palestinian areas, and settlers regularly drive through them. Thus, Israel can claim that the presence of the Israeli army will still be needed for the protection of these settlers.
Moreover, it was agreed in Oslo that the Palestinians of East Jerusalem would participate in the PNA elections. This necessitates that election campaigning and polling take place in East Jerusalem as well as in other parts of the PNA area. Israel is naturally interested in skirting this issue, especially when it is fervently trying to determine the status of Jerusalem on a unilateral basis, and to isolate it from the rest of the territories occupied in 1967.
These and other reasons lead many observers to the conclusion that Israel’s zeal for elections in the PNA area has cooled down considerably, and thus, for the time being at least, Palestinian and Israeli interests might coincide.
Israel imposed a closure on Jerusalem in March 1993. As a result, Palestinians from the West Bank and the Gaza Strip are barred from entering Arab Jerusalem without a special permit from the Israeli Civil Administration. This permit is seen by many observers as a visa Israel requires from Palestinians desiring to visit their religious shrines or health, educational, cultural or social institutions in the eastern part of the city occupied by Israel in 1967 and as such, considered part of the Occupied Palestinian Territories.
In Oslo, it was agreed that Jerusalem would be discussed in the second phase of the negotiations, but since the OOP, Israel has been ceaselessly tightening its grip over the city. Members of the PNA are not allowed to visit Jerusalem, not even to participate in academic or cultural activities. The process of building Jewish neighborhoods in and around the city has been enhanced. Joint efforts in this regard have been intensified between Benyamin Ben Eliezer, the Labor Minister of Housing, and Ehud Olmert, the Likud Mayor of Jerusalem.
In the Cairo Agreement of May 4, 1994, Israel acknowledged the importance of the PA institutions in East Jerusalem, their right to exist and the need to preserve them. Yet, in violation to this commitment, the Israeli Cabinet, in July 1994, reviewed a proposed law to prevent Palestinian national and political activities from taking place in the city, and passed it to be endorsed by the Knesset (the Israeli Parliament). This Israeli policy and all measures taken accordingly, raise many questions as to Israel’s real intentions. It should be clear, though, no real, stable peace can be achieved when the rights and feelings of Palestinian Muslims and Christians in the Holy Land, with Jerusalem at its center, are disregarded.
The Washington Declaration
In the wake of the Oslo OOP, it seems the Jordanians felt that they had been betrayed by the PLO, and feared that this lack of coordination between them and the PLO would mean they were being side-stepped in the peace process unless they acted fast. This fear proved to be a boon for Israel, giving it better leverage in its negotiations both with Jordan and the PLO.
Israel now assumes that it can exploit what it believes to be competition between Arafat and Hussein over who will visit Jerusalem first, in order to extract concessions from both parties over Jerusalem. Israel will try to trivialize the conflict and reduce it to a mere dispute over the holy sites while it continues to claim sovereignty over all of Jerusalem.
The question of Jerusalem was placed as an item for discussion on the agenda of the talks with Jordan which have achieved real substantive progress, and have culminated in the Hussein-Rabin summit in Washington on July 25, 1994. Accordingly, Israel will give Jordan the priority in future negotiations over the control of Islamic holy places in Jerusalem.
Although this goes in contradiction with Israel’s commitment in the OOP that the issue of Jerusalem would be debated between Israel and the PLO in the second phase of the negotiations over the final status of the OPT, the Israeli offer to Jordan could be viewed as a positive development. It represents the first Israeli concession over Jerusalem. As such, this should lead to further substantive concessions to the PLO when the issue of Jerusalem will be discussed within the framework of the negotiations on final status.
For the Palestinians, terms like "God’s sovereignty over the holy places" are nothing but cliches. For them, all Jerusalem is holy. It is part of the occupied Palestinian territories and the future capital of the Palestinian state; therefore, whatever is ultimately agreed upon between Israel and Jordan regarding the religious shrines in the city, Muslim as well as Christian, should not and will not jeopardize the Palestinian national rights to the Arab part of Jerusalem occupied in June 1967. The continued Israeli disregard of the national rights of the Palestinians over East Jerusalem will only constitute a time-bomb which is liable to go off any moment and be the cause of a violent and fierce war, not between Palestinians and Israelis, but between Muslims and Jews.
Many Palestinians would also like to see the coordination between the PLO and Jordan restored, and competition ended for the sake of Arab national rights, especially over Jerusalem. The recent historic talks between Israel and Jordan in the Arava Valley (Abronah), and the Washington Declaration should then be viewed as a positive development in the overall efforts of making peace in the Middle East. Any progress in anyone track of the peace talks should lead us closer to the comprehensive settlement. The launching of negotiations over normalization of ties between Israel and Jordan constitutes a very promising agenda for the future of the region. In fact, ending the state of war between Jordan and Israel will help the Palestinian negotiators refute Israel’s security argument to keep a substantially wide military zone along the Jordan River for the defense of Israel in the face of any military aggression from the Eastern Front. Consequently, this zone should be transferred into Palestinian hands.
No real progress was achieved in the talks which took place in Taba, and later in Cairo in the fall of 1993 and subsequent dates, to work out an agreement based on the DOP. Any advance in the discussions was stymied by the consideration of the settlers’ interests, and as a result, many substantive issues were postponed to the second phase of negotiations over the final status of the OPT.
Consequently, without solving the problem of Jewish settlements in the OPT, there will be no real chance for further progress in the peace process. Those who have worked hard to establish Jewish settlements in the OPT in order to abort any future withdrawal have - so far - achieved their goal. Something has to be done in the opposite direction to prove that peace is more desirable than settlements.
The establishment of the PNA in the Gaza Strip and Jericho represents an important step on the road to peace, and the functioning of the Palestinian police is deemed very impressive. Yet, it must be acknowledged that much time has been wasted. The structure of the PNA has to be completed immediately in order to stem the excuses proferred by the donor states to delay full financial support to the PNA. When this materializes, the daily life of the Palestinians will improve and the peace process will gain momentum.
The Israeli Government has also to accept the fact that this peace process is based on UN Resolution 242 which means trading peace for land, that is, Arab recognition in return for Israeli withdrawal from occupied Arab land. Israel cannot have both the land and the peace. Once Israel comes to terms with this fact, a different attitude will emerge regarding the talks on early empowerment, the elections, the Jewish settlements in Palestinian lands, Jerusalem and the final shape of the comprehensive settlement.
The process has started. Some progress has been made on the Palestinian¬Israeli and Jordanian-Israeli tracks; a similar progress on the Syrian track remains essential. New vision and leadership courage is needed to demonstrate that this process is irreversible.