When two conflicting parties work towards reaching a ceasefire, they usually do this in the context of a political agreement and they seek also to have guarantees from a third party or more that can secure its implementation.
Therefore, Sharon’s decision on a unilateral ceasefire issued on May 22, 2001, which came immediately after the publishing of the recommendations of Mitchell’s Report, comes to serve several goals, mainly his desire to outline the course of later developments within the Israeli context of interpreting the report and push matters towards exerting international pressures on the Palestinian side and demanding a reciprocal response to Sharon step. This move makes one believe that the situation is a military fight between two armies, but the matter of the fact is otherwise.
As part of his public relations campaign and in order to cover up the aggression policy against the Palestinian people and their leadership, Sharon made his announcement on the ceasefire which aims to dictate an incomplete mechanism in the implementation of the recommendations of Mitchell’s Report and towards isolating this mechanism from any political move that can confront the colonialist expansionist settlement activities on the Palestinian lands.
Without having an agreed upon political goal regarding the ceasefire suggested by Sharon and without accepting the principle of international participation and supervision, it is impossible for his “national unity” government and his partner Shimon Peres to achieve progress towards serious and effective negotiations that can end the current crisis. These two conditions have been historically present in all balanced agreements that were reached between the conflicting parties expect in the case of the surrender of one party, and it seems that Sharon wants the Palestinian people and President Arafat to surrender.
Therefore, one has to look carefully at the reservations presented by the Israeli government on Mitchell’s Report and at the meaning of its acceptance to the Report and the Israeli context of interpreting the Report because this will shed light on nature of future steps of the Israeli government, on the one hand, and because this will give a chance to consider the means of confronting the ramifications of its decision at the internal and international level.
The Palestinian Leadership insists on dealing with Mitchell’s Report as one package and on the basis of halting all settlement activities, including those activities under the pretext of natural growth of settlements, ending the aggression and siege imposed on the Palestinian people, finding an international mechanism to implement its recommendations and supervise them. However, the Israeli government expressed its reservations through the statements of its officials, mainly Arek Sharon, who insisted on fragmenting the recommendations of the report and deal with item separately through achieving a ceasefire as a first step and then having a “period of truce” for at least two months and after that holding a discussion over confidence building measures while the fourth stage would be the return to the negotiating table.
This tactic based on partition and fragmentation is an old Israeli negotiating tactic which was used several times in previous negotiations. Rabin’s government used this tactic to fragment the implementation of Resolution 242 and the same happened in Oslo Accord, and later in the agreement on implementing redeployment of the Israeli army in the Palestinian lands in three phases instead of one phase. Netanyahu’s government used the fragmentation tactic in the Wye Plantation Agreement when it divided the third phase of redeployment into additional phases, and still the third phase has never been implemented. Later, Barak’s government used the same tactic in negotiations over the issues of the final settlement in order to conduct bargains on them. Recently, the same tactic was used with the Jordanian-Egyptian Initiative where Israel tried to dismantle it into three independent parts. Now, Israel is using the same tactic in dealing with Mitchell’s Report in order to empty the report from any meaningful context.
It is clear, therefore, that the gap between the Palestinian and Israeli positions regarding the dealing with Mitchell’s Report is very wide and contains substantial obstacles that the parties cannot overcome. Sharon’s government wants total separation between the call to halt violence and the call to halt settlement activities in Mitchell’s Report. This government wants also a period of testing to the Palestinian National Authority. The first period was called calm and the second period was called confidence building. The Israeli government wants through these two periods to present a series of conditions and security demands, such as arresting all old wanted Palestinians and the newly wanted during the current Intifada, stopping the so-called incitement, gathering weapons, restoring security coordination through offering security services to the occupation and halt all kinds of operations, especially the suicide operations, etc. and only after achieving a period of total calm, according to Sharon, one can talk about settlements and then move to the negotiations phase.
The Israeli demands aim basically at steps towards calm and testing periods and a return to the well-known slogan of Netanyahu: “you give, you take; you don’t give, you don’t take” and god knows what will happen after. This actually means that Sharon’s formula to halt violence first might not achieve anything meaningful for the Palestinians in the period after the calm period.
It is clear that Sharon will try all means in order not to reach to the negotiations table except if he finds that he achieved matters for his gain from the start because in this way he will guarantee political and strategic success in the later stages. He knows in advance that any agreement with the Palestinian side, even if it is a partial agreement, will lead to the collapse of his alliance with the extremist Zionist right wing parties, thus threatening with a collapse of his government, which was considered one of the major “unifying” achievements in the history of the state of Israel. Therefore, he will work on benefiting from the experiences of his predecessors Yitzhak Shamir and Benjamin Netanyahu. Shamir’s government collapsed in 1992 after he went to Madrid negotiations and when the extremist right-wing parties moved away from him. Netanyahu’s government collapsed after he signed Wye Plantation in 1999 and for the same reasons. Therefore, Sharon will try not to reach any agreement with the Palestinians. He will use the slogan of halting violence first and the two periods of calm and confidence building in order to achieve this goal which is in total harmony with his ideological positions that oppose the peace process and which rule out any possibility to reach peace with Arabs at this stage at least.
Sharon wants to end the Intifada without paying any price under the pretext of not rewarding Palestinian terrorism, which finds approval at the US side. The US, through its Secretary of State Colin Powell, welcomed Mitchell’s Report but stressed that there is no connection between halting violence and the text about halting settlements. The issue of settlements, according to Powell, must be tackled between both sides, which really means finding a compromise solution to be negotiated by both parties and not to implement the recommendation in Mitchell’s Report. It seems that the task of the two US Envoys Ambassador William Burns and Ambassador Martin Indyk and Consul General Ronald Schlieker, who were assigned to follow up the implementation of the Committee’s recommendations with the concerned parties, is to focus on finding such a formula and define the period of calm, its duration and security needs and formulate a new “framework agreement” that includes these conditions. Israel welcomed these ideas and considered them in support to its positions.
Based on all this, we are standing now in front of two contradicting interpretations to the recommendations of Mitchell’s Report. There is the US-backed Israeli interpretation which tries to limit the recommendations to the issue of ending the so-called Palestinian terrorism and isolate them from any future political moves or international participation. The Palestinian interpretation, which is receiving Arab-European and international support, tries to use the recommendations in Mitchell’s Report to establish a political move that is based on total halt of all settlement activities, including the activities in Jerusalem, and to stress on the principle of international participation when implementing these recommendations.
Faced with the current reality, one can conclude that the Palestinian support to the recommendations of Mitchell’s Report entails dangers that emanate from the Israeli core reservations and from the predicted US pressures, regarding the possibility of reaching an amended version that can take into consideration the reservation and the pressures, especially when it is linked to the so-called “Peres Formula” for halting settlements, which really means keeping the situation as is without any change.
During his press conference on May 22, 2001, Sharon admitted that the settlements have adequate space and areas for purposes of growth and development. The structural and zoning scheme of “Ma’ale Adumim” Settlement, for example, is bigger than Tel Aviv scheme. The area of land that was confiscated at different points in time for various reasons exceeds 50% of the West Bank area and around 40% of the area of Gaza Strip. Moreover, there are several settlement sites that are some kms away from the original settlement but are considered part of it and they can construct in the areas between them. There are more than 20,000 empty housing units in the existing settlements. This shows that the Israeli government does not need to confiscate additional Arab lands because they already did in the past years. And these settlements can maintain their unity in the context of “Peres Formula” because this formula does not force any commitments on it. But they do forget deliberately the long overdue commitments regarding withdrawing from these lands and returning them to their original owners.
The Palestinian negotiator has committed a grave mistake when he accepted from the start of negotiations to delay the issue of settlements till the final stage. Dr. Nabil Sha’th, Minister of Planning and International Cooperation, admitted this fact in statements he issued on May 14, 2001, when he talked about the mistake of the PA in not linking the continuation of negotiations with the halt of settlements and that negotiations should not have continued in light of continuation of settlements. If we go back to the period when the negotiations started ten years ago, and to the first Palestinian negotiating plan that was based on three principles: 1- halting settlements; 2- implementing Geneva Convention on the Palestinian territories; 3- securing international protection. We can easily discover that surpassing these three principles throughout the past years could not minimize their importance and the need to implement them and that they are still valid and necessary at the present time for the success of any future negotiations.
Regardless of what is being said and what has been said, halting settlement activities is an Israeli practical recognition that the Palestinian lands are occupied territories and not disputed territories and therefore they should withdraw from them. In addition, halting settlements is a guarantee for practical linkage between the interim and final phases in preparation for demarcating the borders and total withdrawal and achieving full sovereignty. Therefore, there is no harm in continuation of negotiations and Palestinian struggle if settlement activities are halted, which means moving away from the pressure of settlement expansion and the gradual decrease of land and scope of sovereignty.
Therefore, it is necessary to view the recommendations in Mitchell’s Report and the Jordanian-Egyptian Initiative from a realistic perspective and see the positive aspects and the negative aspects and not limit positions to rejecting or accepting them. It is also necessary for the Palestinian side to have an internal agreement on clear and specific goals that maintain a solid national unity and Arab strong relations and good international relations. There is also a need to have a rational political rhetoric to address the Israeli public opinion and work towards using the recommendations and initiate towards developing an Arab and international position that can exert pressure on the Israeli government.
The matter now depends on the manner of Palestinian dealing with emerging political reality and in the extent of clinging to the Palestinian official position regarding the recommendations and in insisting on confronting Sharon-Peres formula on halting Palestinian violence because nothing will come after it, or even in the best scenarios go to new interim negotiations according to the 42% formula or the long-term interim solution that is posed by the Israeli PM.
There is a need and a potential to set up a complete national program that can address the means to reinforce the Intifada and the masses’ participation in reinforcing the Palestinian political position regarding liberation, including the support to the struggle against settlements and tightening the siege around it. This matter requires genera national contributions from the various forces, social groups, institutions, municipalities, trade unions, official circles and NGOs, a contribution that can realize the Palestinian interpretation of the recommendations in Mitchell’s Report and reinforce the front of popular moves against settlements in order to transfer it into a Palestinian-Arab-international front, and deepen the roots of the Intifada and improve performance at all levels and expedite struggle towards a just and comprehensive peace based on the implementation of international legitimacy resolutions.
In this way, we can frustrate the schemes of Sharon.
Hanna Amireh is Member of the General Secretariat of the Palestinian People’s Party.