2000 Must Be the Year of Independent Palestine 

            At the beginning of the year 2000 - with a little bit more than a month to go for the conclusion of a framework agreement for a final settlement between the Palestinian and Israeli sides and with a little bit more than 8 months to go for the achievement of that final settlement - the landscape of the Palestinian-Israeli track of the Middle East peace process does not appear to be that promising.  True, the Sharm el-Sheikh Memorandum is still being implemented, including the late implementation of the second stage of Israeli redeployment and the agreement of the parties with regard to the 3rd stage, which is to take place on the 20th of January, presumably this time after thorough consultations on the land involved.  However, the Israeli government continues with its illegal and destructive settlement activities and seems to be putting aside other important aspects of the Sharm el-Sheikh Memorandum. 

            These include, for instance, the opening of the northern safe passage and the outstanding economic and financial issues.  Further, negotiations regarding the 3rd phase of redeployment have not led to any results and the Committee on the return of Palestinian displaced persons has not even convened. 

In addition to all of the above, which is related to the transitional period, are the positions about the final settlement that are being vocalized by high-level Israeli officials, including the head of the Israeli team for the permanent settlement negotiations.  These have been unreasonable, unacceptable positions, such as the wish to maintain a number of Israeli settlements, to annex parts of the occupied territory to Israel and to control the borderline with both Jordan and Egypt, in addition to extreme positions related to Jerusalem and Palestine refugees.

            While these positions might reflect bargaining tactics, they also reflect a dangerous line of thinking and illegal ambitions on the Israeli side.  The fact remains that the Israeli side, even with the current government, has been heavily engaged in attempts to “reduce” the expectations of the Palestinian side and even the expectations of parts of the international community.  The Israeli side has actively promoted the fallacy that the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is a conflict over the West Bank, which translates into the need for a compromise on that piece of land.   In reality though the conflict was and still is about Mandated Palestine. 

It is true that the parties, with the beginning of the Oslo process, recognized each other and accepted Security Council resolution 242 (1967) as the basis for their peace process.  Thus, the parties agreed to settle the geographic dimension in a way that requires total Israeli withdrawal from the Palestinian territory it occupied in the 1967 war – that is total Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank, including Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip.  This in itself is the huge compromise being made by the Palestinian side as this territory comprises only about 22% of Mandated Palestine. 

            There are other basic aspects of the conflict that still need to be addressed and solved through the negotiations and they indeed involve the conflict over the whole of Mandated Palestine.  First, there are the aspects embodied in the partition plan of General Assembly resolution 181 (II).   While the Palestinian side is not seeking the borders of the Palestinian State as allocated in the resolution, the resolution nevertheless provides the legal basis for the existence of the two states – Palestine and Israel – and it requires resolving thorny issues related to the territory occupied by Israel in the war of 1948. 

Secondly, and somewhat linked to the partition resolution, is the important issue of Jerusalem.  Of importance with regard to Jerusalem is not only the issue of sovereignty over parts of the city, which is subject to Security Council resolution 242, but also issues such as international guarantees on freedom of access as well as the interests of parties other than the Palestinian and Israeli sides. 

The third aspect concerns the rights of the Palestine refugees, who now number around 4 million Palestinians, constituting the oldest and largest refugee problem in today’s world.  A solution for this problem must be based on General Assembly resolution 194 (III), which reiterates the principle right for any refugee - that is the right to return to one’s home and property or to compensation for those who choose not to return.  This, of course, has nothing to do with the right of every Palestinian to come to the Palestinian State and to become a Palestinian citizen.  It is also understood that new facts are already in place on the ground, with all the ensuing practical limitations.  But the principles remain the same: the rights of the refugees and the Israeli legal, moral, and practical responsibilities in this regard. 

 These three issues are important issues that Israel must come to terms with in addition, of course, to coming to terms with the fact that the conflict is not about the West Bank.  A critical change in the current thinking of the Israeli leadership is required if a lasting settlement is to be reached.  This is totally different than an imposed settlement, which would ensure only serious and ongoing troubles down the road. 

In addition to the above, it must be understood that the current peace process and its transitional period are not open-ended.  That period effectively ended on 4 May 1999, at which point a firm international consensus emerged that an extension of one year should be sufficient enough for the two sides to conclude a final settlement.  This was clearly indicated by the U.S. administration in President Clinton’s letter to President Arafat, by the EU Summit in the Berlin Statement, by the G-8 in the Cologne Statement, and finally by the parties themselves, who agreed to conclude a final settlement by September 2000. 

This is not optional.  The Palestinian side can never accept perpetual transition and will always maintain the right to take actions consistent with the established time limit.  In this regard, the U.N. Millennium Summit, which will take place in September 2000, with all that it symbolizes for the whole international community, represents an additional and natural deadline for achieving a final settlement.  As repeatedly expressed by the Palestinian side, Palestine must participate as a U.N. Member State in the Summit, which should represent a new beginning for the Middle East. 

A word now about the Israeli-Syrian track of the peace process, resumed in earnest at the end of 1999 and the beginning of 2000.  This, no doubt, has been good news for the Middle East peace process as a whole.  Success and progress on this track will have a clear positive impact on the Palestinian track for obvious reasons, not the least of which are the reconfirmation of the inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by force and the correlating principle of land for peace.  Further in this regard is the important reaffirmation of the meaning of Security Council resolution 242 as calling for full withdrawal from the occupied territories.  Additionally, is the effect of a generally more positive atmosphere in the region as a whole.  

            Israel will most probably attempt, on a tactical basis, to use to its advantage the fact that these are two separate tracks and more importantly the lack of Palestinian-Syrian coordination, something which we are hopeful will start soon.  On the inter-Arab front, the resumption of the Syrian track revealed two negative points however.  One was the absence of a reference in the Syrian political statement to the Palestinian question as the central question in the Arab-Israeli conflict.  The second was the delay in the resumption of the Lebanese track.            

In short, the resumption of the Syrian-Israeli negotiations is welcome and must be supported.  It does not compete, however, with the Palestinian track and it cannot, simply since the Question of Palestine is the crux of the Arab-Israeli conflict.  We look forward to seeing an improved Arab front with a reasonable level of consultation and coordination for the sake of all Arabs, and we look forward to continued commitment of the international community to ensure the success of the Middle East peace process for the sake of the region as a whole.