‘Two states for two nations’?

by our Arab Affairs Correspondent

PALESTINIAN-Israeli peace talks begin this week amid growing tension in the occupied West Bank following the killing of four Zionist settlers by Hamas guerrillas and an inflammatory sermon from a senior Israeli rabbi calling for Palestinians to be destroyed by a divine plague.

Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, a former chief rabbi, called on God to strike down Palestinian “evil haters of Israel” during his Sabbath sermon last weekend and, while few outside his own demented flock believe that his prayers will be answered, the fact that he is the founder of the extremist Shas party, which is part of Netanyahu’s coalition government, has embarrassed Netanyahu as much as it has enraged the Palestinians.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas was directly named by the rabbi as worthy of divine wrath and his supporters, who control the “autonomous” Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, have condemned the sermon “for increasing the hatred and deepening the racist attitude among Israeli society”. Many of them also believe the Palestinian guerrilla attack was deliberately timed by the Palestinian Muslim Brotherhood to sabotage the peace negotiations before they even start.

Few think much will come from the talks. Though the Obama administration made strenuous efforts to get both sides round the table, the Netanyahu government is not prepared to even accept the minimum Palestinian demands for a two-state solution and Americans show no sign that they are willing to impose a settlement if the talks breakdown.

While a trade-off for the Zionist settlements, which Israel seeks to retain for good, seems to have already been settled, the question of Arab Jerusalem and the right of return for the millions of Palestinian refugees is a bridge no Israeli government has been prepared to seriously cross to obtain a “final settlement” and end the conflict.

But American and Palestinian officials have been unusually upbeat this week. Abbas and American special envoy George Mitchell say a peace deal is possible within the one-year deadline the US President has set for the conclusion of negotiations. And there’s increased speculation that the Americans will push for further interim or “staged” agreements even if a “final” peace treaty remains elusive.

Perhaps this is why Labour leader Ehud Barak, Defence Minister in the Netanyahu coalition, has now publicly floated the idea of creating a special zone within the Holy City to cover the shrines and handing back part of Arab East Jerusalem to the Palestinians as part of a settlement.

Twelve Jewish “neighbourhoods” — Zionist settlements built in Arab east Jerusalem — would remain in Israel’s hands. But the “Arab neighbourhoods in which close to a quarter million Palestinians live will be theirs,” he told the influential Israeli daily, Haaretz [The Land].

Barak called for: “Two states for two nations; an end to the conflict and the end of all future demands; the demarcation of a border that will run inside the Land of Israel, and within that border will lie a solid Jewish majority for generations and on the other side will be a demilitarised Palestinian state but one that will be viable politically, economically, and territorially; keeping the settlement blocs in our hands; retrieving and relocating the isolated settlements into the settlement blocs or within Israel; a solution to the refugee problem [whereby refugees return to] the Palestinian state or are rehabilitated by international aid; comprehensive security arrangements and a solution to the Jerusalem problem”.

Netanyahu always says that Jerusalem is “indivisible” though it is plainly divided along ethnic lines. But General Barak is no light-weight. He was premier from 1999 to 2001 and led the Israeli side during the abortive Camp David talks with Yasser Arafat in 2000. But whether he was speaking on behalf of Netanyahu is one thing and whether it’s enough to get the peace ball rolling again is another.