by our Arab Affairs correspondent
GORDON BROWN held talks in Downing Street with Israeli premier Benjamin Netanyahu on Tuesday. But while the two leaders exchanged views on the “peace process” several hundred protesters gathered across the road with placards supporting Free Gaza and branding Netanyahu a “war-criminal”.
Apart from the usual exchange of platitudes little was gained from the meeting at No 10. Nor was much expected from it. Netanyahu, who met US Middle East envoy George Mitchell for further talks at the Park Lane Hotel in London the following day, is trying to head off American demands for a total freeze on Zionist settlements in the occupied West Bank as a sweetener for new talks with the Palestinians.
The Israelis are offering a “compromise” package - easing the travel restrictions around the Palestinian administrative capital of Ramallah and other parts of the West Bank to revive the local economy and halting the expansion of the settlements apart from what they call “Greater Jerusalem”. Whether this will be enough to tempt Palestinian President and Fatah leader Mahmoud Abbas back into the merry-go-round of the “peace process” is another matter.
Abbas has two problems. He’s got to bring Hamas and the Gaza Strip they control back into the fold and restore Palestinian unity while, at the same time, demonstrating that he is capable of standing up to American and Israeli demands in any future peace talks.
Talks in Egypt to end the conflict with Hamas are continuing though nothing concrete has been agreed so far between the two rival Palestinian factions. But Abbas has launched a wider initiative of his own by tabling a new plan to establish an independent Palestinian state with or without Israeli agreement within the next two years.
This new state would claim authority over the entire West Bank and Gaza Strip with Arab East Jerusalem as its capital. Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad unveiled the plan on Tuesday and said: “We will establish the basic infrastructure of the Palestinian statehood. We should take the initiative and spare no efforts to make it a fact on the ground”. Fayyad said part of it would include the building of an international airport in the West Bank and a railway link to other Arab countries while stressing that security, economic and institutional reforms are cornerstones of the plan. While Abbas can bank on Saudi and oil prince money for all these ambitious developments it is difficult to see how he could extend Palestinian authority beyond the Gaza Strip and the existing West Bank autonomous zones without Israeli agreement.
The Israelis, or at least the Netanyahu’s hard-line coalition in Tel Aviv, have made it clear that while they are prepared to consider land-swaps with the Palestinians “Greater Jerusalem”, which includes a wide swathe in the centre of the West Bank, is not negotiable.
They’ve repeated the long-standing Israeli position that none of the Palestinian refugees will be allowed to return to their homes in what is now Israel apart from a small fraction who have relatives amongst the Israeli Arab population and that the only Palestinian state they would ever accept is one which would be totally demilitarised and therefore, totally at the mercy of the Israeli army.
Abbas is hoping that US imperialism’s fear of a resurgent nuclear-armed Iran - a fear shared in Tel Aviv - will speed American plans for a feudal Arab anti-Iranian bloc and tip the balance in favour of the Palestinians at the negotiating table.
But until the Israelis, and more importantly the Americans who hold their purse-strings, accept that there can be no comprehensive Middle East settlement without recognising the Palestinian right of return, all hopes for an end to the conflict will just be pipe-dreams.