President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu appear on the surface to have found common ground in agreeing on the need to end the 120 years old conflict between Arabs and Jews by creating a new Arab State between Israel and Jordan.
However any basis for optimism on this score following their major speeches within ten days of each other is sorely misplaced.
Their apparent unanimity of purpose must be compared to the euphoria greeting similar expeditions undertaken by former President Clinton and Prime Minister Barak in 2000-2001 and President Bush with Prime Ministers Sharon and Olmert between 2003-2008 in concert with the Palestinian Authority - an artificial entity created by the Oslo Accords in 1993.
Both sets of negotiations went nowhere and got nowhere. Those negotiations occurred for the most part under far more favourable political conditions than now exist.
The current power struggle for control of the Palestinian Authority between Hamas and Fatah,the division of power in Gaza and the West Bank between these two foes and their seeming inability to bury their differences represent major obstacles to the successful conclusion of any negotiating process between the Palestinian Authority and Israel and its subsequent maintenance and enforcement.
Even if Hamas and Fatah were to suddenly overcome their differences tomorrow Israel would not want to deal with a unified West Bank/Gaza government in which Hamas was a member.
Mr. Netanyahu’s conditions for agreeing to the creation of this additional Arab state require that it
(i) be demilitarized ,
(ii) have to accept Jerusalem remaining the united capital of Israel
(iii) have to agree to Israel having defensible borders
(iv) have to recognise Israel as the national homeland of the Jewish people
(v) have to settle the problem of the Palestinian refugees outside the borders of Israel.
(vi) have no control over air space or sea lanes
It didn’t take long for senior Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat to express his disbelief at this shopping list when he declared:
“Netanyahu will have to wait 1000 years for someone to agree to talk to him”
There was anger in the Arab world that Netanyahu should be publicly laying down his conditions in advance in an attempt to define the parameters of any future negotiations.
Yet the Arabs had publicly laid down their conditions for the acceptance of such a state in 1967 and haven’t changed or varied their negotiating position since then in demanding that
(i) such state be established on the entire area of land lost by Jordan and Egypt to Israel in 1967
(ii) Jerusalem be its capitol
(iii) millions of Arabs and their descendants be permitted to migrate to Israel.
Refusing to accept anything less has been the root cause of the breakdown of the previous two negotiating processes.
With the parties even further apart in their demands now in the face of Mr Netanyahu’s stated position - President Obama risks the real danger of failing to get the parties to the negotiating table at all.
In attempting to coax the Palestinian Authority to the negotiating table Obama tersely told Israel:
“The United States does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements.”
No attempt was made by President Obama to explain the basis for his making this statement.
He surely could not be ignorant of the provisions of the League of Nations Mandate for Palestine 1922 which gave recognition to the right of close settlement by Jews in the West Bank This internationally sanctioned legal right did not die with the League of Nations but was expressly preserved by Article 80 of the United Nations Charter and remains as legitimate today as when it was first promulgated in 1922 .
Indeed the right to settle in the West Bank was exercised by Jews prior to 1948 and was only then abruptly halted after those Jews still living there were driven out following Jordan’s occupation of the West Bank during the War of Independence. Jewish settlement in the West Bank was not resumed until Jordan lost the West Bank to Israel in the Six Day War in 1967.
United Nations records attest to the critical importance of Article 80.
On 8 May 1947, Rabbi Abba Silver representing the Jewish Agency addressed the First (Political) Committee of the United Nations and he had this to say about Article 80:
“The Mandate [for Palestine], in its preamble, recognises “the historical connection of the Jewish people with Palestine” and “the grounds for reconstituting” - I call your attention to the word “reconstituting” -“their national home in that country”.
These international commitments of a quarter of a century ago, which flowed from the recognition of historic rights and present needs, and upon which so much has already been built in Palestine by the Jewish people, cannot now be erased. You cannot turn back the hands of the clock of history.
Certainly, the United Nations, guided by the great principle proclaimed in its Charter, “to establish conditions under which justice and respect for the obligations arising from treaties and other sources of international law can be maintained”, can never sanction the violation of treaties and of international law.
With this situation and similar situations in mind, a specific provision, you will recall, was written into the chapter of the Charter of the United Nations which deals with territories which might become trusteeship territories, and which is therefore especially applicable to territories now under mandate. This is Article 80 of the Charter…”
In evidence given to the United Nations Special Committee on Palestine on 7 July 1947, David Ben Gurion as a representative of the Jewish Agency said of Article 80:
“This is the special Article of the Charter which applies to Palestine. It was introduced only because of Palestine.”
President Obama’s claim denying the legitimacy of the settlements therefore flies in the face of the Mandate and the United Nations Charter. He needs to justify his stance with a statement far more explanatory and detailed than his one line throwaway.
American Presidents never seem to learn from the failure of their predecessors. President Obama appears hell bent on joining them in pursing their failed goal of creating a new Arab state between Jordan and Israel.
That has proved for past Presidents - and will continue to prove for President Obama- to be simply unachievable.