Another fig leaf for deception

Appointed Palestinian Prime Authority Minister Salam Fayyad with US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in Ramallah, June 2008. (Mustafa Abu Dayeh/MaanImages)

Last Sunday, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert met with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, the last encounter planned before the former leaves office.

Olmert rebuked Abbas for meeting with Samir Kuntar who Israel recently released to Lebanon during a prisoner exchange with Hizballah.

“You are not a man of terror and I don’t expect you to meet with such a despicable killer,” Olmert told Abbas who could offer no better defense than to say that the meeting was unplanned and that Kuntar had in fact invited himself.

Abbas’ implied agreement prompted Olmert to insist “that it was still possible for the Palestinian leader not to have met with Kuntar,” and the conversation had ended there as reported in the Israeli daily Haaretz.

Kuntar was indeed convicted of killing three Israelis in 1979, and therefore he is, in Israeli eyes, a “despicable killer.” But he was at the time fighting on the side of a Palestinian revolution of which Abbas was a founder and a leader. One wonders, therefore, if Abbas, while struggling before Olmert to hide his embarrassment from his blunder of meeting Kuntar, could not think of that, or of the many thousands of Palestinians who were butchered since 1979, and before, by Israelis whom he, Abbas, has been repeatedly meeting, entertaining, hugging and kissing.

And how many other Palestinian “terrorists” should Abbas be obliged to avoid to save himself additional embarrassments with Israelis in the future?

Prior to the meeting, Haaretz reported that Olmert was to present a bold new idea: “international involvement in the negotiations over one of the core issues on the agenda — Jerusalem” (“Olmert to press Abbas to accept framework for two-state solution,” Haaretz, 30 August).

Olmert’s proposal was not for a solution to the question of Jerusalem, but to agree to “a mechanism for discussing the issue of Jerusalem and delay the substantive talks on the subject to the future.” There would be a “five-year timetable for completing a settlement on Jerusalem.” And Israel would agree to “international involvement,” something it has long resisted, in resolving one of the toughest issues in the conflict.

US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who described the plan as “very generous for the Palestinians,” had discussed it separately with both Olmert and Abbas on her visit a few days before. After they met, Olmert and Abbas did not refer to these new ideas but only repeated their shop-worn commitment to reaching a final agreement by the end of the year. Yet even if there was no public commitment to Olmert’s new plan, it is worth examining it in detail, first because the Israelis have not abandoned it and, second, because it represents the most generous and creative Israeli thinking and thus provides us with an insight as to what an agreement might look like from an Israeli perspective.

On the very basis of the Haaretz report, Olmert’s suggestion of “international involvement” is highly misleading. Olmert’s proposal refers to such an international role only with respect to the “holy sites” in Jerusalem and not to Jerusalem itself. This looks like a fresh attempt to pass what was presented and rejected at Camp David in 2000: a fake international umbrella for the holy sites — meaning specifically the Haram al-Sharif area — to provide cover for a murky arrangement that would allow permanent Israeli sovereignty over the site.

According to Haaretz, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat “argued at Camp David that he does not have a mandate to decide the future of the holy sites — which are important to the entire Muslim world and rejected the offer of then prime minister Ehud Barak to divide Jerusalem.”

The insinuation here is that Arafat’s objection to “dividing the city” was only because he did not have a mandate and, therefore, providing the current Palestinian Authority leader with some kind of an international cover — a mandate — might help secure an agreement. Hence, “Olmert’s proposal is meant to gain broad backing for the Palestinian leadership’s decisions and prevent any collapse of the agreement because of opposition from other countries and religious groups,” the newspaper said.

But neither the Olmert plan nor the alleged “international involvement” are meant to actually lead to a solution any time soon. Olmert has asserted, time and again, that the issue of Jerusalem has to be deferred to a later stage to meet the conditions of his extremist coalition partners (who loudly denounced even his latest plan). Olmert has also implied that Abbas has agreed to defer the issue of Jerusalem despite Abbas’ vehement denunciations of any suggestion of further postponing final status issues.

The envisaged international participants include the Quartet, Jordan, Egypt, the Vatican and possibly the king of Morocco. It is hard to comprehend what Israel would expect from the Arab partners and possibly the Vatican in a situation like this. Equally incomprehensible is any hope that they would even consider providing cover for such Israeli gimmicks.

Neither do Palestinians have reason to trust any interim agreement which simply gives Israel more time to impose facts on the ground while the so-called “international community” sits by doing nothing, or more usually actively aiding and abetting Israel’s crimes. They also know that the initial “five-year” interim period for negotiating a final agreement that began in 1994 after the Oslo accords has now stretched to 14 years with no end in sight.

It is well-known that Israel never wanted real international involvement in any aspect of the conflict since it began. With time, Israel managed to restrict any substantive involvement to the United States whose positions are usually identical to Israel’s since Israel always has the privilege of shaping, approving and vetoing all American proposals before they are presented. Israel has also allowed a limited role for the EU, but only since that body has been similarly domesticated.

The Quartet itself provides a prime example of how real international involvement has been kept away. This ad hoc body includes the United States, Russia, the European Union and the United Nations. But how can the UN, a world body of almost 200 countries, be reduced to one mere member of a committee along with states that are also members of the UN? The Quartet exists only to provide fake UN involvement and cover for a US-controlled enterprise while dozens of UN decisions on the question of Palestine are ignored. As such, UN participation in the Quartet remains an indelible stain on the body’s record, dignity and credibility.

The fresh reference to international involvement is no more than a new variation of this kind of deception: a device to try to cloak Israeli colonization in international legitimacy, another five-year “interim” period stretching to eternity, and a renewed “peace process” just for Jerusalem (will each of the other final status issues also now get its own, separate and endless peace process)?

We can also add “shelf agreement” to the lexicon of deception, including “agreement of understanding,” “declaration of principles” and all the other empty and recycled formulas that have prolonged the life of the futile negotiations while Israel’s systematic destruction of Palestine continues undisturbed by any of this activity.

The closer we are to the end of the Bush administration the clearer it becomes that there will be no fulfillment of the repeated promises of a Palestinian state. This stark reality is becoming the uncontested conclusion of many of those who confidently wagered on the American “commitment.” Yet many are still unwilling to come to terms with reality and change their approach. They still look for a fig leaf to cover their exposure.

The Olmert plan — apparently endorsed by Rice — is not to be taken seriously. At best it will provide the participants with something to present at the UN gathering in September in order to pretend they made progress. It will also provide their successors with an empty process to latch on to, by which to evade their responsibilities for the plight of the Palestinians as all others have done before them.

Despite the fact that the new Olmert plan has been rejected by the Palestinian Authority, it is unlikely that more arm twisting will not occur at the UN General Assembly meetings in New York this month to get them to agree on a new “declaration of commitment” on Olmert’s proposals.

Hasan Abu Nimah is the former permanent representative of Jordan at the United Nations. This article first appeared in The Jordan Times and is reprinted with the author’s permission.