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Can Final Peace Deal Overcome Settlements Roadblock?

As a new round of U.N.-sponsored Israeli-Arab peace negotiations fast approaches, it remains unclear how much and what kind of pressure the Obama administration is willing to exert on Israel.

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(Inter Press Service)

The Obama administration —perhaps the president himself —will reportedly be launching a new round of authoritative Palestinian-Israeli peace negotiations sometime during the upcoming U.N. General Assembly session, scheduled to start in New York on Sep tember 15.

So far, most media attention has focused on the administration’s ongoing tussle with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu over Israel’s continued settlement-building project in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem. Far less attention has been paid to prospects of the broader effort to nail down a final Palestinian-Israeli peace accord.

The issues are connected. Israel’s continued construction of its illegal settlements in the West Bank eats deeply into the territory of any future Palestinian state. Even the strongly pro-peace Mahmoud Abbas, president of the interim Palestinian Authority and head of the Palestinian Liberation Organi zation (PLO), has said he cannot take part in final-status talks unless Israel stops building the settlements.

All other Palestinian leaders and parties, including Hamas, firmly support Abbas’s position. (Abbas, has said he might “meet” with Netanyahu at the General Assembly even without a complete settlement freeze. But he has not clarified whether or not this meeting would be in the context of a negotiation .)

Israel’s nearly continuous pursuit of settlements has always been a major factor undermining Palestinians’ confidence in the  Israeli government’s good faith.

The settlement-building project is also a violation of the “Road Map” for peace drawn up in 2002 by President George W. Bush and his partners in the international ”Quartet .”

However, some seasoned analysts of Israeli-Arab negotiations argue that the main focus for Obama and all others who seek a fair and durable peace in the region should now be not the settlement-building issue, but starting —and winning —speedy completion of the negotiation for a final peace agreement (FPA).

From that perspective, any further prolongation of the fruitless tussle over the settlements can be seen both as a huge time-waster and as a growing drain on Obama’s domestic and internation al political capital.

These analysts point out that any FPA will necessarily include a demarcation of the final borders between Israel and the future Palestinian state.

Once those lines are demarcated, the issue of whether and where Israel can build new housing for its people is instantly transformed. After border demarcation, Israel can presumably build freely within its own final borders, consistent with international law.

But outside those borders not only will Israel be unable to continue its building programs , but Israeli citizens already living in those areas will rapidly come under Palestinian law.

And as the FPA goes into effect, there will be no more Israeli military occupation of the West Bank, and thus no remaining problem, under international law, regarding Israeli settlers there.

Demarcating a final border for Israel in the West Bank is something that Netanyahu and many of his allies in Israel ‘s rightwing government have long opposed . Netanyahu’s Likud party traditionally considered the whole terrain between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean —and even a stretch of land east of the Jordan —to be part of the Biblical “Land of Israel.”

In June, Netanyahu finally succumbed to U.S. pressure and expressed grudging support for a tightly circumscribed form of a Palestinian state inside the West Bank. But he and his advisers have indicated they want this state to have, in the first instance, only “provisional” borders that would be open to further modification in the future.

“Phase Two” of the 2002 Road Map in fact envisaged this kind of provisional state. But the Palestinians strongly oppose it. The strongly pro-peace Palestinian analyst Walid Salem has said that establishing such a state would “put Palestinians in a situation that some will consider an international occupation.”

Like most other thoughtful Palestinians, Salem is now urging rapid action towards securing the FPA.

Is it possible to imagine that Abbas and other Palestinian leaders might set aside their insistence on an Israeli settlement freeze for long enough to allow the negotiations over the FPA to resume?

There is a chance they might do this. But they would need to receive enough ironclad guarantees that this next round of negotiations will not end up as damaging and unsuccessful for the Palestinians as the negotiations  that Pres ident Bush launched in late 2007, with much fanfare, at Annapolis.

At Annapolis, Bush vowed he would secure an FPA before the end of his presidency. That never happened. Nor did the settlement freeze as required in the Road Map and reaffirmed at Annapolis.

The Annapolis-launched negotiation was the last in a long series, dating back to the Madrid Peace Conference in 1991, in which Palestinian leaders were promised that a final peace would rapidly be secured.

What could give the Palestinians more assurance of U.S. seriousness today than they had at Annapolis?

One clue comes from the veteran Palestinian journalist and commentator Rami Khouri, who recently wrote that any realistic attempt to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict “must affirm the rule of law as defined by U.N. resolutions and international conventions on refugee rights.”

Obama and his peace envoy George Mitchell could indeed affirm that their peace diplomacy is based on the international rule of law; they could stress that the United States has its own strong interests in an Israeli-Palestinian peace and state that it intends to use the instruments of its national power to secure that peace . These kinds of declarations could provide just the assurances the Palestinians need to return to the negotiating table.

It has, however, been a long time since any U.S. president was prepared to state openly that securing an Israeli-Palestinian peace is in the American people’s own interests. Both Pres idents Clinton and George W. Bush avoided ever stating that , although Clinton  occasionally argued that the United States “can’t want peace more than the parties themselves.”

As a result, neither he nor his successor was ever prepared to use pressure against Israel.

Now, there is reportedly a debate inside the Obama administration over how forcefully to articulate and pursue U.S. interests in securing a peace accord.

Washington Post columnist David Ignatius recently pointed out that the White House “is debating whether Obama should launch his initiative with a declaration of U.S. ‘parameters’ for a final settlement. … But Mitchell is said to favor a more gradual approach, in which Israelis and Palestinians would begin negotiations and the United States would intervene later with ‘bridging’ proposals.”

For 16 years now, Israel’s leaders have become accustomed to exercising a near-veto over any U.S. initiative in the peace diplomacy. Almost any independent initiative that Obama takes that is not cleared in advance with Netanyahu will almost certainly arouse the ire Netanyahu’s supporters in the U.S. Congress.

But how politically weighty will Netanyahu’s supporters turn out to be inside Washington? That is hard to predict. One new factor this year has been that Netanyahu received very little effective support from anywhere in Congress in his tussle with Obama over the settlements.

Veteran political analysts recogni ze that Obama has many tough battles on his hands right now. But they note he has not yet done much to spell out for U.S. or Israeli voters  the many benefits to both countries of securing a durable and final end to the long-running conflict between Israel and its neighbo rs.

Between them, Obama and Mitchell —the man who helped Northern Ireland’s warring communities end their conflict —could surely muster a lot of persuasive power. Along with adroit and focused international diplomacy, such persuasion could yet win the day.

Helena Cobban is a veteran Middle East analyst and author who reports for the Inter Press Service. She blogs at www.JustWorldNews.org.

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