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September 13, 2010 11:09 pm

Middle East: Potholed road to Palestine

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Barack Obama launches a new push for peace

The search for peace has unsettled the region and confounded the world for six decades. Now, US President Barack Obama has taken up the challenge, launching a new round of negotiations in Washington this month. Benjamin Netanyahu, Israeli prime minister, and Mahmoud Abbas, Palestinian Authority president, are due to meet again on Tuesday in the Egyptian resort of Sharm el-Sheikh for further talks. Below are the “final status” issues that will have to be resolved for a Palestinian state to be created alongside Israel.

These ultra-sensitive issues, the tumultuous history of the peace process and the dire realities on the ground – including the building of Israeli settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, and the separation barrier erected by Israel – give many observers cause for pessimism.

Previous negotiations have led to a growing consensus among international diplomats over the shape of a pact. It involves a Palestinian state with borders close to the lines that existed before the 1967 war, with differences stemming from the Israeli annexation of settlement blocs made up with land swaps, and a resolution to the refugee problem through compensation rather than repatriation. For now, however, a rightwing Israeli government and a divided Palestinian leadership appear far from agreeing such a deal. Trust between Israelis and Palestinians erodes further with every new wave of violence, while – as maps of the West Bank and East Jerusalem show – the expansion of Jewish settlements continues to undermine prospects for creating a contiguous and viable Palestinian state.

West bank map THUMBNAIL

West bank map THUMBNAIL

Jerusalem map THUMBNAIL

Jerusalem map THUMBNAIL

Israel and surround THUMBNAIL

Israel and surround THUMBNAIL

FRAUGHT ISSUES TO BE RESOLVED

Borders

The Palestinians want an independent state in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, with Arab East Jerusalem as its capital. This would mean Israel withdrawing to the de facto borders that were in place before the 1967 war.

Israeli rightwingers, who regard all the territory between the Mediterranean and the river Jordan as Jewish, reject such a move. Even moderate Israelis want to modify the 1967 borders to encompass some of the Jewish settlements that have mushroomed in the West Bank over the past four decades and hold on to what Israel considers strategically important areas overlooking Israeli population centres.

The Palestinians generally accept that the 1967 borders will have to be altered marginally but want to be compensated with equivalent land elsewhere – for example, by an expansion of the overcrowded Gaza Strip. Veteran negotiators tend to see the issue of borders as the easiest to resolve, so it often features prominently in the early stages of peace talks.

Settlements

About 500,000 Jewish settlers live in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem. Their presence – and the continuing growth of settlements – is considered by international diplomats as one of the biggest obstacles to a peace agreement.

For a Palestinian state to be viable, many of these settlements would have to be uprooted, a step that would be politically difficult for any Israeli government and, some fear, would plunge the country into crisis.

Diplomats distinguish three kinds of settlement: those in East Jerusalem; those located close to the 1967 border; and those deep inside the West Bank. The last category creates the biggest problem, because these outliers make a contiguous Palestine impossible and are often home to the most ideologically committed settlers.

Jerusalem

Israeli forces occupied Arab East Jerusalem in the 1967 Middle East war, ending almost two decades of Jordanian control of eastern neighbourhoods including the Old City.

Unlike the rest of the West Bank, seized the same year, East Jerusalem was formally annexed to the Jewish state. While Palestinians want it as the capital of their future state, Israel considers it part of its own capital.

A compromise would probably mean Palestinians being handed control of Arab neighbourhoods, with Jewish neighbourhoods remaining in Israeli hands. This, however, has been hugely complicated by the Israeli settlements built in East Jerusalem – with 200,000 settlers – making a neat territorial division virtually impossible.

Also sensitive is the fate of the Old City, home to holy sites venerated by Jews, Muslims and Christians alike. Shared sovereignty or international administration has been discussed in the past, but to hardliners on both sides such a proposal is unthinkable.

Refugees

More than 700,000 Palestinians were expelled from their homes or fled from advancing Israeli forces during the 1948 war, scattering into camps – in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, the West Bank and Gaza – where a special UN agency continues to provide education, healthcare and financial support.

Today’s refugee population, which includes several generations of descendants, is estimated at 4.7m, of whom 1.4m still live in the camps.

Palestinian leaders want recognition – in principle and practice – of the right of return for refugees and their descendants to their homes in present-day Israel as part of a peace deal. That demand is found unacceptable by Israel, which argues that it would destroy the country’s character as a Jewish state and undermine its legitimacy.

Previous negotiations have debated allowing a symbolic number of refugees to return, with the vast majority offered compensation rather than repatriation.

Security

Israel says it can agree to the establishment of a Palestinian state only if convinced the entity will not pose a security threat. Israel is particularly concerned that the West Bank would be at risk of falling into the hands of militant groups such as Hamas.

After the Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, the Islamist movement took control of that territory, from where it has launched rocket attacks on nearby Israeli cities. To prevent a repetition in the West Bank, Israel says it wants to keep control of the border strip between Jordan and the West Bank to prevent weapons smuggling. It also insists a future Palestinian state must be demilitarised, its airspace under Israeli control and leaders barred from striking alliances with enemies of Israel.

The Palestinians argue that such sweeping constraints run counter to the very idea of a sovereign, independent state. Some diplomats suggest that Israel’s concerns might best be tackled by stationing international forces inside any future Palestinian state.

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