Thursday, October 11, 2007

Creeping Towards Palestine

Two pieces of good news yesterday in the Israel-Palestinian situation. First was the revelation that Hamas is seeking talks with Fatah and is considering ceding control of Gaza back to the centralized control of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and his arm of the Palestinian Authority. Sanctions and isolation imposed on Hamas for its lack of recognition of Israel have damaged Hamas in Gaza and increased the misery of Gaza's residents. As I have written about many times, the bifurcated sovereignty of the Palestinian Authority -- in which the militias and not the government possess the majority of the power -- is one of the major obstacles to a just and lasting settlement of Palestinian claims. If Hamas is prepared to enter into talks with Fatah, Abbas must insist on the disarming of the militias of both parties and the subordination of Hamas (and Fatah) to the Palestinian Authority, no matter who is running it.

The other piece of good news was an indication from Fatah that while the Palestinians would insist on getting their state on the same amount of land that was occupied by Israel in the 1967 war, it need not be the exact same land. Ahmed Qureia, the lead Fatah negotiator and a former prime minister of the PA, stated that "it would be enough to declare the 1967 lines as the starting point, say the border is open to modifications, based on the principle that the Palestinians end up with as much land as they lost in 1967. The exact border would be worked out in negotiations following the Annapolis conference."

This is a vitally important breakthrough. It was inconceivable that the Palestinians were going to get Israel to go back to its pre-1967 borders, for security and demographic reasons. However, the vast majority of Israeli settlers live in and around Jerusalem or in a narrow band immediately inside the Green Line. In exchange for keeping those lands, which would leave almost almost 75% of the settlers in place, Israel would cede an equal amount of land on the northern border of the West Bank along with a corridor of land connecting Gaza and the West Bank. Additionally, Israel would withdraw, forcibly if necessary, the settlers remaining in Palestinian lands. This has long been recognized as the only feasible end-state, but getting both parties to accept it has been a long process.

The security fence being built by Israel has played a vital role in getting both sides (for an excellent discussion of this, see How to Build a Fence by David Makovsky in the March/April 2004 issue of Foreign Affairs). Settlers living deep inside the West Bank whom I met on my trip to Israel opposed the fence because they knew that every Israeli on the Palestinian side would eventually be forced to leave their homes. For the Palestinians, the fence created a fait accompli, that forced them to accept the political reality that Israel was not going to return certain lands.

There is still a long way to go before a Palestinian state can be realized. Israel, for its part, needs to do more to bolster Fatah against Hamas and to stop and even pull back expansion of the deep settlements. The Palestinians must do a better job of establish control over the violent militias. Both sides must be willing to discuss the Palestinian right of return and the final status of Jerusalem, both of which are explosive issues. But again, in each case there is a fairly obvious politically-attainable solution. But knowing the end isn't enough; it's getting there that is so difficult. But these two developments are both steps in the right direction.