Negotiations, not Unilateral Declarations

The conflict between Israel and the Palestinians can be resolved only by negotiations between the parties, not through unilateral declarations by one side.  A unilateral declaration of a state would mean renouncing the many attempts made in many forums over the last 60 years to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by a negotiating process to which the Palestinians have agreed on many occasions.  It would constitute a breach by the Palestinians of their past agreements and legal obligations.  It would be an act of bad faith.

This piece will consider the nature of the Palestinian obligations (in the interest of brevity it will not consider the history and extent of Palestinian violence, which is still continuing).  The initial obligation is that the ceasefire lines, established through the armistices following the 1948-49 war between Israel and the Arab states, were to remain in force until "a peaceful settlement between the Parties is achieved."  Following the wars the basis for resolution of the conflict became United Nations Security Council Resolution 242 of November 22, 1967, and UNSC Resolution 338 of October 22, 1973.  

Resolution 242 called for efforts to achieve a settlement based on a "just and lasting peace," and on the right of states in the Middle East to live in peace, within secure and recognized boundaries.  Boundaries would be determined by negotiation, not by force or by unilateral action of any of the parties, nor were they to be imposed.  Resolution 338 repeated the call for negotiations between the parties.

Negotiation achieved two peace treaties.  The Israel-Egypt treaty on March 26, 1979 encouraged negotiation by inviting "the other Arab parties to the (Arab-Israeli) dispute to join the peace process with Israel."  The Israel-Jordan treaty of October 26, 1994 stated that disputes arising out of the application or interpretation of the treaty should be resolved only through negotiation.

The preamble of the Camp David Accords on September 17, 1978 provided a framework for negotiations to establish an autonomous, self-governing authority in the West Bank and Gaza.  Palestinians were urged to join in discussion of the autonomy and the election of such an authority but did not do so.

At the Madrid Conference on October 30, 1991, the objective was to foster negotiations on two tracks, bilateral and multilateral; one was for an interim self-government arrangement, and the other for permanent status agreement.  The Madrid Conference led to the Oslo I Accords of September 13, 1993.  These Accords were the first public face-to-face bilateral negotiations between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO).  The hope was that they would lead to further negotiations in which "final status issues" would be resolved.

The Accords, signed by Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat, chairman of the PLO, and by President Bill Clinton, provided for the creation of a Palestinian Authority (PA) that would have responsibility for the administration of territory under its control.  By exchange of letters between Rabin and Arafat, the former recognized the PLO as the legitimate representative of the Palestinian people, while Arafat acknowledged the right of Israel to exist and renounced the use of terrorism and other violence.

Oslo I laid out a five-year timetable, an interim period during which permanent status negotiations would take place in stages.  During this period a Palestinian Interim Self-Government Authority and an elected Council would be established in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.  Israel would withdraw from the Gaza Strip and the Jericho area.  The Palestinian Authority would have power over education, health, culture, social welfare, direct taxation, and tourism.  Other subjects, Jerusalem, settlements, refugees, security, and borders were to be negotiated later.

Oslo I was to be followed by confidence-building measures.  These have taken a number of forms, the more important ones being the Gaza-Jericho Agreement, August 29, 1994; Oslo II, September 28, 1995; the Hebron Protocol, January 17, 1997; the Wye River Memorandum, October 23, 1998; the Sharm el-Sheikh Memorandum; September 4, 1999, the Camp David Summit, July 2000; and the Annapolis Conference, November 2007.

The Gaza-Jericho Agreement dealt with the transfer of powers and responsibilities.  Israel would be responsible for Israelis and the settlements in the areas; the PA would be responsible for public order in general and for many civil matters.  Israel was to withdraw from Gaza and Jericho while retaining control and supervision over air space.

On September 28, 1995 the Interim Agreement, known more familiarly as Oslo II, provided for redeployment in the West Bank, including Palestinian self-rule in a number of cities.  The West Bank was divided into 3 areas: A, B, and C.  Area A was to be under full control of the PA, area B under joint Israeli and Palestinian control, and area C under Israeli control.  The Hebron Protocol, signed by Arafat and Prime Minister Netanyahu, provided for withdrawal of Israeli forces from most of Hebron within 10 days, and then further withdrawal from the West Bank, apart from settlements and military locations, before mid 1998.

The Wye River Memorandum, signed by Netanyahu and Arafat on October 23, 1998, focused on implementing Oslo II.  The two sides agreed to resume permanent status talks.  The Memorandum stated that "neither side shall initiate or take any step that will change the status of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip in accordance with the Interim Agreement."  On September 4, 1999 Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Arafat at Sharm el-Sheikh signed another Memorandum to implement Oslo II and other agreements.  Again it was agreed that neither side would initiate or take any step that would change the status of the West Bank or Gaza.

An attempt to negotiate a "final status settlement" at the Camp David Summit in July 2000 in talks among Barak, Arafat, and Clinton failed but the two sides reaffirmed the decision that their differences could be resolved only by good faith negotiations.  A further attempt at a settlement was made in late January 2001 at Taba.  This Summit focused on four main themes: refugees, security, Jerusalem, and secure and recognized borders.  However, the talks were discontinued on January 27, 2001, partly because of the reluctance to compromise on the part of the Palestinian delegation, and partly because of the preparations for the special Israeli election.

At a summit meeting at Sharm el- Sheikh in February 2005, Abbas continued to adhere to the principle of negotiation.  In his speech of February 8, 2005 he reiterated that "our adherence to the peace process points of reference, the resolutions of international legitimacy, the agreements signed between the PLO and the government of Israel, and the roadmap (of the International Quartet)."  At the conference in Annapolis, Maryland in November 2007, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Abbas, attempted to negotiate a peace settlement along the lines of President Bush's roadmap for peace.

For Palestinian authorities, to introduce a unilateral declaration of independence would be a breach of their obligations, especially those of Oslo II.  It should be recognition of necessity, as well as adherence to moral obligations, for Palestinians to accept that direct negotiations with Israel are the only way to achieve a just and lasting peace.

Michael Curtis is Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Rutgers University.

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