A Palestinian State? Interpreting Netanyahu’s Speech

Professor Nigel Ashton, who recently spoke to Jonathan Mok about the life and legacy of King Hussein, returns to answer questions about Benjamin Netanyahu’s recent speech and what it means for the future of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Jonathan Mok: How should the Netanyahu speech be interpreted?

Nigel Ashton: Beyond uttering the words ‘Palestinian state’ Netanyahu has not yet conceded the creation of an entity which would have genuine sovereignty. His concept of ‘demilitarisation’ is so wide ranging that any Palestinian state created under it could not be deemed to have full control over its territory and would therefore not be sovereign. Nevertheless, he has at least conceded that peace negotiations cannot proceed on the basis of his opening position which amounted to little more than a form of economic autonomy. So there has at least been some movement in his position even if so far this is limited.

JM: It appears that the Arab world has been silent in response to Bibi’s speech. How do you perceive the apparent lack of interest?

NA: I think Arab leaders are allowing the United States to make the running at present in negotiations with Israel. The Arab peace plan is on the table and I am sure that if genuine negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians resumed Egypt and Jordan would be prepared to play their part in supporting the process.

JM: What do you think about Israel’s continuing exclusion of Hamas in peace negotiations?

NA: For nearly three decades, Israel refused to deal with the PLO and termed it a terrorist organisation. Eventually it did negotiate with the organisation so these things are not set in stone. Having said that, negotiations for a final settlement with Israel as opposed to a truce would effectively contravene the Hamas charter so there would have to be considerable movement on both sides before it would be possible to bring Hamas within the framework of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Even before we can reach that stage, though, means have to be found of repairing the Fatah-Hamas schism which will be a considerable challenge.

JM: Some of the demands in the speech have been listed by other Israeli leaders, including Olmert, Sharon and Peres. The demands include Jerusalem as the permanent capital of Israel and Palestinian abandonment of the right of return. Would it be wise for Abbas to agree with the demands in order to speed up the peace negotiations with Israel?

NA: I think Netanyahu would be astounded if Abbas agreed to these conditions, particularly those in relation to Jerusalem and the right of return. They are aimed at Netanyahu’s domestic constituency and not at the Palestinian leadership. If serious negotiations begin, these issues will inevitably have to be addressed. There is no way the Palestinian leadership can be expected to concede them in advance.

JM: With the growing divide between the United States and Israel, what will be the role of other negotation partners, such as the EU?

NA: The role of other negotiating partners will continue to be insignificant. I don’t perceive a growing US-Israeli divide. What we have is an administration which for the first time in a decade is taking the question of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict seriously. It’s inevitable when that happens that it will tend to put pressure on Israel to shift its position. That’s what has happened during previous phases of negotiation, most notably during Clinton’s second term in the late 1990s.

JM: Finally, how likely is it that there will there be an indepenent Palestinian state under the Obama administration?

NA: The obstacles are considerable. It will need a remarkably favourable combination of circumstances for this to happen within the next eight years, never mind four. History does not lead one to be optimistic since this conflict has proven remarkably intractable. The best one can say is that there is more of a window of opportunity now than there has been at any point during the last decade.

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