As Israel debates annexation of the West Bank, here’s what two former peace envoys think

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Nearly 27 years ago, two officials – a Palestinian and an Israeli – believed that their respective parties had found a path to peace. Now, as Israel debates the land annexation plans the Palestinians envision for a future state, their hopes for a common future, with two states coexisting side by side, seem to be fading.

Nabil Shaath clearly remembers the day when the Oslo Accord was sealed with a handshake on the White House lawn in 1993, raising hopes that the Palestinians will soon have a state alongside Israel.

“I thought it was entirely possible that in 20, 25 years there would be a completely different Middle East with prosperity, peace and stability,” said Shaath, adviser to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas on foreign affairs and international relations.

“But what am I predicting today? Chaos, “said Shaath, who helped lead Palestinian efforts to implement the 1993 agreement in new peace negotiations with Israel.

Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres Signs Initial Oslo Agreement While Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, US President Bill Clinton and President of the Palestine Liberation Organization Yasser Arafat Watch White House on 13 September 1993.J. David Ake / AFP – Getty Images file

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said cabinet discussions would begin as early as July 1 on his plans to extend Israeli sovereignty to the West Bank territory that the Palestinians are seeking for a future state. One of his main campaign commitments to right-wing voters before the March elections was annexation.

The exact terrain Netanyahu plans to annex remains unclear, but he said it would be in line with the Trump administration’s peace plan for the region announced in January. The so-called century agreement of the United States would allow Israel to annex about a third of the West Bank, including the main settlement blocs, as well as the strategic and fertile Jordan Valley, the breadbasket of the region, to the border with Jordan.

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However, the Palestinians, who were not involved in the making of the Trump plan, rejected and annexed it, which would leave them with dispersed territorial enclaves. The proposal would also impose conditions on the creation of a state, including law enforcement, free and fair elections and demilitarization.

The other official, the Israeli, is Yossi Beilin, who, as Israeli Deputy Minister for Foreign Affairs, was one of the main architects of the historic Oslo peace process of 1993 with the Palestinians. He also warned against unilateral annexation, saying it could lead to a one-state rather than two-state scenario.

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Yossi Beilin, then a member of the Israeli parliament, speaks to the media after meeting with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in the West Bank city of Ramallah in 2007. Loay Abu Haykel / Reuters

In this situation, it would become difficult to deny the Palestinians Israeli citizenship without accusing Israel of creating an apartheid state and endangering the Jewish majority in Israel.

“The world will move from supporting the two-state solution to one person, one voice,” said Beilin. “If there is annexation on July 1, the threat to the Jewish state is enormous. “

In contrast, Shaath said that the Palestinians would accept a democratic and secular state for Jews, Christians and Muslims.

The annexation would violate international law, the peace accords and the Oslo Accord, said Shaath, who has negotiated with Beilin, directly and indirectly, for years.

“This will make the rest of Palestine totally incapable of developing an economy and developing a unified society, building the institution of the state,” he said.

Over the years, the couple have become good friends, and Beilin even attended Shaath’s wedding.

Together, they observed that the prospect of peace is slowly fading.

Nabil Shaath, then Palestinian Minister for Foreign Affairs, was assaulted by journalists in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, in June 2003. Nicholas Kamm / AFP file

Beilin, however, is optimistic that even if the government proceeds to annex parts of the West Bank, it will not definitively announce the end of a two-state solution, as the Israelis will ultimately reject a one-state solution.

In addition, he added, while difficult, it is not impossible for lawmakers to reverse a decision to extend Israeli sovereignty over West Bank lands if 80 out of 120 agree with the Israeli parliament, the Knesset.

Israel captured the West Bank, a kidney-shaped territory dotted with olive trees, stone walls and biblical cities, from Jordan during the 1967 Arab-Israeli War.

Since then, Israeli settlement construction has exploded, and the territory is now home to more than 425,000 Israelis, as well as nearly 2.7 million Palestinians, according to figures gathered by Peace Now, an Israeli organization which advocates for a solution to two states. .

The settlements, which range from small outposts to the cities of tens of thousands of people, are considered illegal by most of the international community. However, last year the United States reversed its decades-old position that it was violating international law.

Israeli soldiers sit at a watchtower in the Jewish settlement of Otniel in the occupied West Bank on June 3, 2020. Menahem Kahana / AFP – Getty Images

The extension of Israeli sovereignty to these settlements, however, is a final step towards Israel’s ability to keep the land.

Last week, Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh warned that if Israel proceeds to annexation, the Palestinian Authority will declare a Palestinian state based on armistice lines before the 1967 war, with East Jerusalem as its capital, according to the Palestinian newspaper Al Quds.

It is not yet known whether the United States will give the green light to annexation if there are no signs of Israeli negotiations with the Palestinians. Israel’s acceptance of negotiations was one of the conditions for the United States to recognize Israeli sovereignty over parts of the West Bank, a senior administration official told NBC News this year.

Netanyahu faced increasing international pressure to cancel the annexation, including urgent calls from the European Union, the Arab League and Norway, which helped negotiate the 1993 Oslo accords and 1995. The King of Jordan, with whom Israel has a peace agreement, has warned Israel of a “massive conflict” if it continues.

Shaath hopes that outcry and warnings from the international community will persuade Israel not to continue – the hope being, he said, that if the Palestinians can survive another five or ten years from the status quo, the leadership in US and Israel will have changed and the prospects for a peaceful settlement will be revived.

“The period 1994-1999 was paradise,” he said wistfully. “There was then a real possibility of peace. Today, I don’t see it. “

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