President Obama’s recent visit to the Middle East brought with it renewed speculation about a resumption of the peace process, frozen solid since September 2010. Speculation is the operative word, since no serious commentator offers much hope that talks will indeed restart or, even if they did, that either party would have anything new to bring to the negotiating table.
And yet, around the time of the last serious attempt at face-to-face discussions, something out of the ordinary was being aired – something that received very little news coverage at the time, possibly because the talks themselves collapsed so completely.
Direct negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority (PA) began in Washington on 2 September 2010 in an atmosphere of high expectation. At that meeting George Mitchell, Obama’s special Middle East envoy, announced that Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, and Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas, had agreed to meet again in a fortnight, and every two weeks after that.
And then everything ground to a halt. Israel’s “goodwill gesture” − a 10-month moratorium on construction in the West Bank − came to an end, and Netanyahu’s fragile coalition would not countenance its resumption. Abbas declared that he could not continue with negotiations unless all construction in the West Bank and East Jerusalem was halted. Total impasse.
But the start of face-to-face discussions had apparently generated some innovative thinking. A very odd, but apparently serious, possibility was reported by the London-based newspaper Al-Sharq al-Awsat on 29 October 2010. The paper reported that in its secret negotiations with the American administration aimed at clarifying the nature and demarcation of a Palestinian state, Israel had been discussing the option of leasing land in east Jerusalem and the Jordan Valley from the Palestinian state for up to 99 years. Palestinian sources apparently confirmed the story.
According to one of the sources, this initiative, which he said was “American, not Israeli,” had been on the table for a while “in order to reach common ground with the Israeli side regarding the borders issue, and to reach an agreement on what will remain under Israeli sovereignty.” When quizzed, officials in Washington refused to confirm or deny the report.
Could this possibility re-emerge? Has it legs strong enough to stand?
The prime example of one sovereign state leasing territory from another is, of course, Hong Kong. In the full flood of its imperial expansion, Britain defeated China in the Opium Wars, and China was forced to cede both Hong Kong and the peninsula of Kowloon. During the following decades, Hong Kong flourished, but the island lacked resources such as water and farmland, and Britain pressed China to cede more land. In 1898 it succeeded in gaining rights in areas known as the New Territories on a 99-year lease, due to expire in 1997.
To complete the story, as 1997 approached, it became clear that should Britain attempt to hand back only the New Territories, China would demand Hong Kong and Kowloon as well. So, in late-1984, an agreement was reached: China would take over the entire colony on 1 July 1997, but Hong Kong’s unique free enterprise economy would be maintained for at least 50 years. Hong Kong would become a Special Administrative Region (SAR) of China with the official slogan, “One country, two systems”.
Does the Hong Kong model provide any sort of template for a future Israeli-Palestinian accommodation? Of course, extremer right-wing Israeli political opinion will immediately demand: “Why on earth should we lease our own land from the Palestinians?”
But if this ever was a US proposal, it was clearly designed to address Israel’s key security concern. Netanyahu had made it clear that any peace deal must incorporate border security for Israel, to prevent both weapon smuggling and infiltration by Hamas or other extreme Islamists into a new sovereign Palestine. The leaseback option, it might have been opined, could provide a medium- to long-term solution to that problem, providing sufficient breathing space (up to a century) to allow Israel and the PA to finalise the borders of the new state.
But there is nothing new under the sun − so it is not perhaps surprising to find that as long ago as 2005 a plan was seriously being discussed within the Israeli Labor Party for the biggest Jewish settlement blocs in the West Bank to be “leased” from the Palestinians.
The London Independent newspaper reported in December 2005 that a group advising Amir Peretz, then Labour Party leader, had been considering a proposal for a long-term leaseback of the main settlement blocs on the model of the 99-year Hong Kong agreement. Clearly the proposal was an attempt to square the circle between Palestinian insistence that any two-state solution should broadly conform with Israel’s pre-1967 borders, and the view of a wide segment of Israeli opinion that as many settlements as possible should remain in Israeli hands.
Since then, however, even President Abbas has on several occasions acknowledged that in any final agreement the major Israeli settlements would probably remain in Israeli hands, subject perhaps to a land-swap deal. The same, though, would not be true of the plethora of smaller settlements scattered across the West Bank, and it may be that a lease-back deal affecting some of them could form part of a final accord.
The Hong Kong precedent is not a blueprint for achieving a wholesale Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement. It might just provide a useful, if temporary, element in constructing a workable solution.