After months of delicate, painful, slow manoeuvring by all parties, the renewal of peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, originally scheduled to start in earnest next week, hangs in the balance. Has Wednesday's announcement from Israeli Interior Minister, Eli Yishai, of plans to build 1600 new housing units in an East Jerusalem suburb – extraordinarily timed, whether deliberately or not, to coincide with the visit of US Vice President Joe Biden – scuppered the carefully nurtured "proximity talks" initiative? Signals emerging from Ramallah, Washington and Jerusalem are mixed.
On Wednesday Arab League chief Amr Moussa said that Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas had decided to scrap the talks in protest. By yesterday a more reasoned reaction seemed to be emerging. Palestinian Authority chief negotiator Saeb Erekat declared that the talks would go ahead only if George Mitchell, the US envoy, informs the PA that Israel's East Jerusalem construction plans have been cancelled. “We can’t go to the talks while Israel is building settlements,” he said.
Hanna Amireh, a senior PLO official in the West Bank, appeared to endorse this line. Abbas had decided to postpone the launching of the indirect talks with Israel, he stated, until an agreement was reached on settlement construction. “The president is still willing to resume the talks," said Amireh. "At this stage we are only talking about a postponement and not a cancellation.”
But it seems as though the US has been exerting as much pressure as it can on Mahmoud Abbas not to walk away from the negotiations, even temporarily as a gesture. Both George Mitchell and Vice President Biden spoke with Abbas yesterday night, urging him to stay with the peace initiative. Conversations are also said to have taken place with Israel's prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu.
Two events that have followed may be coincidental, but probably are not.
US State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said late on Thursday night (early Friday by Arabia Standard Time – one of the five time zones in the Middle East*),that the US believes indirect peace talks will go ahead as scheduled. "As far as I know, we are still moving forward," said Crowley. "We have not heard from the Palestinians that they have pulled out. George Mitchell is planning to be in the region next week and for further discussions on these issues. We remain committed to the process that is under way."
Israel's prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, has certainly apologised to Vice President Biden for the timing of the Interior Ministry's announcement, and has indicated that he has given Minister Yishai a dressing down. It is doubtful, however, if he actually disapproves of the planned development. Should it go ahead it would be entirely in line with the government's position on Jerusalem – that it is the "eternal and undivided capital of Israel". Which is why Netanyahu, while freezing West Bank settlement building for ten months, never gave an assurance about building in Jerusalem.
All the same it cannot have escaped his attention, nor that of Washington, that the plans themselves are three years old, and that following Wednesday's final approval of them, construction could not in any case commence for another two years. Saeb Erekat said that the PA could not enter negotiations while Israel was building settlements. As no building will in fact be proceeding, and as the status of Jerusalem in general, and East Jerusalem in particular, will certainly be on the table in any forthcoming talks, there would clearly be plenty of time to come to an agreement on these plans.
A significant event of a different kind – not widely reported in the world's media – took place yesterday. Five foundations in the Gush Etzion settlements of Efrat and Bat Ayin in the West Bank were destroyed by Israeli inspectors. The move was aimed at demonstrating that Israel is serious about enforcing the ten-month West Bank moratorium, passed by the government last November.
This operation seems to have been a sort of preliminary to a main event planned to start next week, and calculated indeed to make it into the world's headlines. Israel's Defense Ministry, it is reported, will be launching “Stage 3” of its crackdown on new construction in West Bank settlements, aimed at enforcing the current settlement freeze. The cabinet-approved operation provides for the arrest and indictment of settlers who obstruct officials distributing stop-work orders, as well as of settlers and contractors who illegally build in the settlements.
Under the plan, inspectors arriving at settlements to enforce the freeze will be accompanied by large police forces, which will arrest anyone who tries to prevent the inspectors from entering the gates of the community. In addition, criminal charges will be pressed against the owners of lots where construction is taking place in violation of moratorium regulations, as well as against contractors, and possibly against regional council chiefs if they are aware of the activity.
This remedial action by the Israeli government may be what is necessary to overcome any remaining hesitancy on the PA's part about coming to the proximity talks table . It may be sufficient to allow Abbas to accede to Washington's urgent request not to scupper this fragile peace initiative before it has fairly got going.
The events of this past week, and those about to occur next, should also serve as a warning to gung-ho Israeli politicians to think a little more before they leap.
* Note on Time Zones in the Middle East
Depending on which countries are included in the definition of "Middle East", there are five time zones in operation, differing from each other for most of the time by only an hour. Exceptions are Iran, which is running half-an-hour ahead of its Middle East neighbours, and Afghanistan which operates one hour ahead of Iran.
The main time zones in the Middle East are:
Gulf Standard Time
Arabia Standard Time
Eastern European Time
Iran Standard Time
Israel Standard Time
Daylight saving is followed by only three of these: Eastern European Time, Arabia Standard Time and Israel Standard Time.