Sunday, 9 May 2010

Déja vu

It was exactly two months ago – on 9 March – that I headed the article I wrote that day: "They're Talking!" In a somewhat surprised, but pleased, frame of mind I reported that the idea of proximity talks had been endorsed on all sides. Washington had come up with the idea when it seemed clear that direct face-to-face negotiations were a step too far for the Palestinians. Israeli prime minister Netanyahu had gone along with it. And PA President Mahmoud Abbas had received the endorsement of both the Arab League and subsequently the Palestine Liberation Organisation to participate.

Who would have guessed, at that moment, of the battering that the peace process would have to endure in the next two months, of the ups and downs, reverses and frustrations, displays of political brinkmanship and political statesmanship? Yet the straws of what was to follow were actually there, blowing in the wind, in my 9 March article.

For in it I reported that on 8 March the Palestinians had issued a strongly worded protest after Israel's Defense Minister, Ehud Barak, gave permission for the construction of 112 housing units in the West Bank settlement of Betar Ilit. Israel issued a hasty explanation about this breech, and indicated that the 10-month freeze on West Bank construction remained Israeli policy and intention.

But the provocation that was to cause the breakdown of this initiative, and the two-month delay in reinvigorating it, was already in train. For it was on 9 March that US Vice President Joe Biden arrived in Israel to inaugurate the peace talks in which the USA had invested so much effort. He had no sooner set foot in the country than the Israel Interior Minister, Eli Yishai, authorised the by-now infamous announcement of a future 1600-apartment development project in the Jerusalem suburb of Ramat Shlomo. Ramat Shlomo lies on the other side of the "Green Line" that delineates Israel's boundary at the end of the Six Day War in 1967.

The fact that building in Jerusalem had been specifically excluded from Netanyahu's 10-month construction freeze was irrelevant, given the delicate nature of the political situation. The announcement was seen, and perhaps it was meant to be seen, as an assertion of the long-held view of Likud and other more extreme Israeli political parties that Jerusalem was the "eternal and undivided capital of Israel" – a position disputed by the Palestinians. The future status of Jerusalem is certain to be one of the issues for final resolution during any serious peace negotiations.

The US administration took offence, and relations between President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu went into the deep freeze for several weeks. But the cloud had a silver lining. Out of the controversy, a new realism was born – on both sides. The President came to appreciate that there were limits to what he could ask of Netanyahu, given his fragile coalition – and though he did request a raft of confidence-building concessions in order to get the peace talks back on track, he stopped short of demanding a formal moratorium on construction in Jerusalem.

Netanyahu, for his part, was prepared to go as far as he could in giving Obama the assurances he sought. He devised – and his coalition cabinet approved – a series of measures including a prisoner release offer, a lifting of West Bank roadblocks and an easing of the restrictions on imports to Gaza. And, with a nod and a wink, he assured the President that there would be no provocative action on Israel's part while the negotiations proceeded – in short, while there would be no formal declaration to this effect, in practice a "gentleman's agreement" would ensure that there would be no construction in areas beyond the "Green Line", including Jerusalem.

This was enough to permit the wagon-train to start rolling once again. There was a distinct impression of déjà vu. Once again the US Middle East envoy, George Mitchell, returned to the region and reopened discussions with the interested parties. Once again Netanyahu declared his willingness to participate in proximity talks. Once again PA President Abbas sought cover from the Arab League to enter the discussions, and once again the League assented – though with a requirement of positive results within four months. Once again the PLO were asked, and yesterday they gave their agreement at a meeting in Ramallah in the West Bank. PLO spokesman Yasser Abed Rabbo said after the meeting that the vote marked the official start of the talks.

How do matters differ now from how they stood in March?

The elephant in the room is Hamas, the extreme Islamist group that seized power in Gaza and is at daggers drawn with the PLO. An announcement from them on Friday dubbed the proposed proximity talks "absurd". They would only "give the Israeli occupation an umbrella to commit more crimes against the Palestinians. Hamas calls on the PLO to stop selling illusions to the Palestinian people." The same day, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, a left-wing Palestinian militant group, was reported also to have rejected the idea of proximity talks, saying negotiations would be "ill and absurd, whether direct or indirect".

Meanwhile Mahmoud Abbas has spoken of concerns in the PA at evidence of large scale transfers of arms by Hamas to its cadres in the West Bank. PA officials fear that the arms transfers could presage an attempt by Hamas to carry out attacks on Israel from the West Bank, while allowing quiet to continue to prevail in the movement's own enclave in Gaza. This could also herald an attempt by Hamas to disrupt the talks, and to try to seize some sort of political advantage over the PLO in their bid for the support of the Palestinian population.

All attempts at a reconciliation between Hamas and the PLO have come to naught. A long series of discussions brokered by Egypt seemed on the verge or achieving a rapprochement, but failed at the last moment. Mahmoud Abbas believes it was what he terms "outside forces" – namely Iran and Syria – which have scuppered every effort to bring the two sides together. The last thing these rejectionist states wish to see is a sovereign Palestinian state alongside a secure Israel. Each seeks to dominate the region – ambitions frustrated by the mere presence of Israel.

It is against this background that the delicate negotiations – resumed after a gap of nearly 18 months – are expected to start next week. Will they survive the hazards that can already be discerned? Time will tell.

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