Thursday, 16 December 2010

Israeli-Palestinian peace – Phase Two

The Obama administration clearly has no intention of turning its back on the Israel-Palestinian peace process. Phase One, which climaxed at the end of August in an unparalleled display of bonhomie between Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, has run itself into the ground. At the launch the two sides agreed on the goal of a framework agreement within a year. But since the conclusion of Israel's 10-month settlement freeze at the end of September, the process has stalled. Netanyahu found it politically impossible to extend the freeze and keep his coalition together, while Abbas was unwilling to continue direct talks without an extension of the freeze.

The US attempted to address this problem by getting Israel to extend the freeze for a temporary period, in return for a package of US incentives. Washington hoped that Israeli-Palestinian negotiations over a 90-day period might make enough progress on core issues, particularly on borders, to build trust between the parties and keep them both at the table. At the end of last week the US acknowledged that this approach had not worked. Netanyahu was struggling to get the deal past his coalition, and the Palestinians looked set to reject the settlement freeze anyway because it would not explicitly include East Jerusalem.

Frankly admitting that Phase One of the peace process had foundered, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton last week provided a detailed explanation of the Obama administration's plans to move it forward. Whilst the US had given up for now the hope of direct talks, Clinton also made clear that they did not support any attempt to impose a solution. Instead, they now proposed to try to make progress by getting the parties to set out their positions in dialogue with the US. Washington will then try to narrow gaps by asking ‘tough questions and expecting substantive answers', and will ‘offer our own ideas and bridging proposals when appropriate.'

Clinton stated that the defined goal remains ‘a framework agreement that would establish the fundamental compromises on all permanent status issues and pave the way for a final peace treaty', as agreed by the parties at the September summit. The one-year timetable has been conspicuously dropped, but the determination of the US to move forward with this issue appears as strong as ever.

US special envoy to the Middle East, George Mitchell, maintains a pivotal role in this process, and so a first step was for him to return to the region, and virtually resume the “proximity talks” which preceded the reopening of face-to-face negotiations.

George Mitchell met with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak yesterday (Wednesday, 15 December), and briefed him on the latest developments. Now, according to a news agency report today, 16 December, Mitchell has proposed that the United States holds separate, parallel talks with Israelis and Palestinians for six weeks, to discuss security and borders, in order to enable Washington to develop a strategy for the eventual re-launch of direct negotiations. Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu is set to convene his 'septet' of senior ministers to discuss the new proposal.

Mitchell’s meeting with President Mubarak came as Arab League foreign ministers rejected any talks between Israeli and Palestinian representatives unless the US commits itself on the issue of the borders of a future Palestinian state. The ministers also agreed to go to the UN Security Council to seek a resolution against the construction of Jewish settlements in the West Bank.

What is, perhaps, significant, is that the Arab League has as yet not endorsed either of the two threats made by Palestinian Authority President, Mahmoud Abbas, and which appear to represent his current position. One is to break off – or at least not to re-enter – the peace process unless Israel agrees to a complete freeze on building in all West Bank settlements including East Jerusalem. The other is to seek UN Security Council recognition for what might be termed a “unilateral declaration of statehood” by the Palestinian Authority. A significant factor inhibiting any such action by the League might be that Hillary Clinton’s recent speech included an explicit rejection of the idea. And since the US is in a position to veto any such move in the Security Council, a statement by the Arab League supporting the idea would be a somewhat empty gesture.

It may also be of significance that earlier in the week the EU, although reaffirming its readiness to recognise a Palestinian state at an "appropriate" time, stopped short of outright recognition despite mounting pressure from a minority of states to seek to break the Middle East impasse in this way, and despite Argentina and Uruguay joining Brazil in actually declaring that they recognised an independent Palestinian state.

The fact is that, following long and prickly negotiations, EU foreign ministers meeting in Brussels adopted a statement that falls short of an ultimatum and breaks little new ground. So while the EU statement expresses "regret" at Israel's rejection of a new freeze, describing settlements as "illegal" and "an obstacle to peace", it underlines EU support for "a negotiated solution" between the two sides "within the 12 months set by the Quartet" of international mediators.

It does, however, also welcome a recent World Bank assessment that the Palestinian Authority "is well positioned for the establishment of a state at any point in the near future" and goes on to say that the EU "reiterates its readiness, when appropriate, to recognise a Palestinian state." “When appropriate” are the operative words and, in the light of what the EU foreign ministers say, appear to mean “following a negotiated settlement.”

Let us hope so, as the hazard-strewn peace process sets out on Phase Two of its uncertain journey.

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