Wednesday, 23 October 2013

Israel-Palestine peace talks: where are they?

On July 29, under the benign eye of US Secretary of State John Kerry, peace negotiators for Israel and Palestine, Tzipi Livni and Saeb Erekat respectively, shook hands in Washington to launch "sustained, continuous and substantive" talks on a long-sought Israeli-Palestinian peace treaty. 

At the same moment an information blackout was imposed on all those directly involved in the process.  There were to be no leaks about progress or the lack of it, no briefings to the media about unmet demands from one side or the other.  This curtain of secrecy would, it was hoped, block the usual extremist response to any attempt at reconciliation – action aimed at undermining the peace process and instituting a new tit-for-tat round of violence.

Nine months was the period allotted to reaching agreement between the two sides – a long time to sustain hermetically sealed negotiations.  Inevitably a flood of speculation about the talks, most of it sceptical wishful thinking, has drenched the media.  But a trickle or two of authoritative information about the course of the discussions has also emerged.

One such occurred on October 17, following a private audience granted by the Pope to Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas.  Following their meeting, Pope Francis presented Abbas with a pen, remarking: “Surely you have a lot of things you have to sign.”

Abbas's response was:  “I hope to sign a peace treaty with Israel with this pen.”

That was an uncalled-for remark. The only reasonable assumption to be drawn from it is that it reflected at least a possibility, if not a probability.

If this was indeed a straw in the wind, it was soon to be followed by another.  Two days after his meeting with the Pope, Abbas allowed himself to be interviewed by the German TV channel DW.  He refused to discuss the talks in detail, but during the course of the cross-questioning he specifically denied that they had reached any sort of impasse.

"The negotiations are difficult,” he said, “but they are not at a dead end.” Quite the reverse, he implied.  "We're just getting started.  We have plenty of time to deal with the main issues that make the talks difficult."

In fact, the negotiating team has until April 30, 2014 if it is to journey right up to the wire, and Abbas’s statement does not have the whiff of defeatism about it. It sounds realistic, and even optimistic of success.

PA President Abbas gave one further indication of how he and the negotiating team are dealing with what has always seemed an almost intractable difficulty – the fact that the PA is the governing authority in only part of what would become a sovereign Palestine, namely the West Bank.  The other main region – the Gaza strip – was seized by the extreme Islamist organisation Hamas, back in 2007, and it remains the de facto government there. 

Despite numerous attempts to reconcile these two constituent parts of the Palestinian body politic, they remain as far apart as ever.  Hamas totally rejects the concept of talking peace with Israel – indeed it disputes the legitimacy of Abbas’s presidency, since his original four-year term ended in January 2009 and has only been extended by diktat ever since.  On October 19, Gaza’s Hamas prime minister, Ismail Haniyeh, amid blood-curdling threats of the “fire and rage” that Israel would soon have to face as part of a third intifada, called for an end to the peace negotiations.

How did Mahmoud Abbas tackle the thorny issue of Hamas in his TV interview? By equating his bloodthirsty terrorist opponents with what, in the UK, is designated “Her Majesty’s loyal Opposition.”  Acknowledging that in all truly democratic states a government not only permits, but endorses, the right of its opponents to speak freely and seek to persuade others of its point of view – and, indeed, that Israel is a prime example of this democratic pattern – Abbas said:

            “Is there an opposition?  Yes.  Is it strong?  Yes.  Does Netanyahu (the Israeli Prime Minister) have an opposition? Yes.  There is no state on earth that doesn’t have an opposition.”

            Abbas went on to argue that the existence of an opposition, however strong,  is no reason for a state, or its negotiating partner, to refrain from signing a treaty.  He emphasized that he was speaking for the entire Palestinian people – and that, in any case, both parties had agreed that any future peace agreement would have to be “legitimized” by a referendum on each side.

“So why these fears?” demanded Abbas. “There’s no reason for them.”

Abbas is whistling in the wind.  Hamas is no loyal opposition.  It is an extremist terrorist organisation, opposed tooth and nail to any two-state solution, since one of the two states would be Israel.  Is Hamas ever likely to roll over, puppy-like, and submit to the demand to hold a referendum in the Gaza strip on a peace deal with Israel?  If it does not, would any referendum omitting the views of over a million Palestinians be regarded as legitimate? Abbas must surely recognise that if the peace talks do yield a draft agreement, the problem of Hamas, and its illegal seizure of power back in 2007, will have to be dealt with.

All the same, and despite the nay-sayers and shroud-wavers, it seems that “deep in the forest, something stirs” – a perception strengthened on October 21 when US Secretary of State John Kerry, addressed a press conference in Paris:

"The two parties have been engaged now in 13 meetings - serious meetings. They had three meetings in the last four days. All the core issues are on the table. And they have been meeting with increased intensity."

That does not sound like wishful thinking, but rather like an authoritative progress report. Only two-and-a half months into the allotted nine, it does not seem beyond the bounds of possibility that, far from breaking up in failure and recrimination, the peace discussions may indeed yield something positive.

Despite all the odds, a feeling of moderate optimism seems justified.

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 23 October 2013:

Published in the Eurasia Review, 23 October 2013:

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