Sunday, 31 January 2010

January reviewed

The last day of January. Have we advanced at all from where we stood on the first – advanced, that is, towards a settlement of Arab-Israeli differences in general, and the Israel-Palestine dispute in particular?

I think we can claim a few centimetres of progress.

To start with, George Mitchell is back in town, and that can't be bad news. The US special envoy arrived less than a fortnight ago, and immediately set off on a whistle-stop tour of the region. He was hoping, no doubt, to kick-start the long-stalled PA-Israel negotiations into life by direct appeals to Prime Minister Hariri in Lebanon, President Asad in Syria, Prime Minister Netanyahu in Israel, King Abdullah in Jordan and President Mubarak in Egypt.

He didn't succeed – not straight off, that is – but this first phase of his renewed enterprise was not entirely fruitless. Its legacy, we have learned only in the past few days, is a plan to institute a form of proxy negotiation between Israel and the PA. The technique, pioneered by Turkey in 2008 to establish on-going interchanges between Israel and Syria, is known as "proximity talks" (described in "The Kissinger Touch", below). Israel's Netanyahu is reported to have accepted the proposal. Mahmoud Abbas, in London this weekend to meet prime minister Gordon Brown and foreign secretary David Milliband, is said still to be considering it. No doubt they will be urging him on – preferably to resume direct talks, or failing that to consent to "proximity talks" as a second-best,

Mitchell's shuttle round the region was part of a Grand Plan which he spelled out during his visit to Syria. His ultimate objective is to secure what he calls: "a comprehensive peace in the Middle East", and he defines "comprehensive" as peace agreements between Israel and the Palestinians, Israel and Syria, and Israel and Lebanon; it also includes the full normalization of relations between Israel and the Arab states. Since this statement comes from his own lips, these must be the ambitious criteria that he wants eventually to be judged by.

What else of a positive nature has happened in January?

A potentially damaging dispute between Turkey and Israel, brought about by the peculiarly childish behaviour of Israel's deputy foreign minister, Danny Ayalon, has been averted. More than that, the silly incident seems to have served to strengthen ties between the two countries, once so very close, but recently grown much looser. Visiting Ankara in the middle of the month Israel's defence minister, Ehud Barak, was told that Turkey was anxious to resume its role as mediator and proximity talks host between Israel and Syria.

Early in January – it may have been wishful thinking on some journalist's part – word leaked out that, during a visit to Cairo, Benjamin Netanyahu had indicated that he was prepared to discuss making the Arab areas of Jerusalem the capital of a future sovereign state of Palestine. The indivisibility of Jerusalem as Israel's capital has been the touchstone of Likud's philosophy, and that of other right-wing Israeli political parties, ever since the capital was reunited after the Six-Day War in 1967. So it was no surprise that a denial was immediately issued – a denial, however, that seemed to lack total conviction, especially in light of Netanyahu's recent recognition of the two-state solution as the preferred way ahead, and his decision to freeze settlement construction on the West Bank for a period of ten months. Step by step he seems to be returning to the spirit, if not exactly the letter, of the Oslo Accords.

Then there were three Hamas leaders apparently accepting Israel's right to exist and even, it seemed, prepared to ditch the Hamas charter. Can it be true? The report was well-based.

And the perennial Middle East conference concept blossomed again, albeit briefly, in a renewed bid by France to host such an event in Paris, though the USA is also in the frame as host, and Russia too has formally applied for the role, to say nothing of Egypt's hosting of the on-going "Alexandria Process" meetings. As regards the French proposal, George Mitchell is said to have discussed it in private with foreign minister, Bernard Kouchner, earlier this month. No details of their discussion were released.

So perhaps the idea of a Paris-based Middle East conference is a card up George Mitchell's sleeve – to be revealed with a flourish in due course.

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