Sunday, 28 February 2010

February Reviewed

On Friday a mischievous, if not malicious, piece of disinformation found its way on to the internet – namely that George Mitchell, President Obama's special Middle East envoy, was on the point of tendering his resignation because he was disillusioned by the pro-Israel attitudes of the State Department, and disillusioned by the consequent lack of progress in the peace process.

The story is almost certainly no more than the fantasy wish of someone ill-disposed towards the peace process. Mitchell has been tireless over the past two months in working, with patience and skill, to bring the views of the Palestinian Authority and Israel sufficiently close to ensure a return to the negotiating table. There has been clear progress during February, despite all manner of distracting events, most of them beyond his control, but any one of which could have overturned the whole applecart. They didn't.

By the last day of January, Mitchell had mooted the idea of an interim phase before the resumption of direct face-to-face peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians – the concept of "proximity talks". This is an idea that worked for two years in facilitating exchanges of views between Israel and Syria, hosted by Turkey. It requires a mutually acceptable third party shuttling between the two protagonists, and acting not only as a postman but also as a mediator.

By this last day of February, the concept has taken on real substance. Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel's prime minister, has accepted the idea. Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian Authority, has during the month held detailed "clarification" discussions with US officials, and has now let it be known that he is seeking the approval of Arab governments before finally committing himself to the proximity talks idea. The most convenient venue in which to seek that approval may be the next scheduled meeting of the Arab League on 27 March in Libya.

It was quite early in February that Israel's parliament, the Knesset, passed a bill that makes it mandatory to call a referendum before the Golan Heights could be handed over to a foreign power. The Golan Heights, originally part of Syria, were lost to Israel during the Six Day War in 1967, recaptured by Syria in the early days of the Yom Kippur war in 1973, then lost again and left in Israel's hands as part of the disengagement treaty after the war. The area was subsequently formally annexed by Israel in 1981. The referendum bill means that the whole of Israel would need to be convinced that a hand-back of the Golan to Syria would be in exchange for a full and genuine peace.

It was during February that Turkey indicated she was anxious to resume the Israel-Syria proximity talks that were broken off following Israel's attack on Hamas in Gaza. Despite an ill-tempered spat between Syrian and Israeli spokesmen in the middle of February, the resumption of talks seems a distinct possibility

Talking of Hamas, a poll of Palestinian opinion held during February revealed a remarkable reversal of pro-Hamas sentiment among Palestinians in both Gaza and the West Bank. Whereas in the January 2006 elections Hamas gained 76 of the 132 seats in the Palestinian parliament as against Fatah's 43, the latest poll indicated that if an election were held now only 11% would vote for Hamas. The Fatah-led government of president Mahmoud Abbas and his prime minister Salam Fayyad was regarded as the sole legitimate Palestinian government by the majority of those polled.

During the month new Palestinian elections were called for 17 July. The fact that Hamas refused to join the other parties in discussions called by the Palestinian Central Elections Commission prior to the announcement, does not bode well for future harmony between the warring Palestinian parties.

As for the central issue, the dying days of February brought reports of the USA and Russia agreeing to reconvene a meeting of the Quartet (the USA, Russia, the UN and the EU) to review progress in the peace process. and perhaps push it forward. The 19th of March has been quoted as a possible date – well past the 15th, the notorious "Ides" on which Julius Caesar was assassinated. We'll see.

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