Wednesday, 31 March 2010

March reviewed

It has been a roller-coaster of a month, filled with events that could not possibly have been predicted. Are the prospects for the start of peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority better or worse than they were at the start of the month? That's difficult to assess, given all that has happened in the intervening 31 days.

At the beginning of March the assassination of the leading Hamas commander, Mahmoud al-Mabhouh, presumably by Israel's secret service Mossad, was still high on the political agenda. Whatever the private views of various governments around the world, the action was nearly universally condemned. Yet it was not easy to see how the event could impact on the Israel-Palestine peace process.

It did several weeks later, when British foreign minister, David Milliband, expelled an Israeli diplomat because forged British passports had been used by the Israeli operatives carrying out the assassination. This expulsion, almost unprecedented between friendly states, certainly put additional strains on relations between the UK and Israel.

Even greater strains, equally unprecedented, were created in relations between the USA and Israel in the middle of the month.

George Mitchell, President Obama's special envoy to the Middle East, had very skilfully wooed the various interested parties into agreeing to reopen peace talks with Israel. A special meeting of the Arab League had given its backing, the Palestinian Authority had authorised President Mahmoud Abbas to do so. It all seemed so much a done deal, that Washington arranged for US Vice President Joe Biden to fly to the Middle East to inaugurate this first phase of "proximity talks" – a sort of shuttle diplomacy in which Mitchell would act a honest broker between the two parties. The intention was that this phase would quickly lead to face-to-face negotiations.

Then everything went wrong. First Jerusalem's mayor, Nir Barkat, announced a controversial scheme to demolish some Arab properties in the Silwan neighbourhood to provide space for an open area of parkland. Prime Minister Bejamin Netanyahu quickly stepped in to quash the scheme. Then, on the day that Mitchell announced that proximity talks had been agreed, Israel's Defense Minister, Ehud Barak, gave permission for 112 housing units to be built in a West Bank settlement, apparently contravening the 10-month freeze on such construction agreed by the government. Barak hastily explained to the media that this very limited building work was essential on safety grounds.

The final major diplomatic debacle occurred shortly after the US Vice President arrived in the Middle East. Israel's Interior Minister. EIi Yishai, who also happens to be the leader of the religious Shas party, authorised the final approval of a scheme to construct 1600 new housing units in Ramat Shlomo, an ultra-orthodox Jewish district of Jerusalem beyond the "Green Line" that separates West Jerusalem from the parts of the city captured from Jordan in the 1967 Six Day War.

Washington was outraged. The move was seen as an insult to the Vice President and to the US administration. Hillary Clinton, US Secretary of State, was pretty unequivocal in her condemnation not only of the timing of the announcement, but also of its substance. This hardening of attitude was maintained when Netanyahu flew to the States towards the end of the month. In unhappy discussions with President Obama, he was faced with a series of demands – including abandoning the Ramat Shlomo construction plans – designed to soothe outraged Arab opinion and provide sufficient by way of conciliatory gestures to enable the proximity talks to start.

For his part, Netanyahu stuck firmly to his position that no Israeli prime minister had ever agreed to limit the improvement and expansion of Jerusalem. In agreeing to freeze construction in the West Bank for ten months, his government had explicitly excluded Jerusalem.

The Quartet – the UN, the EU, the USA and Russia – in its meeting in the middle of March condemned the Ramat Shlomo building plans but supported the start of the proximity talks. The Arab League, meeting at the end of the month, adopted roughly the same position. Statements from Mahmoud Abbas were equivocal. He would state his position on the proximity talks in the first week in April.

Will Israel agree to accept President Obama's demands? If they cannot do so in full, will they offer enough to satisfy Washington? Will what is on offer be sufficient to persuade Mahmoud Abbas to participate in the proximity talks?

It is with these questions unresolved that we await the start of April and what lies ahead.

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