Friday, 30 April 2010

April Reviewed

If the issues involved were not so serious, one might be inclined to compare the Israeli-Palestinian scene over this past month to that stately Elizabethan court dance, the Pavane. In that refined sequence of steps, participants go round in a circle, they advance and retreat, they touch fingertips then break away. Pursuing the analogy, as we reach the end of April we find the dance in a sort of hiatus, the dancers poised, awaiting the next burst of music.

This temporary lull in proceedings began in mid-March when the proximity talks, carefully nurtured by the US special Middle East envoy, George Mitchell, were put on hold. The stage had been set, the actors assembled, the Chorus (in the shape of US Vice President Joe Biden) had arrived to introduce the show with a flourish – but the curtain failed to rise. Israeli Interior Minister, Eli Yishai – who is also leader of the religious party, Shas – chose the moment that Joe Biden stepped foot in Israel to authorise the announcement of a major housing project in Ramat Shlomo, a district in Jerusalem that lies over the "Green Line".

In itself this should have no effect at all on the frail consensus that had led to the agreement to start talking. In imposing a ten-month construction freeze in the West Bank back in November 2009, Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu had specifically excluded construction in Jerusalem from the moratorium. The USA, the Palestinian Authority and indeed the Arab League, which had endorsed the idea of PA President Mahmoud Abbas participating in the talks, had all gone ahead well aware of the Israeli position.

Yet the announcement proved to be a political and diplomatic thunderbolt. It was perceived in Washington as a deliberate snub to the Vice President. Netanyahu took steps to prevent future embarrassing debacles of a similar nature, but President Obama was less than fully mollified, and presented the Israeli prime minister with a list of requirements – one report suggests it ran to thirteen items – that he regarded as necessary before the proximity talks could take place.

As weeks went by and Netanyahu pondered his response, no doubt clearing it step by step with his coalition partners, rumours began to circulate about the possibility of the Obama administration devising some sort of peace plan of their own, or imposing some sort of settlement on both parties. Finally, denials on both fronts were issued. Nothing was to be imposed by Washington, but every effort was to be expended on getting the proximity talks up and running.

Then last Saturday reports emerged that, during a meeting with US special envoy George Mitchell the previous day, Netanyahu had agreed to release more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners held in Israeli jails, to remove several roadblocks in the West Bank, and to ease the blockade on the Gaza Strip, as a series of gestures towards Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. He had also, it was reported, agreed to enable the Palestinian Authority to act in Area C of the West Bank, which contains most Israeli settlements and about 70,000 Palestinians (about 4 per cent of the West Bank Palestinian population).

These concessions were presumably in response to President Obama's list of actions considered necessary to get the proximity talks up and running. The pressure on Netanyahu must have been intense, and presumably his coalition cabinet must have considered that in the final analysis they would yield commensurate positive results. However, reports indicate that Netanyahu specifically refused President Obama's requirement to freeze construction in East Jerusalem, as well as a request to return all territories classified as Area C in the West Bank to PA control. That indeed would have been the surrender of a vital Israeli bargaining counter in future negotiations - should they indeed eventually materialise.

During the period that Washington awaited Netanyahu's response and the Israel-Palestine situation wallowed in a sort of limbo, other speculations were floated and have been blown aside. For example (see the article "Mending fences" of 23 April), US and Israeli officials apparently worked out a formula for ending the current crisis which included the idea of establishing a Palestinian state within temporary borders as an interim measure. One Israeli newspaper reported that Netanyahu was "amenable" to the idea. Whether he was or not, it soon emerged that PA President Abbas certainly was not.

Then, there was the plan of PA prime minister, Salam Fayyad, announced in August 2009, to create a de facto Palestinian state within two years. Fayyad has worked consistently, and with some success, to strengthen the economic and financial development of the West Bank and to create the infrastructure necessary for a viable sovereign state. As the evidence of his achievements mounted, reports began to appear mooting the possibility of a unilateral declaration of a sovereign Palestine by August 2011.

This, too, PA President Abbas, speaking on Israeli television on Monday, has quashed – though in doing so he has created tensions within Fatah. "We stand by agreements," said Abbas, regarding the unilateral declaration of statehood. During the interview, the Palestinian leader also confirmed that he is committed to returning to the negotiating table next month. He said he hopes to get Arab League approval for indirect talks at their meeting on 1 May.

On the other hand – once more round the dance floor – Syria's Al-Watan daily newspaper reported on Tuesday that the Arab League was expected to reject the Obama administration's proposal to begin indirect Middle East peace negotiations in the coming weeks. That may, of course, be nothing more than wishful thinking.

During April the main rejectionist states – Iran and Syria – have forfeited a deal of the goodwill that Barack Obama seemed willing to lavish on them at the start of his presidency. Hoping to engender a new, post-Bush, atmosphere in the Muslim world, Obama expended a great deal of energy in trying to "engage" with them. His hope was to obtain at least their tacit agreement to his efforts to broker a peace deal between Israel and the PA. Neither was amenable to his charm campaign.

But Iran has continued to defy Washington's efforts to restrain their continued enrichment of uranium, and during April Obama reacted by leaving open the threat of a US nuclear response to any nuclear aggression by Iran. Obama also started to gather international support for a fourth set of UN sanctions against Iran.

It was towards the end of the month that reports emerged of a transfer by Syria of highly sophisticated Scud missiles to Hizbollah in Lebanon. These Scud Ds are capable of reaching Israel's southernmost city, Eilat, from the Israel-Lebanon border. As a result, Obama's plan to reinstate formal diplomatic relations with Syria, by posting a US ambassador to Damascus, was put on hold.

And so we end April on a hushed note. The Arab League meets on 1 May either to endorse or to veto PA President Abbas's involvement with the projected proximity talks. If they do take off, a mid-May launch date has been proposed. On Monday, 3 May, Benjamin Netanyahu flies to Cairo to secure the backing of Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak to the proposed proximity talks.

Does the dance continue, or will the music fade away and the dancers once again leave the floor? My guess? To change metaphors, the configuration of the zodiac looks promising. Unregenerate enemies Israel will always have, but with a sovereign Palestine up and running, the way is open for dynamic economic, financial and commercial development in the region, led by Israel, on a scale few have so far envisaged. Think Hong Kong or Shanghai. That may be the sort of future that awaits the region.

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