Sunday, 2 May 2010

Ready, Willing and Able?

So the proximity talks are on again. The event that caused the sudden chill in US-Israeli relations, that led PA President Mahmoud Abbas to declare himself unwilling to resume peace negotiations, even at arms length, that evoked criticism by the EU and the Quartet – now that event seems no obstacle at all.

A housing development in Jerusalem – the casus belli – should never have been an issue in the first place. Ever since the city was unified after the Six Day War in 1967, Israeli governments and Jerusalem mayors of whatever political persuasion have been developing and expanding all areas of Jerusalem – those largely occupied by Jewish, as well as those largely occupied by Arab, households. When the Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, announced a 10-month construction freeze in the West Bank last November, he explicitly excluded construction in Jerusalem. This was well understood by all parties who negotiated the start of proximity talks early in March.

The diplomatic and political débacle was caused not by the fact of a future housing scheme in Jerusalem's Ramat Shlomo suburb, but in the nature and timing of its announcement. One might term it "insensitive" if the suspicion did not exist that it was, in fact, deliberate and designed to attract maximum media attention. Some things are understood, but best left unsaid. This announcement, authorised by Israel's Interior Minister at the moment the US Vice President had arrived to inaugurate the proximity talks, certainly fell into that category. It is doubtful if Prime Minister Netanyahu had been consulted.

Yet now, with Netanyahu maintaining, or at least not formally disavowing, Israel's long-held position on building in Jerusalem, the obstacle is apparently no obstacle at all. What has in fact changed is the atmosphere. A new understanding between the Obama administration and Netanyahu has been forged in the fire of the controversy - a "gentleman's agreement". The Israeli Prime Minister has tacitly agreed to halt construction in East Jerusalem, while the American President has tacitly acknowledged that there is a limit to the amount of pressure Netanyahu can accept and still maintain his coalition government. Obama asked for a series of gestures from Israel to help sweeten Palestinian opinion, and Netanyahu has responded with a prisoner release offer, a lifting of West Bank roadblocks and an easing of the restrictions on imports to Gaza.

These concessions, backed no doubt by some intense persuasion from Washington, have been sufficient to lead Arab League nations, in their meeting in Cairo on 1 May, to endorse a resumption of peace talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. In doing so, the League made it clear that their agreement was for four months, during which time they expected to see some positive results.

US special Middle East envoy, George Mitchell, is expected back in the region this coming week, and the proximity talks could start shortly afterwards. The earlier demands for an explicit Israeli declaration halting all construction in Jerusalem beyond the "Green Line" have been quietly brushed under the carpet, not only by Washington, but by the PA President and the Arab League.

Assuming the talks do, indeed, get under way, what chance of success do they have? The two leading participants – Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu and PA President Abbas – will by definition be ready and willing to engage in negotiations with a two-state solution the desired outcome, but would either be able to deliver?

Concessions there would undoubtedly have to be on both sides in hammering out answers to the major outstanding issues – the nature and extent of land swaps in returning to an approximation of Israel's 1967 borders, the nature and extent of compensation for forgoing the right of return on the Palestinian side, the status of Jerusalem if the capital of a future Palestinian state is to be in its environs, the future administration of Jerusalem's holy sites, means of physically linking Gaza to the West Bank.

Could Netanyahu carry his coalition with him if agreement were ever reached round the negotiating table on these and related matters? Could he carry the country? Could he in fact deliver? Major political upheaval would be likely, a referendum might be mooted, and even then, depending on the nature of the proposition, some violent settler resistance or even wider civil unrest is not improbable.

Could Abbas deliver? He has the backing of the Arab League in entering the talks – vital, since he is risking opposition from Palestinian hardliners backed by Syria and Iran. But would that cover be maintained in the face of a compromise agreement? Syria is a member of the Arab League, but its protests at the approval twice given by the League to the peace talks have so far carried no weight. Will this continue to be the case? Then, Abbas has lost control of Gaza to Hamas, which is wholly opposed to peace negotiations with Israel. What is the value of an agreement between Israel and a PA whose writ does not run in a major part of its territory?

Hanging over these forthcoming proximity talks will be the report in the Israeli newspaper "Ha'aretz" a few days ago. This asserted that President Barack Obama has told several European leaders that if Israeli-Palestinian talks remain stalemated into September or October, he will convene an international summit on achieving peace in the Middle East.

This conference, it was reported, would be run by the Quartet – the United States, European Union, United Nations and Russia – in a bid to forge a united global front for creating a Palestinian state. Israeli officials have said that if such a plan emerges, Obama could postpone it until after the mid-term Congressional elections in November.

Both the Israeli and the Palestinian leaderships are likely to oppose such a conference. It would deprive them of ownership of the peace process. In any case, it is doubtful if an outcome unacceptable to either side could simply be imposed. Israel is, after all, a sovereign state, and the PA aspires to become one. Though one never can tell, It does not seem a likely scenario,. The reports may fall into a category familiar in the British media during the Blair years and dubbed "disinformation". They may, in short, be designed simply to inject some degree of urgency into the forthcoming discussions.

In any case, September is likely to be a critical month. In endorsing the talks, the Arab League is requiring them to show progress within four months, that is by September. The UN General Assembly is due to reconvene in late September, and in addition September 26 marks the end of the 10-month period Israel allocated for a freeze on West Bank settlement construction. Whatever else is on the table at the time, Netanyahu will have to decide by then whether to allow such building to be resumed.

So, as May commences, we cast our eyes towards the distant horizon of September with some trepidation but surely, also, with a little hope.

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