Sunday, 4 July 2010

Peace talks: a sort of blind-man's bluff

Next Tuesday, 6 July, Israel's Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, is due to visit Washington. His previous scheduled date with President Obama. inconveniently coinciding as it did with the Gaza flotilla debacle, was hastily cancelled. The last time the two actually met the climate was frosty, as the US President presented the Israeli PM with a list of required actions aimed at restoring sufficient confidence on the Palestinian side to allow the proximity talks initiative to go ahead.

Those, by and large, Netanyahu met, and indeed the US special Middle East envoy, George Mitchell, was able to set up and subsequently maintain the arm's-length negotiations that have been dubbed "proximity talks". The process even survived the Gaza flotilla incident, and Mitchell returned to the Middle East last week to initiate the fifth round.

This, according to a report in yesterday's (Saturday's) edition of the London-based Arab language newspaper, Al-Hayat, has yielded an unexpected outcome. The report, not as yet officially confirmed, is that Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has handed Mitchell a list of firm proposals for reaching a peace agreement with Israel.

Abbas is said to have proposed the creation of a Palestinian state within the 1967 borders, but with a land swap encompassing 2.3 per cent, which would leave larger Israeli settlement blocs, such as Gush Etzion, Pisgat Ze'ev and Modi'in Ilit, in Israel's hands, along with a swathe of land overlooking Ben-Gurion International Airport. In return, the Palestinians would get land bordering the southern West Bank in addition to land for a passageway between the West Bank and Gaza.

Abbas is also reported to have presented a softened stance on East Jerusalem, which would become the future capital of the Palestinian state. Abbas reportedly proposed that Israel should retain control over the Old City's Jewish Quarter and Western Wall. The rest of the Old City, while under Palestinian sovereignty, would be open to worshippers of all religions.

Included in the scheme are suggestions on borders and security arrangements.

This package, if the reports are accurate, must be regarded as a good opening gambit on Abbas's part. While certainly unacceptable to Israel as it stands, it undoubtedly contains more accommodating elements than previous negotiations have yielded. And once the concept of a land swap is on the table, there is room for manoeuvre, discussion and agreement. The concept of a roadway of some sort linking the West Bank and Gaza has been contained in previous Israeli proposals, notably in the last set offered by Ehud Olmert, when prime minister, and never formally responded to by Abbas.

The sticking point, of course, lies in the final status of Jerusalem. The most far-reaching of previous Israeli suggestions – those sponsored by Ehud Barak, currently Defense Minister, and Ehud Olmert – envisaged the capital of a Palestinian sovereign state as being in a new municipality, perhaps to be called Al-Quds, created from current Arab-occupied districts of East Jerusalem amalgamated with adjoining areas containing a number of Arab-occupied towns.

This concept may indeed still be negotiable within the terms of Abbas's new proposals. A real intractable – though perhaps not insoluble – problem will be sovereignty over the Old City and access to the holy places. This is where the hard bargaining will eventually be required.

Whether Netanyahu will respond immediately is doubtful. Last Friday, in an interview on Israel's TV, he called on Abbas to enter direct negotiations. “I’m ready anytime,” he said. “Let’s not waste another 15 months before we sit down together.” He added that he was willing to discuss the end of the Israeli government's West Bank building freeze, set to end in September, and that he was prepared to go to Ramallah to negotiate with Abbas if the PA President would come to Jerusalem.

"Willing to discuss" the end of the settlement freeze he may be, but here Netanyahu is caught in something of a pincer. On the one hand four ministers in his fragile coalition cabinet – Avigdor Lieberman, Moshe Ya'alon, Benny Begin and Eli Yishai – want construction on the West Bank to be resumed as soon as the official moratorium expires. On the other, in discussions with President Obama next week, Netanyahu is likely to be questioned closely about the possibility of extending the moratorium on West Bank construction in one form or another. Obama is expected to suggest this to Netanyahu in order to enable direct talks to take place, for American officials are pressuring Abbas to start talking face-to-face with Israel.

This coming week, if Netanyahu is capable of demonstrating just a touch of statesmanship, he has the chance of bringing the US President alongside a joint vision of where the peace process should lead. The question is: does Netanyahu in fact, have a clear vision to impart? What sort of future does he envisage for the region? Does he have a destination he wishes to reach, or a clear direction on how to get there?

As noted columnist, Aluf Benn, wrote last week: "Instead of citing hostile statements from the archives of the Palestine Liberation Organization, Netanyahu needs to present Obama with a practical proposal that can be neatly packaged and marketed. His current formula - "a demilitarized Palestinian state alongside a Jewish state" - is yawn-inducing… Compare that with phrases like "the ingathering of the exiles," "peace," "an end to the conflict," and "disengagement," as enunciated by his predecessors. These messages electrified the public and tilted world governments toward Israel."

Meanwhile, Palestinian sources close to Abbas are quoted as saying the Palestinian leader expects more effective US participation in peace talks, with some suggesting that Abbas wants the Obama administration to impose a settlement if negotiations fail.

Nor is he the only one. Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit, present at a meeting in Paris last Thursday attended by the PA Prime Minister, Salam Fayyad, said that if the arm's-length negotiations do not make progress by September, Arab leaders would begin to push the UN for the unilateral creation of a Palestinian state.

"The Arab League foreign ministers," he said, "would agree on the need to act in the Security Council. The state should not be delayed beyond this year. Who should decide? The Quartet is not enough. The Security Council is the venue."

Yet all these statements and discussions, actual and potential, are perpetuating a sort of fictional drama in which all the parties involved appear willing players. Who questions the presumption that Mahmoud Abbas is negotiating on behalf of the whole Palestinian people? But is he? Is the reality not that he speaks only for those resident in the West Bank? Does George Mitchell, or President Obama, believe that a "successful" end to the negotiations, even if achieved at face-to-face talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, would be acceptable to Hamas – let alone Iran or Syria? Would Hamas, the de facto (though not the de jure) government of the Gaza Strip, feel bound by agreements reached in its absence from the negotiating table (not that Hamas would agree to sit down with Israel in the first place)? It is as if all parties have willingly put on blindfolds in order to play a game of blind-man's bluff.

And the game would continue, even if the talks ended in failure. Far from Ahmed Aboul Gheit's dire last-ditch scenario solving anything, the reality is that Hamas has set its face against endorsing a Palestinian state alongside Israel, and there seems little softening of their attitude. The sort of response from Hamas that would follow a two-state solution imposed by diktat of the Security Council requires little imagination.

The truth is that the regional problem requiring the most immediate attention in the Middle East is the bitter and bloody inter-Palestinian feud between Hamas and Fatah. Until that is resolved – and resolved in a way that brings Hamas willingly alongside Mahmoud Abbas in his peace negotiations – any "settlement" of the Israel-Palestinian issue could be only partial and unstable.

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