Saturday, 21 August 2010

Direct talks: a triumph of hope over optimism

I started this blog in January 2010. As 2010 dawned, it seemed to me possible that the year might prove seminal in the long-drawn-out process of finding an accommodation between Israel and the Palestinians. Although many of the negative factors that had frustrated past efforts were still present, the signs that meaningful negotiations might be resumed and brought, eventually, to some sort of favourable outcome seemed more hopeful than for many years.

The new US president, Barack Obama, had charged his Middle East envoy – the formidable George Mitchell – to return to the Middle East, and to seek a "comprehensive peace". By that, Mitchell soon made clear, he meant not only a settlement of the Israel-Palestine impasse, but also peace between Israel and Syria, and between Israel and Lebanon, and a normalisation of relations between Israel and the Arab world as a whole.

Clearly – and explicitly – the new US administration had embraced the 2002 Arab League peace plan, originally mooted by Saudi Arabia, in which the Arab world would formally recognise Israel and enter into normal relations with her, in exchange for Israel's withdrawing from territories captured in the 1967 war.

Meanwhile the PA-administered West Bank under its president Mahmoud Abbas, and its prime minister Salam Fayyad, had been enjoying unprecedented economic growth – something between 5% and 7% was the World Bank's estimate for 2009.

Hamas, controlling Gaza and virtually at war with Fatah, its rivals within the Palestinian Authority, remained opposed to any action which appeared to recognise Israel. Yet even at this extreme end of the Palestinian spectrum, there were signs of a possible softening of attitude. Hamas had agreed to Egypt acting as a mediator in talks aimed at the release of the Israeli soldier, Gilad Shalit. And some Hamas leaders were going on the record in support of the Arab League peace plan.

These straws in the wind led me to believe that it would be interesting to chart events over 2010. I decided to follow the ups and downs in the long, slow, trek towards a resumption of negotiations between Israel and the PA, and then, if this did occur, to track the discussions. How much, if anything, would be achieved during the year? Would my initial feeling that we were on the brink of a breakthrough be realised? These were the questions that my pieces would eventually reveal.

And so we come to 20 August 2010.

Will Friday 20 August 2010 go down in the history of Israel, to say nothing of a putative future Palestine, as a seminal date – the day when the objective of secure, peaceful co-existence moved from mere aspiration to the start of practical achievement?

Do any factors of significance mark 20 August out from literally scores of dates, strewn across the recent history of the Middle East, marking the inauguration of well-intentioned efforts to reach a settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? To list only a few, there were the Madrid Conference in 1991, the Oslo Accords signed on the White House lawn on 13 September 1993, the Wye River Memorandum in 1998, the Camp David Summit in 2000, the Taba summit in 2001, the Arab Peace Initiative in 2002, the Road Map for Peace promulgated by the Quartet, and the Geneva Accord, both in 2003, and the Annapolis process in 2007.

What are the bare facts about this newest bid for a settlement?

At a press conference held on 20 August, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced that Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, and Palestinian President, Mahmoud Abbas, have been invited to begin direct peace talks in Washington on 2 September. The meeting is intended to "re-launch direct negotiations to resolve all final status issues, which," according to Clinton, "we believe we can complete in one year." Clinton said she herself would host the first direct Israel-Palestinian negotiating session on 2 September, and that President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt and King Abdullah of Jordan have also been invited to join that first discussion.

On the day before, namely 1 September, Netanyahu and Abbas are expected first to meet individually with US President Barack Obama, and Obama will then also hold bilateral meetings with King Abdullah and President Mubarak. That evening all four will be guests at a dinner hosted by President Obama. The guest list will include Tony Blair as representing the Middle East Quartet – comprising the US, the UN, the EU and Russia.

To return to the events of 20 August, it is significant that in addition to Clinton’s announcement, the Quartet issued a statement endorsing the direct talks and urging the two parties to accept the forthcoming US invitation. In their statement the Quartet expressed support for “the pursuit of a just, lasting and comprehensive regional peace as envisaged in the Madrid terms of reference, Security Council resolutions and the Arab Peace Initiative.”

It is pretty clear that complex political machinations lay behind this duplication of events – the press conference invitation and the Quartet endorsement of it. The significance becomes clear when one examines the terms in which each party accepted.

The response by Netanyahu's office mentioned only the US invitation to direct talks. “The prime minister has been calling for direct negotiations for the past year and a half,” his statement said. “He was pleased with the American clarification that the talks would be without preconditions.” Jerusalem has been silent in relation to the Quartet's statement.

Palestinian Liberation Organization leaders, however, gathered overnight on Friday and voted to accept the US invitation in these terms: "The PLO executive committee announces its acceptance of a resumption of direct negotiations with Israel, in accordance with the statement by the international Middle East Quartet and the invitation by the United States."

In effect the two sides have accepted different invitations to the same talks. The reason is clear. The documents explicitly mentioned in the Quartet's statement are filled with equivocal requirements, many of which are precisely the major issues needing resolution in the forthcoming talks. In particular, embedded in the Quartet's position is a call for a complete freeze on building in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, and at least an implied assumption that the borders of a new sovereign Palestinian state would be the boundaries that Israel crossed during the Six Day War.

PA President Abbas has been under intense pressure for several weeks to resume direct talks. He has consistently stonewalled, first demanding that talks continue from where they left off with former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in November 2008, then maintaining that any future agreement must be based on the 1967 borders, and throughout that Netanyahu's freeze on settlement building in the West Bank apply also to East Jerusalem. Without any of the above demands being fulfilled, he reckoned that entering into direct talks with Israel would open him up to criticism from Fatah loyalists in his own party, to say nothing of the condemnation that would be heaped on him by his Hamas rivals and their patrons, Iran and Syria.

All preconditions for starting direct talks were rejected by the Israeli government, and in recent days Abbas has been saying that he would be prepared to enter direct talks without the assurances from Israel, if instead assurances came from the Quartet. Hence their pre-press conference statement.

The resumption of direct talks is undoubtedly a victory for the US administration's diplomatic efforts. US Middle East envoy Mitchell, who has been shuttling back and forth to the region since early 2009, succeeded in brokering the proximity talks between the two sides, a valuable precursor to the current outcome.

Israel, too, will view with satisfaction the renewal of direct talks, especially since they are explicitly starting without preconditions. Netanyahu has repeatedly called for the resumption of direct negotiations in recent months, and made this a central theme during his visit to Washington in July. This new initiative is likely to mitigate the political backlash from his right-wing coalition members when he seeks to extend the settlement freeze, as he surely must. Indeed, with the construction moratorium deadline only three weeks after the first meeting on 2 September, this issue is likely to prove the first hurdle to be cleared if the whole initiative is not to fail.

Israelis and Palestinians stand shoulder to shoulder on one issue at least – cynicism about Middle East peace initiatives. The efforts to bring about a resolution of the conflict have been many and various; the obstacles formidable and indeed, to date, insurmountable. Optimistic it is impossible to be about this latest well-intentioned effort. Who – barring perhaps George Mitchell, President Obama's dogged special Middle East envoy – could put his hand on his heart and say that a peace agreement between Israel and the PA on or before 20 August 2011 is a realistic possibility?

Optimism may indeed appear unrealistic, but there is one thing that cannot be killed off so easily - hope.

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