Thursday, 30 September 2010

September reviewed

Peace process on a roller coaster

Hopes reasonably high at the start of the month; fears definitely to the fore at the end – that about sums up the emotional roller coaster provided by September 2010 to anyone genuinely concerned about the peace process in the Middle East.

Mind you, as T S Eliot remarks somewhere (Murder in the Cathedral, perhaps) “the end is in the beginning.” Everyone who attended the launch in Washington on 26 August of direct face-to-face talks between Israel and the Palestinians was well aware of two skeletons lurking in the cupboard.

The first was the undeniable fact that Hamas, the de facto governing authority in the Gaza Strip – a quintessential component of any future sovereign Palestine – was not present, and was actively engaged in a militant terrorist campaign directed against the peace effort. In that case, one might reasonably ask, what would be the value of any agreement reached between those involved in the negotiations? Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas would be speaking only for West Bank Palestinians – unless, of course, the calculation was that success in the negotiations would change the political landscape so dramatically that Gazans would positively demand to be part of a new sovereign Palestine.

The second skeleton rattling its bones was the looming date of 26 September – the day on which the 10-month freeze on construction in the West Bank, instituted by Prime Minister Netanyahu in November 2009 in response to President Obama’s urging – formally came to an end. Netanyahu’s fragile coalition government rested on the support of hard-line right-wing parties like Yisrael Beteinu, strongly supportive of the settler movement and strongly opposed to any extension of the moratorium. It was more than his premiership was worth to maintain the ban on construction in the West Bank, but he engaged in intensive diplomatic activity ahead of the 26th in an effort to ameliorate the effect of the end of the freeze.

Partially successful at least he must have been, for come the evening of the 26th, and with it symbolic earth-moving and balloon-releasing activities in various West Bank settlements, lo and behold PA President Mahmoud Abbas declares that he will not immediately turn his back on the peace process, but is content to wait a week or so in order to consult with the Arab League on 4 October. His decision on his next move will follow that.

Israel's decision not to extend the 10-month settlement building freeze was met with worldwide criticism. US State Department spokesperson PJ Crowley said the US was ‘disappointed' by the Israeli decision not to extend the construction moratorium, British Foreign Secretary William Hague, EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton and UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon also expressed concern over the decision.

Of course, should a peace agreement be concluded and then endorsed by the Israeli population in a referendum, as Netanyahu has indicated would occur, the smaller and remoter settlements would simply have to be evacuated and handed over to the new Palestinian state – just as 21 such settlements were, when Israel left the Gaza strip in 2005. So in a sense the more homes the settlers construct, the more the new Palestinian state will have to inherit. This argument, one fears, whatever its validity, is probably too sophisticated to appeal to the Arab man or woman in the street.

US Middle East envoy George Mitchell arrived in the region on the 28th in order to discuss the position. Netanyahu had already had a meeting with Quartet envoy Tony Blair, and planned to meet Mitchell on the 29th to discuss a US compromise proposal aimed at keeping both sides at the negotiating table. The US proposal, it is reported, offers US guarantees over core issues in the negotiations such as refugees, security arrangement and the status of Israel as a Jewish state.

Meanwhile on the 28th, to stir the pot a little and make life more difficult for the prime minister, Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman addressed the UN General Assembly. Lieberman, leader of the right-wing nationalist Yisrael Beiteinu party, said that negotiations in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict should aim at reaching an interim peace agreement and not a final status accord. Peace, he opined, would require population and territorial exchanges, and could only be possible after a number of decades.

The extent of Netanyahu’s difficulties in maintaining the integrity of his government is illustrated by the speed with which his office distanced him from Lieberman's remarks – in itself, in many advanced democratic countries, grounds for requiring an errant minister’s resignation, or his dismissal. However, Israel is well accustomed to errant, not to say maverick, ministers, and no-one was much surprised by the swiftly released statement revealing that Lieberman's speech was not coordinated with the prime minister. If a cabinet minister in the UK stood before the General Assembly of the United Nations and made a speech which had not been cleared with the prime minister, and which was totally at odds with government policy, he would be out of office before you could say “Jack Robinson.” In Israel, because the voting system inevitably results in fragile coalition administrations, ministers feel free to act as loose cannons for long periods of time.

So the best that the prime minister could do, if he wanted to avoid a major political crisis, was to issue a stern and public rebuke. ‘Netanyahu is the one handling the negotiations on Israel's behalf,' said the statement from the prime minister's office. ‘The various issues surrounding a peace agreement will be discussed and decided only at the negotiating table, and nowhere else.’

Commenting on Lieberman's speech, the US State Department spokesperson, PJ Crowley, added that Netanyahu had remarked to US officials that – to say the least – he had to deal with difficult politics and diverse opinions. ‘This is perhaps a manifestation of that,' remarked Crowley.

Finally, Crowley seems the bearer of news indicating that the roller coaster may perhaps be about to start climbing upwards again. He announced on the 27th that Syrian foreign minister Walid Muallem is 'very interested' in pursuing peace talks with Israel. ‘There was a pledge,’ Crowley told reporters, following talks between Muallem and US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in New York. ‘that we would develop some ideas going forward on developing that.'

The meeting between Clinton and Muallem is the first since Clinton took office. Crowley said that during their discussions Clinton expressed her concern over ties between Damascus and Hezbollah, and warned her counterpart explicitly that Syria should resist actions that could undermine stability in either Lebanon or Iraq. Their meeting followed up the recent visit to Syria by US Middle East envoy George Mitchell, when he had discussions with President Bashar al-Assad. Crowley noted that, in line with the US policy of working for a comprehensive peace in the region, Washington is looking to open a new channel of dialogue between Syria and Israel, without obstructing current Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.

A possible glimmer of hope in the uncertain gloom.

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