Sunday, 21 November 2010

Israel-Palestine peace talks: lost in a maze

Barely five weeks after the renewal of direct face-to-face peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians, the process came to an untimely – albeit foreseeable – halt. The stumbling block? The end of the temporary 10-month freeze on building in Israel’s West Bank settlements, instituted by prime minister Netanyahu in November 2009. As 26 September, the pre-determined date, approached, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas began to demand that the moratorium on construction should be renewed, not only in West Bank settlements, but also in East Jerusalem.

Netanyahu’s coalition government is dependent on the continued support of members of political parties more right-wing in their views than his own Likud – in particular, Yisrael Beiteinu. Even so, most Likud ministers supported the resumption of West Bank building when the freeze ended, and many from other parties were adamantly opposed to any renewal of the moratorium. Despite this, Netanyahu managed to get majority support in his Cabinet to offer the Palestinians a new temporary building freeze of 60 days, in return for the PA formally recognising Israel as a Jewish state. This offer was immediately rejected by Abbas.

When Abbas returned to the Arab League, asking them to back him in offering Israel his ultimatum – stop all building in the West Bank and East Jerusalem or we will pull out of the peace process – the League hesitated. The prospect of a sovereign Palestine, clearly within grasp, was too valuable to cast away heedlessly. They procrastinated. Give the United States – under whose auspices the peace process had been renewed – a month to come up with a compromise proposal, they said. We will reconvene in November to see if a deal can be agreed that will allow the talks to continue.

Since then, the Palestinians themselves have indicated that there need be no fixed deadline to a possible offer from the US. And in the interim Netanyahu has been in the States, engaging in intensive diplomatic negotiations. Last week he reported to his Cabinet that the US has put forward a proposal for a 90-day settlement freeze in exchange for support and military aid.

"This proposal was raised during my talks with US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton,” he said. “It is still not final; it is still being formulated by the Israeli and American teams. If and when it is complete, I will bring it to the appropriate Government forum, which in this case is the Cabinet. In any case, I insist that any proposal meet the State of Israel's security needs, both in the immediate term and vis-à-vis the threats that we will face in the coming decade."

Netanyahu's ministerial majority may hinge on the votes of the two Shas members in the security cabinet, and they have said they will oppose him if the US does not explicitly confirm in writing that building throughout Jerusalem will be permitted during the freeze. Accordingly, Netanyahu has delayed a security cabinet vote on the freeze pending US delivery of written assurances of the understandings agreed upon between him and US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

US State Department spokesman Mark Toner said on 18 November: "we are working intensely with both parties." When asked whether, in its conversations with the Palestinians, the US discussed the possibility that the new freeze might exclude east Jerusalem, Toner responded rather obliquely: "We are trying to create the conditions to get them back into direct negotiations."

But building in east Jerusalem does indeed seem likely to prove a major difficulty, for today, 21 November, President Abbas said that the Palestinian Authority will not return to peace talks with Israel unless there is a freeze on settlement building that includes east Jerusalem. Speaking to reporters after meeting Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in Cairo he said: "If there is no complete halt to settlements in all of the Palestinian territories including Jerusalem, we will not accept". Abbas added that neither the Palestinians nor Israel had as yet received an official US request to return to the talks.

The word is that the US is in the process of offering an incentive-filled package to Israel in return for a 90-day building freeze in the West Bank settlements. The package is rumoured to include the US using its veto power in the UN against any unilateral declaration of a Palestinian state, and eventually to providing Israel with 20 additional F-35 Joint Strike fighter jets worth some $3 billion. (Incidentally, some US politicians are reported to be indicating that Washington is now backtracking, and wants some sort of payment for the coveted fighter aircraft.)

It is not, perhaps, surprising, that President Abbas was quoted by the London-based Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper today as saying that there should be no linkage between freezing settlement construction and supplying Israel with weapons. Nevertheless and notwithstanding, in the middle of last week there was a convincing report that Palestinian sources had indicated that they, too, were expecting a package of incentives from the US in return for resuming peace talks with Israel.

As each party takes a turn at stirring the pot, which is bubbling ominously and looks increasingly likely to boil over, prospects for a return to the face-to-face peace talks are starting to fade. (One idea mooted a few weeks ago is that if a resumption of direct talks eventually proves impossible, the Arab League might propose a return to the “proximity” talks that started the current initiative back in the spring.)

The fact is that the two principal parties are each, in their own way, hamstrung by political imperatives. As the distinguished Middle East commentator, David Horowitz – also, incidentally, editor of the Jerusalem Post – astutely pointed out last week, the Palestinian leadership has, over the years, negotiated with Israel even as building not just in east Jerusalem but across the West Bank continued. By doing so, he wrote, “they were essentially accepting that construction would quietly go on at a relatively low level until an accord was reached – that no Israeli government was going to initiate a bitter confrontation with the potentially affected settlers before the painful deal was done, and that the eventual signature of such an accord would resolve the final status and disposition of the disputed territory.”

What Horowitz asserts, with some reason, is that President Obama and his administration, by repeatedly urging Israel to halt all building over the pre-1967 lines, including in east Jerusalem, has shattered that pragmatic framework.

Ramat Shlomo, the Jerusalem neighbourhood where new building plans caused a Netanyahu-Obama fracas earlier this year, had quietly become home to thousands upon thousands of Israeli Jews. But neither Ramat Shlomo, nor the neighbourhoods of Pisgat Ze’ev and Har Homa, the focus of this week’s row, are areas that Mahmoud Abbas can seriously believe would come under the sovereignty of a future Palestine. Washington has in effect, Horowitz asserts, cut the ground for compromise from under Mahmoud Abbas’s feet.

The bitter irony, he writes, is that while the administration evidently continues to believe that pressuring Israel over this issue will help mollify the Palestinians and thus bring them back to the peace table, Abbas himself is telling anybody who will listen precisely the opposite. As Washington Institute analyst David Makovsky noted this week, Abbas “felt trapped by Obama’s call for a complete settlement freeze in the spring of 2009.” It meant that he couldn’t now come back to the peace table without it.

And that is precisely the spot on which the Palestinians now stand – demanding what Netanyahu certainly cannot politically deliver: a complete building freeze in all West Bank settlements and in east Jerusalem. A maze indeed. Is there a way out?

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