Sunday, 12 December 2010

Israeli-Palestinian peace – the end of Phase One

That the Israeli-Palestinian peace process has stalled is undeniable. That it has foundered is almost certainly not the case – “almost” because nothing is certain, but the portents for a revival of negotiations are far from unfavourable.

For one thing, President Obama has invested too much political capital in achieving a Middle East breakthrough to walk away at the first major setback. For another, it is pretty obvious to the Arab League in general, and the Palestinian Authority in particular, that the first and best hope of achieving a sovereign Palestine lies in coming to an agreement with Israel. Yes, they have a couple of other options up their sleeves (eg seeking endorsement from the UN Security Council for a unilateral declaration of independence), but the chances of such a move achieving their objective are remote. For the reality of the situation is that the areas in the West Bank that they seek to acquire in order to create their state are in Israel’s hands as the occupying power, and would scarcely be handed over in the absence of a comprehensive peace agreement.

As for the Gaza Strip, Israel has vacated the area, but its administration was seized by the terrorist Islamist organisation, Hamas, in a bloody coup in June 2007. In the elections held in January 2006 for the Palestinian Legislative Council, Hamas won 74 seats to the ruling Fatah's 45. President Mahmoud Abbas accordingly formed a national unity government led by prime minister Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas. But sharing power with the Fatah nationalists did not suit Hamas. In four days in mid-June 2007 their ‘Executive Force’ seized control of the entire Gaza Strip, sweeping away key security services and the national militia. President Abbas responded by dissolving the national unity government and forming an emergency government led by former Finance Minister Salam Fayyad, based in the West Bank city of Ramallah. Since then Hamas and Fatah have been at daggers drawn, and all efforts to achieve a reconciliation have ended in failure. It is unlikely that Hamas would meekly hand Gaza over to Abbas in the event of a unilateral declaration of independence, when their aim is control of the whole Palestinian entity.

Nor is it as if the Palestinian Authority actually has an undisputed right to the areas in question. Strictly, the position at the moment is that the West Bank and the Gaza Strip belong to no nation. Following the 1948 war between Israel and the surrounding Arab states, the Gaza Strip was occupied by Egypt, but in March 1979 Egypt renounced any claim to the territory as part of the Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty – the agreement which, following the Camp David Accords, made Egypt the first Arab country officially to recognize Israel. As for the West Bank, at the time of the Six Day War in 1967 Jordan had assumed sovereignty of the area (by simply annexing the region, let it be said), but in July 1988 it renounced all claims to the area. Since neither the West Bank nor the Gaza Strip currently fall within the sovereignty of any nation, the establishment of a sovereign state of Palestine is essential in order to acquire them in the first place, and then to bestow legitimacy on their possession.

Which perhaps explains why Washington still declares itself utterly determined to press ahead with their declared aim of bringing the two-state solution to fruition.

Last Friday (10 December), in her speech before Brookings Institution's Saban Center for Middle East Policy, the US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton provided a detailed explanation of the Obama administration's plans to move the Middle East peace process forward in the wake of the collapse of direct peace talks.

“We will push the parties to grapple with the core issues. We will work with them on the ground to continue laying the foundations for a future Palestinian state. And we will redouble our regional diplomacy. When one way is blocked, we will seek another. We will not lose hope and neither should the people of the region. We will deepen our support of the Palestinians’ state-building efforts, because we recognize that a Palestinian state, achieved through negotiations, is inevitable.”

Commenting that she shares “the deep frustrations” of so many parties invested in the peace process who have been concerned at its stalling in recent days, she said the US would be consulting assiduously with the parties to try to reignite direct talks.

Clinton's speech marked her first Middle East policy address after the United States abandoned efforts this week to persuade Israel to stop new construction of Jewish settlements, a step the Palestinians said was essential if they were to resume direct peace talks which collapsed just weeks after their September launch.

US Middle East peace envoy George Mitchell will head back to the region next week, and Clinton said diplomacy would now concentrate on a range of "core issues", all of which have so far proved difficult to resolve. These include borders and security, settlements, water, refugees, and Jerusalem itself, which Israel says is its capital but which the Palestinians also hope will serve as the capital of their future independent state.

On this key issue Israel's Defense Minster Ehud Barak, who spoke after Clinton at the Saban dinner, described the well-rehearsed solution of splitting the city. He said this issue would be discussed last and resolved along the lines set out back in 2000, namely “western Jerusalem and the Jewish suburbs for us, the heavily populated Arab neighborhoods for them, and an agreed upon solution in the ‘Holy Basin.’”

President Mahmoud Abbas has been manoeuvred by events into demanding the politically impossible from Israel's prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, as his price for returning to the negotiating table – namely a freeze on all building not only in the West Bank but in East Jerusalem. This is the log-jam that Washington is determined to break.

"Israeli and Palestinian leaders should stop trying to assign blame for the next failure," said Hillary Clinton, "and focus instead on what they need to do to make these efforts succeed." She emphasized the US commitment to the peace process and that its goal was "eventually restarting direct negotiations." She continued: "In the days ahead, our discussions with both sides will be substantive, two-way conversations, with an eye toward making real progress in the next few months on the key questions of an eventual framework agreement."

Nothing could be clearer than that. And as if to underline the US commitment, State Department spokesman PJ Crowley told reporters that the Middle East peace process had not unravelled, despite the failure of the Obama administration to keep direct talks between Israel and the Palestinians alive.

“I would say we're definitely not back at square one," said Crowley. "We think, through the many, many conversations and work that we've done over the course of almost two years, we've built a foundation for what lies ahead."

So there does indeed seem to be a future for a Phase Two in the long, wearisome peace process. The hope of a sovereign state of Palestine, living alongside the state of Israel, by agreement and in peace, is not dead.

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