Middle East

Yet Another Round of Peace Talks

John Kerry meets Palestinian and Israeli negotiators Saeb Erekat and Tzipi Livni.
John Kerry meets Palestinian and Israeli negotiators Saeb Erekat and Tzipi Livni.

When U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry triumphantly announced on July 19 that Israel and the Palestinian Authority had established “a basis” to resume direct peace talks, he looked at PA President Mahmoud Abbas and said, “Mr. President, you should look happy.”

Kerry assumed that the resumption of talks after a three-year hiatus would please Abbas, since  the Palestinians realize they can only achieve national independence through a two-state solution. But in agreeing to talks under the auspices of the United States, Abbas had to swallow his pride and drop sacrosanct pre-conditions that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had already rejected.

Until he capitulated, Abbas had staunchly insisted that a renewal of talks would only be possible if  Israel imposed a settlement freeze in the West Bank, accepted the 1967 armistice lines as a basis for negotiations and agreed to release Palestinian prisoners.

The PA dropped the first two pre-conditions under American pressure and under the influence of the United States’ decison to unblock $500 million in aid and a promise to channel a whopping $4 billion into the Palestinian economy. By all accounts, the Palestinians were also pleased by a supposed American assurance that the United States would support the Palestinian position requiring Israel to withdraw to the pre-1967 armistice lines within the framework of mutual territorial swaps.

Benjamin Netanyahu
Benjamin Netanyahu

Netanyahu, who had called for a “historic compromise” with the Palestinians and an immediate return to talks, had to bend as well. In a break with his policy, he did not insist on prior Palestinian recognition of Israel as a Jewish state. During the Olso peace process, the PA recognized Israel, but not explicitly as a Jewish state.

As a further inducement to the Palestinians, Israel promised to release in phases 104 Palestinian prisoners with “blood on their hands.” Israel’s pledge aroused deep indignation and anger among some Israelis.

Having cleared away these potential deal breakers, Kerry and his designated representative, Martin Indyk, the former U.S. ambassador to Israel, convened the first round on July 31. Since then, several more rounds have taken place.

The talks have been conducted by the chief Israeli and Palestinian negotiators, Tzipi Livni and Yitzhak Molcho, on the one hand, and Saeb Erekat and Mohammed Shtayeh, on the other.

Under the ground rules, the talks are to proceed in secret, last nine months and address core issues like borders and the Palestinian refugee problem.

Kerry is “hopeful” that Israel’s long-running dispute with the Palestinians can be resolved, but there are naysayers. Previous sets of negotiations in 2000, 2001, 2003, 2007 and 2008, all under the direction of the United States, fizzled in an atmosphere of acrimony.

Although too much hope should not be invested in the success of the latest round of  talks, they are not necessarily doomed to failure.

Consider these points:

  • Abbas, as Israeli President Shimon Peres has repeatedly declared, is committed to the two-state paradigm and opposes violence. On Aug. 22, he told an Israeli delegation of left-wing politicians that once the conflict ends, he would make no further demands on Israel. A pragmatist, he has more credibility among Israelis than his precedessor, the late Yasser Arafat, who was widely seen as a prevaricator.
  • Netanyahu, though a hawk in most respects, endorses a two-state solution, at least rhetorically. Recently, he distanced himself from a comment by Deputy Defence Minister Danny Danon that his right-of-center coalition government is opposed to the concept of two states for two people.

Netanyahu, however, has studiously refrained from presenting a map of final borders. But according to Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Ze’ev Elkin, Netanyahu is prepared to cede 86 percent of the West Bank to the PA, keeping 14 percent to retain settlement blocs near Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.

In explaining his rationale for resuming talks with the PA, Netanyahu cited two objectives, one of which he expropriated from the Israeli left.

First, he said, Israel must prevent “the creation of a single binational state between the (Mediterranean) Sea and the Jordan (River), which would endanger Israel’s status as a Jewish state.” Second, he noted, Israel must ensure that an “Iranian-sponsored (Palestinian) terrorist state” does not emerge on Israel’s frontier.

  • The Arab League has thrown its support behind Kerry’s peace initiative, the culmination of six trips to the Middle East and countless hours of shuttle diplomacy. Despite an American “pivot” toward Asia, Washington remains deeply enmeshed in Mideast affairs.
  • The majority of Israelis and Palestinians are in favor of a two-state solution, as surveys suggest.
  • The West Bank has been comparatively quiet since the bloodshed of  the second Palestinian uprising, which lasted from 2000 until 2005, and this relative tranquility encourages the belief among some Israelis that peaceful coexistence is possible.

Peace, though, may be out of reach, notwithstanding Kerry’s laudable efforts.

  • The Palestinians are  hopelessly divided into two warring camps, with the PA supporting diplomacy and its bitter rival in the Gaza Strip, Hamas, calling for Israel’s destruction and an Islamic state in its place.
  • Abbas, though ready to strike an equitable accord with Israel, is demonstrably weaker than Arafat and may not even be able to enforce it.
  • The level of mutual mistrust is so high that neither side may be willing to compromise.
  • The gap between Israel and the PA on key issues, from the future of the settlements to the ownership of eastern Jerusalem, remains abysmally wide.
  • Many members in Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud party, as well as a number of ministers in his governing coalition, are vehemently against territorial concessions, not to speak of an independent, geographically-contiguous Palestinian state. They are convinced that the West Bank belongs to Israel. They do not trust Palestinian intentions. They fear that Israel should not make major moves in the wake of the chaos unleashed by the Arab Spring rebellions.

Examples of their skepticism abound.

On the eve of the latest talks, Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Elkin warned that Netanyahu was “going against the flow of his own party” by supporting the formation of a Palestinian state. Like his colleagues in Yisrael Beiteinu, a party mainly supported by Russian immigrants, Elkin believes that Israel should annex the West Bank and that Israel’s guiding principle should not be the “land-for-peace” formula but rather an exchange of populated territory so that the Arab population of Israel can be drastically reduced.

Elkin’s ideological comrade-in-arms, Economics Minister Naftali Bennett of the Jewish Home party, has urged Netanyahu to “put the idea (of a Palestinian state) behind us.” As he observed about two months ago, “The biggest problem is that the leaders of Israel are not prepared to say clearly that the Land of Israel belongs to the Jewish people.”

Bennett, who rejects the notion that Israel occupies part of the West Bank, has suggested, cynically or naively,  that Palestinians should be pleased with self-rule under Israeli sovereignty.

Pandering to and probably subscribing to such sentiments, Netanyahu has taken a series of provocative steps to consolidate Israel’s foothold in the West Bank, where housing starts increased by 176 percent in the first quarter of 2013.

Last month, Israel added 90 Jewish settlements in the West Bank to a national priority list of communities eligible for additional subsidies in infrastructure, housing, education, culture and sports. This was followed by announcements of Israel’s intention to build more than 1,000 new units in eastern Jerusalem and the West Bank, both of which are coveted by the Palestinians as their future capital and state.

The PA reacted furiously, accusing Israel of negotiating in bad faith and undermining negotiations. Hanan Ashrawi, a Palestinian leader, said the PA might turn to the United Nations and international bodies to stop Israel from expanding settlements in the West Bank and tightening its grip on eastern Jerusalem.

The outrage was not confined to Palestinian ranks.

United Nations General Secretary Ban Ki-moon described “illegal settlement outposts” as “a violation of international law.” Israel’s middle-of-the-road finance minister, Yair Lapid, criticized the government for “needlessly challenging the Americans” and poking “sticks in the wheels of peace.”

The United States, which strangely enough did not insist on a settlement freeze as a precondition for restarting talks, urged both side to exercise restraint and restated its view that settlements are illegitimate and an obstacle to peace.

Israel’s housing and construction minister, Uri Ariel, a settler himself, responded to the uproar with a defiant statement: “We will continue … to build in the entire country … This is the right thing at the present time, for Zionism and the economy.” On Aug. 25, he went further, declaring that “the vision of two states is unrealistic and will never happen.”

Tellingly enough, Netanyahu was conspicuously silent, letting Ariel do the talking.

This is hardly surprising.

Several months ago, during a visit to Poland, he distanced himself from an official communique, composed by his bureau, affirming the right of Palestinians to statehood. The communique read: “Unilateral steps by either party are counter-productive to achieving a sustainable, lasting peace.”

Israel risks destroying itself as a Jewish state if it does not come to terms with the Palestinians, as Leon Wieseltier, the literary editor of the New Republic, said recently in an interview in Tel Aviv.

“Unless there is a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, there will not be a Jewish state for long,” he warned, citing the imperatives of demographics, which are working against Israel.

One wonders whether the current Israeli government has really and truly taken this factor into account in its calculations.

But the Palestinians are not blameless for the impasse. For a long time now, PA officials, employees and institutions have engaged in a campaign of incitement against Israel, a trend that hardens Israeli public opinion and pushes the prospects of peace further into the distance.

An anchor on the PA’s official TV station predicted that the state of Palestine would extend from Rosh Hanikra to Eilat, encompassing the entire length of Israel. The PA minister of religious endowments compared the PA’s decision to negotiate with Israel with a truce the Prophet Mohammed deliberately broke with his rivals. Palestinian school texts demonize Israel, poisoning the minds of a new generation of Palestinians.

“Incitement and peace don’t go together,” wrote Netanyahu in a recent letter of complaint to Kerry. But neither do Israeli unilateral actions that sour the atmosphere and try to pre-determine the outcome of peace talks.