While the Middle East Quartet continues to hold regular meetings to discuss kick-starting peace talks between Israel and Palestinian officials, many see it as a futile exercise. Now some are looking at alternatives.
New Jewish settlements in the West Bank are a stumbling block to peace talks
If you ask Mustafa Barghouti, the Mideast Quartet - the United Nations, Russia, the United States, the European Union - might as well spare itself the trouble of continued meetings aimed at establishing a permanent peace between Israel and the Palestinians.
The Palestinian doctor, democracy activist and chairman of the moderate "Palestinian National Initiative" is convinced that the peace process actually went off the rails some time ago.
"All the efforts make by the Quartet have been stymied by Israel," said Barghouti. "The Israelis are refusing to give an inch, and they continue to build new settlements."
As long as the international community's continues sending a signal to Israel that its actions carry no consequences, the Jewish state will not change its strategy, he believes.
Direct Israeli-Palestinian talks have been on hold for more than a year. They ground to a halt over the thorny issue of settlement construction shortly after they restarted in September 2010.
Mustafa Barghouti is optimistic, but not about the international community's role
New efforts by the Quartet's efforts to secure a peace deal, or even real talks, have largely stalled.
Talks held separately this week with Israeli and Palestinian officials showed little progress and only led to recriminations from both sides. This comes after a November meeting resulted only in a statement from envoys that they had "continued to encourage the parties to resume direct bilateral negotiations without delay or preconditions."
Barghouti, 57, has drawn his own conclusions from the nearly moribund peace process. He no longer focuses on international negotiations, but emphasizes smaller measures that he thinks are more realistic and for which he is seeking support in the Palestinian territories.
He advocates non-violent resistance to Israeli occupation and the building of settlements, diplomatic efforts, such as the initiative brought before the United Nations by Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas, and on the restoration of Palestinian unity.
But just as important, he adds, is an elected government in the Gaza Strip as well in the West Bank.
"In order to hold elections in the Palestinian territories, we need an interim government that is independent from any political party," he said.
He sees his own movement as a "third way," apart from the two large power blocks of Fatah, which governs in the West Bank, and Hamas, which holds power in the Gaza Strip.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas
During the presidential elections of January 2005, Barghouti himself was a candidate and garnered just under 20 percent of the vote, coming in second behind incumbent Mahmoud Abbas.
Political developments this year in the Arab world have given Barghouti new hope. The peaceful protests in Tunisia and Egypt have had a ripple effect, he said, convincing even Hamas, known for its inclinations toward militancy, that a non-violent option is the best one.
"I'm sure that people in the coming months with not only demand democracy, but also an end to Israeli occupation," he said optimistically.
A darker view
But Barghouti's positive outlook is not shared by everyone.
Yariv Oppenheimer has a much more pessimistic view when it comes to peace in the region. Oppenheimer, who chairs the Israeli NGO "Peace Now," is convinced that Israelis and Palestinians have to talk with one another to find a solution to the long-running animosity. Otherwise, he said, the Israeli government will continue pursuing its current policies instead of sitting down at the negotiating table.
In the past 12 months alone, plans for nearly 4,000 new houses for settlers in East Jerusalem have been approved - the highest number in five years. In November, Israel announced plans to accelerate construction of another 2,000 houses in the West Bank.
The rate of housing construction in East Jerusalem by Israel is at a five-year high
"The more time that goes by, the more difficult it will be to come to an agreement," Oppenheimer said.
The 34-year-old general director continues to advocate a two-state solution and unlike Barghouti, is calling for international support for one.
But he is not betting on the Americans playing a big role in negotiations between Israelis in and Palestinians in 2012, which is an election year in both the US and Israel.
"America can only assert its influence after those elections have been held," he said, adding that the international community does have the power to help reach a Middle East peace agreement - if it does not simply give up.
The United States has chided Israel over what it calls its deepening isolation in the Middle East and has said Israel's leaders must bear a large part of the blame for the stalled peace process.
US Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta had uncharacteristically sharp words for Israel
US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta in early December delivered a surprising admonishment to Israel, saying the country needed to repair relations with Turkey, Egypt and Jordan as well as work toward a permanent peace agreement with the Palestinians. At the same time, he reiterated America's "unshakeable" commitment to the security of the Jewish state.
Like Barghouti, Oppenheimer is convinced that non-violent opposition is a strategy the Palestinians should follow.
"The sitting Palestinian leadership is more liberal and flexible than ever before," Oppenheimer said.
But, he added, he didn't have much faith in the current Israeli leadership.
"If the Israeli government refuses to negotiate (with the Palestinians), at least it shouldn't use its settlement policy to bring them to their knees," he said.
Author: Anne Allmeling / jam
Editor: Rob Mudge