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Peace talks skepticism

August 9, 2011

Israel appears to have made the first move to end a year-long freeze on peace talks with the Palestinians by agreeing to a US-brokered framework for negotiations. The Palestinians, however, see another agenda at work.

graphic of dove with Israeli and palestinian flags
Can US guidelines jump start stalled peace talks in the Middle East?Image: AP Graphics

Attempts to break the deadlock in peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians were given an apparent boost last week when Israel announced that it was willing to accept the guidelines for peace presented by US President Barack Obama in May this year.

The guidelines, which would establish a Palestinian state "based on the 1967 lines" that existed before Israel captured the West Bank and Jerusalem in the Six-Day War with Arab nations, were rejected at the time by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Netanyahu accused the United States of reneging on previous commitments that Israel would not have to withdraw to the 1967 lines. Obama later clarified his position that returning to the 1967 borders would have to take into account "the new demographic realities" in the region - a clarification accepted by Netanyahu - but relations between the two allies have remained tense ever since.

Israel has long been opposed to the two-state solution along the 1967 boundaries, arguing that it would leave the Jewish state with what Netanyahu called "indefensible borders" and would cut off hundreds of thousands of West Bank settlers.

But on Tuesday, an Israeli statement said that Israel would "not reject language on borders that would be similar to Obama's speech" and that it was willing to accept a package containing "difficult elements" as part of the efforts to restart talks with the Palestinians.

"A number of factors at play behind Israel's decision; firstly the Netanyahu government is under pressure at home from domestic protest on socio-economic issues so it makes sense politically to refocus the debate to the peace process," Rory Miller, director of Middle East & Mediterranean Studies at King's College London, told Deutsche Welle.

In addition, he added, there is the sense that this deal is the best that Israel is going to get from the current US administration, and the hope that the 2012 US presidential election campaign will interrupt any serious attempt at negotiations anyway.

What's more, Miller said, should Republicans win the White House, the entire process starts from scratch anyway. And if Obama gets a second term, the Israelis don't want to be remembered as having dismissed all his proposals in the first term.

Apparant u-turn ignores settlement deadlock

The West Bank Jewish settlement of Shilo
Israel is still refusing to move on the settlement issueImage: AP

On the face of it, Israel's announcement looks like a breakthrough. Peace talks have been on hold since September 2010 - practically the length of Netanyahu's current tenure - when Israel declined to renew a partial settlement freeze in occupied territory that expired shortly after the talks began. The Palestinians then made it clear that they would boycott all negotiations while Israel continued to build on land they want for their future state.

The settlement issue remains a stumbling block to negotiations as Israel continues to build on land the Palestinians claim belongs to them in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Only last week, Israel gave final approval for the construction of 900 new homes in the East Jerusalem settlement neighborhood of Har Homa.

Israel does not view construction in the east of the city as settlement activity, calling both East and West Jerusalem its "eternal, indivisible" capital in direct competition to a similar claim by the Palestinians.

"The settlements are not negotiable and will remain so," Rodney Wilson, a Middle East expert at the University of Durham, told Deutsche Welle. "There will be no movement on this by any Israeli government. The two state plan is dead, indeed arguably it died over a decade ago."

Palestinians accuse Israel of statehood ploy

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delivers an address to a joint meeting of the U.S. Congress in Washington, DC, USA on 24 May, 2011.
Netanyahu is accused of having nothing to offer in peace talksImage: picture alliance/dpa

Despite Israel's apparent change of heart over peace negotiations, the Palestinians remain skeptical. Nabil Shaath, a senior member of West Bank-governing Fatah party, released a statement saying that Netanyahu "is not ready to negotiate anything" and "simply has nothing to offer."

Shaath echoed the opinions of many Palestinians when he said that Israel's latest conciliatory response was just a ploy to prevent a United Nations General Assembly vote on Palestinian statehood in September.

The Palestinian Authority plans to approach the UN Security Council through a request to UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon to seek full membership in the world body and recognition of a Palestinian state when the General Assembly's 66th regular session opens on September 21. The declaration, which would be largely symbolic, has gained the support of 122 nations so far in a move which could isolate Israel further if approved.

The Palestinians are accusing Israel of attempting to restart peace talks in a bid to generate an increase in its own international support, and to paint them in a bad light by turning attention to the fact that the Palestinians are refusing to resume negotiations with the Netanyahu government.

The Palestinians claim that Israel is afraid that the UN will give them what the Netanyahu government is unprepared to offer in negotiations.

Ahmed Majdalani, a member of the Palestine Liberation Organization's executive committee, told reporters last week that the framework for talks was an "Israeli bid to thwart the Palestinian move to go the United Nations," adding that "this is only intended to draw attention from the Palestinian UN bid."

"Some gesture from Israel was needed even if it was not very meaningful in practice," Wilson said. "This gesture is a ploy largely for the benefit of the Americans. Israel will not push ahead with it, but it will ensure the US uses diplomatic pressure, or as a last resort its veto, to prevent the bid for Palestinian statehood."

Skepticism over Netanyahu's desire for peace

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas
Abbas risks losing face if the UN plan is derailed by IsraelImage: picture alliance/dpa

Majdalani claimed that the Palestinian leadership had not been officially presented with any proposal for new negotiations and had not been involved in any discussions about the prospect of future talks. He also claimed that Netanyahu had even cancelled meetings with Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas and Israeli President Shimon Peres to discuss the issue.

"There is simply no evidence at all that the Israeli government is prepared to make significant concessions or that they place much hope in the possibility of reaching a peace agreement with Palestinians," Nathan Brown, professor of political science and international affairs at the George Washington University in Washington, told Deutsche Welle.

"Ideologically, the government leans very hard to the right; even if this were not the case, few Israelis think the Palestinians are in any position to make an agreement. This is all about placating the US and forestalling international diplomacy that could isolate Israel. It’s not about a peace deal."

The experts believe it is very unlikely that the Palestinians will agree to drop their UN membership bid in exchange for new peace talks based on the pre-1967 lines as the Palestinian leadership had already invested heavily in the bid, and would face humiliation if it agreed to drop its statehood plan.

"For Obama's first year and a half in office, the Palestinian leadership placed great hope that the US would pressure Israel to return to the negotiating table in terms that would make a deal possible," Brown argued. "When that did not happen, they gave up on Obama and have since searched for a new strategy."

"They have shown mild interest in the US plan for a return to talks, but they have committed themselves so fully to the UN route that they could not publicly back down without facing humiliation."

US ready to veto UN vote to promote peace talks

President Barack Obama
Obama wants peace through direct negotiation, not the UNImage: dapd

Even so, it appears that Israel – with help from the United States – will at least try to force them into dropping the plan. An unnamed Israeli official confirmed last week that Israel had been working with the United States to construct a framework for new peace talks which both countries hope could convince the Palestinians to drop their statehood bid at the UN.

Dan Shapiro, the new US Ambassador to Israel, has already urged the Palestinians to air their grievances in direct negotiations with Israel instead of taking them to the United Nations. Shapiro, who travelled to Israel last week in his first official visit in his new role, said that the Palestinians' bid for UN recognition in September will "not change reality," and that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict can only be solved via negotiations.

This was a reiteration of a White House statement released a few days before which stressed that only direct face-to-face negotiations between the two sides, not declarations from international bodies, would lead to Middle East peace.

The United States is expected to veto the Palestinians' attempt at the UN in an effort to force the negotiation issue, despite the efforts of top Palestinian envoy Hanan Ashrawi to convince US officials to support – or at least not block – the Palestinian bid for UN membership.

US stance prompts accusations of bias

Netanyahu, Obama and Abbas in Washington
The US is accused of putting Israel's interests firstImage: picture-alliance/dpa

Some Palestinians claim that the expected US veto is more to do with protecting Israel from the consequences of statehood than promoting the peace process.

"In the short term, this declaration of statehood would raise tensions but would have little practical effect in itself," Brown said. "If it pushed the Israelis to renounce the interim arrangements contained in the Oslo Accords, it would lead to a serious deterioration in conditions on the ground."

"Over the longer term, it might slightly strengthen the Palestinian negotiating position. That is the Palestinian hope and the Israeli fear."

Brown added that a main problem in Washington's relations with Israel and the Palestinians is that every US effort to please the Israelis alienates the Palestinians.

"This is aggravated by a total blindness on the part of the US toward Palestinian politics," he said.

"This is less about protecting Israel and more about the fact that the US understands Israel much better," noted Brown. "By contrast, the US is completely at sea when it comes to dealing with the Palestinians."

Author: Nick Amies

Editor: Michael Knigge