Talks charade

Print edition : October 08, 2010

West Asia: The revived Israel-Palestine talks seem doomed to failure considering the inflexible stand of the Israeli Prime Minister.

THE direct talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority (P.A.) resumed with much fanfare in Washington in the first week of September. It is after a long hiatus that the Israeli Prime Minister and the P.A. President had a face-to-face meeting. But from all indications, the new round of talks, like the previous ones, is doomed to failure. For the talks, there is no frame of references or issues listed relating to the creation of a viable Palestinian state. Instead, the emphasis at the talks was on Israel's security demands, shorthand for recognition of its illegal settlements, and undisputed control of Jerusalem.

The direct peace talks had the backing of the Arab troika of Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia, besides the United States. Hamas, which today is the most popular Palestinian party, was not even consulted. Syria and Lebanon, which have serious territorial disputes with Israel, were also not invited to the table by the Barack Obama administration.

Though the talks were supposedly held without any preconditions, P.A. President Mahmoud Abbas announced at the outset that for the talks to continue, the Israeli government had to extend its freeze on settlement-building in the West Bank. But construction activity in Jerusalem has continued on a feverish pace. The partial freeze announced by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, to give President Abbas a face-saver to restart the talks, is due to expire on September 26. President Obama, who had to work overtime to convince Netanyahu to make this temporary concession in the first place, is now pleading with him to extend the moratorium. On previous occasions, the Israeli Prime Minister has cocked a snook at the American President without having to pay a significant political price. He had even publicly humiliated U.S. Vice-President Joseph Biden during the former's visit to Israel earlier in the year. Netanyahu also told Tony Blair, the envoy of the quartet of West Asia mediators, on September 12 that the Palestinian demand for a halt to construction activity in the occupied territories was not going to happen.

Netanyahu will play along for some time with the Obama administration and adopt maximalist positions at the talks. His obvious game plan is to continue with the charade of talks while keeping on building settlements in the occupied West Bank.

On September 10, Obama called on the Israeli government to extend its partial freeze in settlement-building to give the talks a momentum. He told the media in Washington that he had conveyed to the Israeli Prime Minister that it makes sense to extend the moratorium. It is likely that Netanyahu would once again extend his partial freeze so as not to embarrass Obama on the eve of the midterm elections in the U.S.

Israel's Foreign Minister, Avigdor Lieberman, has ruled out any more extension of the construction freeze in the occupied territories and predicted that the new round of talks will fail. He told Israel's Army Radio that peace with the Palestinians was not attainable in a year or during the next generation. Another important ally of Netanyahu in the government, Rabbi Ovadia Yusuf, the leader of the Shas Party, expressed the hope that God would strike President Abbas dead before the direct talks commenced.

Netanyahu has not shown any real flexibility during the talks. His positions remain unchanged. He wants the Palestinians to recognise Israel as a Jewish state and has rejected calls for a full and permanent settlement freeze and also the handing over of East Jerusalem to become the capital of a Palestinian state. He has refused to countenance the right of return of five million Palestinians who were displaced from their homes and hearth. This right has been enshrined in resolutions passed by the United Nations.

Before the talks began, a tape featuring Netanyahu was aired on Israeli television. In the video, secretly filmed in 2001, he is seen boasting about the role he played in derailing the Oslo accord in his previous stint as Prime Minister. He said that his negotiating tactic with the Palestinians is to give 2 per cent in order to prevent 100 per cent.

The well-known Israeli intellectual Gideon Levy wrote in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz that the video proved that Israel was led by a man who did not believe in signing a meaningful agreement with the Palestinians and who thinks that Washington is in his pocket and he can pull the wool over its eyes.

Before leaving for the talks, Netanyahu told supporters of his Likud party that they had nothing to worry. You don't need to worry. Nobody needs to teach me what it is to love Eretz Israel, he said. The term Eretz Israel stands for an Israel stretching from the Mediterranean to the Jordan river, encompassing the whole of the West Bank.

The Obama administration, despite all the evidence to the contrary, still expresses optimism that a peace agreement between Netanyahu and Abbas is possible within a year.

Abbas has said that his first priority would be to make Israel recognise the 1967 borders. If we want to start negotiations, we will start with borders and then move to security because the border is important for us and security is important for them (Israel), Abbas told a Palestinian newspaper.

He said a clearly demarcated border based on the de facto one that existed before the 1967 war would give the Palestinians a solution to the Jerusalem, settlements and water problems. It is unlikely that the P.A. will ever accept Israel as a Jewish state one of Netanyahu's key demands. Despite the ethnic cleansing, Palestinians constitute 20 per cent of Israel's population. Their number, going by current demographic trends, is bound to increase substantially in the next decade. And in the next 25 years, Palestinians could constitute 30 per cent of Israel's population.

Native aliens

Many Israeli policymakers are aware of the demographic threat and the challenge it will pose to the Zionist enterprise in the future. Many Palestinians say that the two-state solution is no longer feasible and that the only long-term solution is a single state where Jews and Palestinians have equal rights.

Gadi Taub, an academic at Hebrew University of Jerusalem, wrote in The New York Times, that Theodor Herzl, the architect of the Zionist state, wanted Israeli Jews and Arabs to have the same rights. But today the majority of the Israeli Jews view Arabs as aliens in their own land. He notes that if Israel fully annexes the West Bank, there will be parity in the population of Jews and Arabs. But with some prominent right-wing Jewish politicians, such as former Defence Minister Moshe Arens, supporting the idea of one unified state, the Palestinians smell a rat. They think it is a scheme to formalise the land grab in West Bank and Jerusalem while leaving the one and a half million Palestinians in Gaza in the lurch.

Hamas unhappy

Hamas, which is in control of the Gaza Strip and had won a majority in the free and fair elections held in 2006, has criticised the decision of Mahmoud Abbas to resume talks. The talks were suspended after the Israeli invasion of Gaza in December 2008. Excluding Hamas from the dialogue process at the insistence of the West has anyway deprived the talks of what little credibility it had among the Palestinian people.

The Obama administration's pointman in the region, George Mitchell, said before the beginning of the talks that he did not envisage any role for Hamas in future negotiations. Arab states and an increasing number of Western capitals are well aware that durable peace is unachievable without the participation of Hamas. Mitchell, the man credited with bringing peace in Northern Ireland, had no compunctions about getting the Irish Republican Army (IRA) branded as a terrorist organisation while conducting negotiations there.

The Hamas leadership is anyway sceptical about the utility of any talks with Israel until such time as Israel refused to recognise the 1967 borders or acknowledge the right of return of Palestinian refugees. A Hamas leader, Ismail Rudwan, speaking on Al Quds (Jerusalem) day in the first week of September, said the negotiations that the Palestinians had tried for two decades with Israel were pointless. Palestinians never gained anything from them except the loss of their causes and rights. Therefore, we consider participating in these talks a crime and a treason, he told a cheering crowd in Gaza. Hamas has announced that it will not accept any deal reached between Netanyahu and Abbas. Abbas has said that if a peace deal is clinched, he will put it up for a referendum.

Settler force

While talks began in Washington, four Israeli settlers were killed in the West Bank. A Hamas spokesman justified the killings saying that the Israeli settler community was an Israel reserve force on the West Bank. Zionist settlers are the occupation's first reserve military force. They are now a real army in every sense of the word, with more than 500,000 automatic weapons at their disposal, on top of the basic protection provided by the Israeli army, a Hamas spokesman told the London-based newspaper Al Hayat. There are an estimated 500,000 Jewish and non-Jewish Russian settlers in 121 settlements on the West Bank, occupying the best farmlands and cornering the scarce water resources.

The stand of Hamas on the resumption of peace talks has found support among all the Palestinian political groupings. Many leaders of the Fatah, the party led by Abbas, are also critical about the decision to resume talks at this juncture. The jailed Fatah leader, the charismatic Marwan Barghouti, issued a statement which said that the priority for Palestinians is not talks but ending the current infighting among themselves. Barghouti has been a strong votary of Fatah-Hamas unity. The negotiations are destined to fail, as had happened in the last two decades, Barghouti wrote in a recent article. The alternative, he wrote, is to achieve wider unity and wider participation in popular resistance to the occupation. He called on the international community to tighten further its South Africa-style boycott of Israeli goods.

The Likud Party has consistently rejected the idea of Palestinian statehood. The Israeli government only envisages limited statehood for the Palestinians of the kind the Bantustans enjoyed under the apartheid regime of South Africa.

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