West Asia

Hoping against hope

Print edition : September 06, 2013

A Bedouin protester is detained by Israeli policemen during a demonstration in the southern city of Be’er Sheva on July 15 against the Israeli government’s plans to relocate Bedouins in the Negev desert. There are around 260,000 Bedouins in Israel, most of them living in and around the Negev in the arid south. Photo: DAVID BUIMOVITCH/AFP

A Bedouin woman in the village of al-Sira in Israel. Villages like this face a threat from Israeli bulldozers. Photo: Sebastian Scheiner/AP

Martin Indyk, former U.S. Ambassador to Israel, will shepherd the talks. Photo: AP

John Kerry, U.S. Secretary of State. The U.S apparently arm-twisted the P.A. into entering the talks. Photo: J. Scott Applewhite/AP

Saeb Erekat, Palestinian chief negotiator, hopes a Palestinian state will soon become a reality. Photo: MOHAMAD TOROKMAN/REUTERS

Tzipi Livni, Israel’s Justice Minister and chief negotiator, said Israel would focus on the future and not the past. Photo: NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP

The Palestinian Authority is entering another round of U.S.-orchestrated peace talks with Israel with little hope of real change on the ground.

THE UNITED STATES SECRETARY OF STATE, JOHN KERRY, announced in late July that Israel and the Palestinian Authority (P.A.) would once again resume peace talks. Kerry went to the extent of claiming that the latest round of negotiations, scheduled to begin in the third week of August, would be “a final status talks” based on a “two-state” solution that would lead to a comprehensive peace agreement. A time frame of nine months had been given for the negotiations to be completed, he said. Kerry had engaged in intense shuttle diplomacy, which involved six trips to the region this year, to convince the two sides to sit down for talks once again.

The P.A.’s chief negotiator, Saeb Erekat, and his Israeli counterpart, Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, were also quick to express their optimism. Erekat hoped that the Palestinian dream of having a state would soon be a reality. Tzipi Livni said that the talks afforded a new opportunity that both sides could not afford to waste. At the same time, she emphasised that the Israeli side would focus on the future and not on past history. She was probably alluding to the reality Israel had created in the occupied territories after the signing of the Oslo Accords 20 years ago. Kerry also stressed that the U.S.’ goal for the talks “is ending the conflict, ending the claims”. The other contentious issues, such as ending the siege on Gaza and ending the Israeli occupation, will obviously not be included in the dialogue script envisaged by the U.S.

The announcement came when the region was witnessing political turmoil and the Israeli government was going ahead with its controversial expansion programmes in East Jerusalem and the West Bank. In the first week of August, the Israeli Cabinet added a number of new Jewish West Bank settlements to the “national priority list”, making them eligible for extra subsidies in education, housing and infrastructural projects.

Hanan Ashrawi, a member of the Palestine Liberation Organisation’s (PLO) executive committee, described the Israeli move on the eve of the proposed peace talks as a “confidence-destruction measure”. The P.A. leadership had until the other day insisted that it would resume negotiations only after Israel ceased its construction activities in the occupied territories. Israeli settlements have reached close to Ramallah, the capital of the West Bank.

Pressure on Hamas

The Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), an ally of the Fatah, to which Yasser Arafat belonged, in the PLO, protested against the resumption of the peace process. The PFLP, the third most influential Palestinian grouping after the Fatah and Hamas, said that the P.A. was reneging on its promise not to restart negotiations with Israel without a stop to Israeli settlement building.

The recent demolition of Bedouin villages and the forcible eviction of the residents led the European Union (E.U.) to take action. It clamped sanctions on Israeli companies that do business in the occupied territories. Major Israeli banks have now been put under sanctions by the E.U.

Just before the announcement of the resumption of talks, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, despite a request from the U.S. Secretary of State, gave the go-ahead for the construction of new settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Since the Oslo Accords were signed, the number of settlers living in “Jewish only” settlements in the West Bank has more than doubled . Currently, there are more than 600,000 settlers living in exclusive, gated communities in the West Bank. Hamas, the main rival of the Fatah, which controls the Gaza Strip and which won the last elections held in Palestinian territories, is now under tremendous pressure. Hamas’ parent party, the Muslim Brotherhood, which won the elections in Egypt, is no longer in power. The Egyptian army, which now controls the government, has virtually declared Hamas an “enemy”, accusing its supporters of bolstering the ranks of the protesters who have gathered in Cairo and other cities. The “peace talks” between Israel and the Fatah-dominated P.A. will further isolate Hamas. The “reconciliation talks” between the two main Palestinian factions, which former Egyptian President Mohamed Morsy had brokered, have been postponed, at least for the duration of the talks.

In fact, some observers of the region predict that the talks will provide additional cover to Israel to launch another military attack on Gaza to remove the last semblance of armed Palestinian resistance. This time Israel will also have the tacit support of the Egyptian military and most of the governments in the region. The Gulf monarchies, barring Qatar, have all blacklisted the Muslim Brotherhood and its affiliates.

Waning support

In the wake of the “Arab Spring”, the Palestine issue was relegated to the back burner. In any case, international support for the Palestinian cause was waning. Countries such as India and China gave preference to Israeli military purchases than to the Palestinian cause. The Palestinian leadership itself had failed to present a united front. The P.A. was seriously compromised with its relationship with the West. Hamas chose to side with the Gulf monarchies in the Western-aided plot to change the political contours of the region. Syria, the only country that was initially willing to give sanctuary to the exiled Hamas leadership, was betrayed. The Hamas’ leadership left for Qatar soon after the internal war was imposed on Syria. From available reports, Palestinian fighters from Syrian refugee camps are among those in the forefront of the fight against the government.

Despite the optimistic sound bites emanating from Washington, Tel Aviv and Ramallah, there are very few who believe that a historic peace agreement is in the offing. The suspicion is that the Americans arm-twisted the P.A. into going in for talks. American financial aid props up the official and security apparatuses of the P.A. In May this year, Kerry announced a $4-billion package in developmental aid to the P.A. Israel wants to carry on the charade of negotiations to mollify the growing number of critics in the West, especially in European countries. The Israeli leadership knows it has nothing to lose by entering into a new round of talks. Prime Minister Netanyahu said that the resumption of the talks was “a vital strategic interest of the state of Israel”.

Doomed to fail?

A former P.A. spokesman, Ghassan al-Khatib, observed that “the resumption of talks is seen as an objective in itself” by Washington and Tel Aviv. The appointment of Martin Indyk as the U.S. special envoy for the talks is meant to further reassure Tel Aviv. Indyk, a practising Jew, is a self-confessed admirer of the state of Israel. Indyk was also a former U.S. Ambassador to Israel. Josh Ruebner, the national advocacy director of the U.S. Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation, said that the appointment of individuals with a “pro-Israel perspective” by successive U.S. administrations would not work. “It hasn’t worked in the past and will not work in the future. And it really brings to mind Einstein’s definition of insanity. The United States keeps on doing the same thing over and over again and somehow expects that it is going to lead to a different result, and it is not,” said Ruebner.

Kerry said that the success of the talks would depend on the willingness of both sides to make “reasonable compromises”. However, the legal scholar and the United Nation’s Special Rapporteur on Palestinian Human Rights, Richard Falk, has observed: “But who will decide on what is reason? Can one trust such a determination to a third party that is unabashedly the ally of Israel?”

Palestinians demonstrated in the streets of Ramallah to protest against the resumption of talks. The track record of negotiations in the last 20 years, beginning from the agreement in Oslo, has shown that the Palestinians always end up making more concessions to the Israelis. The last time the “final status” talks were held, under pressure from the Bill Clinton administration, in Camp David in 2000, they ended in disaster for the Palestinians. The Israeli government used them as a pretext to annex more Palestinian territory. The Israeli government also used the talks as an excuse to keep its army in the occupied territories and renege on its commitment to allow a land corridor connecting the West Bank with Gaza and to allow the free movement of people and goods between the two Palestinian territories.

Netanyahu is a dyed-in-the-wool Zionist who has not given up the dream of a Jewish state stretching from the Nile to the Euphrates. Yossi Beilin, a former Israeli Cabinet Minister, wrote in The Jerusalem Post that Netanyahu was known to have “reneged on all that he has said in his political life”. A recent poll revealed that the majority of Israelis did not support the “two-state solution”. Even in the unlikely event of a two-state solution being reached, the Palestinians will end up as the losers once again. In 2005, U.S. President George W. Bush officially assured the Israeli government that the U.S. would ensure that the illegal Israeli settlements on the West Bank would be protected and the Palestinian refugees denied “the right of return” when a Palestinian state would be allowed to emerge.

Even before the new round of talks officially took off, Israeli Deputy Defence Minister Danny Danon ruled out any withdrawal from the West Bank and said that the Israeli public had given up on the idea of a “land for peace” solution to end the conflict. Danon, who belongs to Netanyahu’s Likud Party, said that Israelis should unilaterally declare sovereignty over the land they had seized in the West Bank. Another senior Israeli Minister, Naftali Bennett, said that the Palestinians should forever give up hope of establishing a state “on the land of Israel”. Bennett, the leader of the ultra-conservative Jewish Home Party, recently boasted about personally “killing a lot of Arabs”. His comments were widely reported in the Israeli media.