As the players in the latest round of Middle East Peace Talks assemble in Washington later this week, the issues confronting them only seem to have grown in the two years they have been on hold, so are they just going through the motions?
The seemingly never-ending Middle East peace talks are back on the front burner this week, with an ambitious timetable and possibly insurmountable hurdles.
Israel’s Netanyahu and the Palestinians' Abbas will go to Washington, to allow President Obama to wave the starter’s flag and partake in other associated symbolism, but the chances that he will be The One capable of mediating peace in this troubled region rely on factors way out of his control.
The biggest shadows looming take the form of Hamas and the issue of continued Israeli building within the settlements it has illegally established on land it took during the 1967 war.
As part of the Zionist quest to establish ‘facts on the ground’ settlements on occupied lands are paramount because once they are in place they are hideously difficult to uproot, as Sharon saw when he ousted the Jewish settlers from Gaza.
Between expansion of settlements and the Israeli construction of the dividing wall, which has confiscated vast tracts of Palestinian land including much needed agricultural land, Palestinians are seeing their vision of a viable sovereign state disappear.
Israel imposed a partial settlement freeze which is due to run its course on September 26. It is partial because it has not stopped settlement building. Rather Israel says it needs to continue some building to accommodate natural growth in its settlements. For some strange reason, that natural growth includes Jews who move in to the settlements, not just an increase in the number of children born to settlers already in situ.
Abbas has said that should settlement construction resume once the peace talks are underway, it will be read that Israel is not serious about negotiating for peace, and he will walk out of the talks. How can he face his constituency when his people’s land continues to be gobbled up to ensure it will not be part of a settlement?
Israel says there can be no pre-conditions to the talks.
That is not genuine because Israel has already set the preconditions by virtue of it being a state and the PLO being an organization under its rule, to which the settlement and wall constructions are glaring evidence.
Recently Israel has been dragged reluctantly towards acknowledging a two-state solution, but it will only accept a Palestinian state that is demilitarized and of which Israel patrols/controls the borders, air space and sea. That is not a sovereign state.
Israel wants to maintain vast tracts of land including some of its settlements on the West Bank which destroys any contiguity for Palestinians, let alone a proper link between the West Bank and Gaza or East Jerusalem. That is not a viable state for Palestinians.
Israel considers Jerusalem must be the undivided capital of the Jewish state of Israel…including the East of Jerusalem which Palestinians want as the capital of their state of Palestine. That is a pre-condition.
Palestinians have a huge issue in the form of the ‘right of return’ of all Palestinians and their descendents who were driven from their lands during the formation of the Jewish state in 1948/9. They want this to be addressed. Israel does not want a bar of it, saying that the issue can be sorted out by Palestinians when they have their own state and the refugees can be accommodated there. Meanwhile any Jew from anywhere in the world is welcome to settle in Israel, even if they have never even visited it or have no family ties whatsoever.
So if that’s not a big enough bag of demons, how about what to do about Hamas.
It is widely condemned as a terrorist organization and neither the US nor Israel (along with many other countries) will deal with it – despite the fact that Israel and the US had a huge hand in creating it as a foil to Arafat and his Fatah faction. Yet another costly example of US interference blowing up in its face – think Saddam Hussein and a host of other unpleasant actors who have at some stage had serious US backing.
Hamas is democratically elected and forms a kind of de facto government in Gaza and it doesn’t see any point in peace talks with the enemy Israel. In fact it is likely to actively sabotage them, and this division between Hamas and Fatah seriously undermines the authority of Abbas. No matter what is decided, if anything, he can not count on Hamas which rules 1.5 million Palestinians in Gaza, signing up.
Yet it would seem that Hamas is essential to any viable peace deal – morally repugnant as that may be. After all, what say Netanyahu and Abbas get really close to clinching a deal…Hamas outside the tent will prove menacing, particularly as it is widely believed to be in receipt of support from Iran and therefore strategically positioned as Iran’s proxy in its virtual war with Israel.
The economic war that is being waged on Gaza by Israel is not working and while it has impoverished Palestinians trapped there, it has not rid the Strip of Hamas. Part of the peace negotiations must include a plan to deal with Hamas that Israel and Fatah are agreed on…perhaps a loosening of the sanctions and border crossings (albeit well observed to prevent weapons coming in) so as to improve the daily lives of Gazans and thereby diminish Hamas’ claim to be able to run a government.
And just as Abbas has this headache, so too does Netanyahu go to the table with major political concerns in the form of his right-wing coalition.
He has within his government politicians who refuse to even consider concessions on Jerusalem, a two state solution, ‘right of return’ or settlements. Some consider greater Israel the homeland of the Jewish people and want it cleared entirely of any other race – read Palestinians. They don’t talk West Bank, they talk Judea and Samaria. They represent a population that has grown relatively comfortable behind the massive barrier which keeps out rockets. Israel is prospering. There is little in the local news about the dire situation of most in Gaza or the inability of West Bank Palestinians to get through the border crossings to farm the land they have been cut off from, or turn up to jobs they are trying to keep in Israel.
Netanyahu has politicians who are, in short, sitting poised to pounce on him should he cross those very right wing lines. He is fighting for his domestic political survival on a very public stage, and he knows it.
So what’s the point?
Well veteran negotiator George Mitchell who has toiled away at convincing the parties to recommence these talks thinks there’s a point, and it would be too pessimistic to dismiss him before they even begin.
International pressure may be playing a significant coercive role, but Netanyahu, Abbas, Obama, Clinton, Egypt’s Mubarak and Jordan’s Abdullah all think its worth another shot.
It is a safe bet Obama still rues the day the Nobel Prize Committee awarded him the gong before he’s achieved this most elusive of peace goals. Many before him have been ‘nobelled’ for efforts in this theatre, yet we are still here. At least Obama is not obscenely rushing to deal with this in the dying days of his administration so as to preserve his legacy. It can only be hoped that he does have time on his side, and all involved will avail themselves of it.