gets building while negotiations go nowhere
Whatever happened to the Israeli-Palestinian peace process?
You could be forgiven for thinking everyone packed up shop a while ago and
forgot to inform you. There's been barely a peep about it since the revival of
talks was greeted with great fanfare back in July.
The negotiations, which have been conducted in a fog of
secrecy, flitted briefly back onto the radar last week when US Secretary
of State John Kerry met Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu for what
the media called an "unusually long," seven-hour meeting in Rome.
Much of the conversation was held in private, with not even
officials present, but, according to reports, discussions concentrated on the
revived peace process. Kerry, concerned about the lack of tangible progress, is
believed to have tried to pin Netanyahu down on his vision of where the
nine-month negotiations should lead.
Kerry's intervention follows weeks of mounting Palestinian
frustration, culminating in rumors that the talks are on the verge of
collapse. After a meeting with Kerry in Paris, an Arab League official, Nasif
Hata, added to the desultory atmosphere, saying there were "no positive
indications of progress."
Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas, on a tour of European
capitals last week in search of diplomatic support, tried to scotch suggestions
that the talks were at a "dead end." They were "difficult," he admitted, and
after nearly three months of meetings the two sides were still "at the
beginning of the road." But privately his officials have expressed exasperation at
Israel's inflexibility and the miserliness of its opening positions.
this month the Al-Hayat newspaper reported
that Israel had refused to discuss the key issue of borders, instead focusing
exclusively on its own security concerns. None of this is surprising. At Israel's insistence, the
talks have been entirely shielded from public view. Privacy, Israel argued,
would ease the pressure on the two parties and give them greater room to be
forthcoming and creative. The reality, however, is that the lack of scrutiny has
allowed Israel to drag its feet and browbeat the weaker, Palestinian side.
Israel's lead negotiator, Tzipi Livni, has already warned that the talks'
timetable is likely to overrun.
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Similarly, US envoy Martin Indyk was supposed to be Kerry's
eyes and ears in the talks. Instead he spent the first two months locked out of
the proceedings, apparently again at Israel's instigation. Secrecy, Israel hopes, will give it the cover it expects to
need when -- as seems certain -- the talks end inconclusively, or the
Palestinians storm out. Widespread ignorance about developments can be
exploited to cast the Palestinians as the treacherous party, as occurred
following the collapse of the Camp David talks in 2000.
But belatedly we are seeing a little of the leadership role
Washington promised. Indyk is said to be now actively involved. The rate of
meetings between the negotiators has been stepped up sharply in the past
fortnight. And last week's meeting in Rome suggested that the US hopes to pressure
Netanyahu either into making a big concession or into beginning the
face-to-face talks with Abbas that this process is supposed eventually to lead
to. According to Hata, of the Arab League, the US has also
promised that it will "take action" if there is no breakthrough by January, presenting
"viable suggestions for ways to end the thaw."
But whatever Netanyahu has told Kerry in private, few
believe the Israeli prime minister is really ready to seek peace. Earlier this
month he set out in public his vision for the talks, in a follow-up to his
famous speech in 2009, when, faced with a newly installed US president, Barack
Obama, he agreed to a two-state solution. This time, speaking from the same podium, he sounded in no
mood for conciliation. "Unless the Palestinians recognize the Jewish state and
give up on the right of return there will not be peace," he said. He denied the
"occupation and settlements" were causes of the conflict, and insisted on
Israel's need for "extremely strong security arrangements."
It is this kind of uncompromising talk that has discredited
the negotiations with everyone outside the White House. Last week Yuval Diskin, a recent head of the Shin Bet,
Israel's domestic intelligence service, warned that there was no realistic
prospect that "the Israeli public will accept a peace agreement." Israelis'
distrust of the negotiations is fueled by the constant opposition of
In a further show of dissension, they have backed a bill
that would require a two-thirds parliamentary majority before Israel can even
broach at the talks the key issue of dividing Jerusalem. If passed, the
legislation would turn the negotiations into a dead letter. On the other side, Hamas has grown emboldened. Ismail
Haniyeh, the prime minister in Gaza, has called on Palestinians to renew a
"popular uprising," just as a 1.5km-long underground tunnel Hamas had built
into Israel was exposed.
In the West Bank, a spate of attacks and killings of
Israelis over the past few weeks -- after a year without the loss of a single
Israeli life from the conflict in 2012 -- has provoked much speculation in
Israel about whether a Palestinian uprising is imminent. A Palestinian driving
a bulldozer who recently rampaged through a military base near Jerusalem only
reinforced the impression.
Conveniently, Netanyahu has exploited widespread Israeli opposition
to the next round of Palestinian prisoner releases this week -- the carrot to
keep the Palestinians at the negotiating table -- to justify plans for an orgy
of settlement building. This time the government has committed to building 5,000 settler
homes in return for the release of 25 prisoners jailed before the Oslo accords
were signed two decades ago.
All indications are that these talks, like their
predecessors, are doomed to fail. The question is whether the Palestinians have
the nerve to unmask the charade. If not, Israel will use the peace process as
cover while its settlements devour yet more of the Palestinian
of this article first appeared in The National, Abu Dhabi.
Jonathan Cook is a writer and journalist based in Nazareth, Israel. He is the 2011 winner of the Martha Gellhorn Special Prize for Journalism. His latest books are "Israel and the Clash of Civilisations: Iraq, Iran and the Plan to Remake the Middle East" (Pluto Press) and "Disappearing Palestine: (more...)