Israel-Palestine : Is There Another Way?
The Quartet of Powers – the United States, the European Union, Russia and the United Nations – had been discussing a draft statement inviting the two sides to talks intended to conclude a treaty in one year. The Quartet said in June that peace talks would be expected to conclude in 24 months, but the new draft says 12 months. The Palestinian Authority government intends to have established all the attributes of statehood by mid-2011.Diplomats say the idea that a unilateral declaration of statehood could win support if talks do not start or collapse in the next 12 months is gaining interest.
Netanyahu benefits from a move to direct talks, countering the notion abroad that he is not a genuine peace-seeker while Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, by contrast, has a lot to lose politically. His political future is at stake if he does not get the opposite number to agree.
Confidence amongst Palestinians or Israelis on direct talks leading to a peace treaty soon, or that one would be quickly implemented if it were ever agreed, is low. In Israel’s coalition, the focus is on the 26 September settlement moratorium deadline. The majority of hawks in Netanyahu’s inner cabinet are opposed to extending the settlement freeze, but a minority seek some compromise that Abbas could swallow. One idea is to allow building in big established settlements that Israel expects to keep in a peace deal but not in those it would hand over in a land swap with the Palestinians.
The quartet statement says that direct, bilateral negotiations that resolve all final status issues should “lead to a settlement, negotiated between the parties, that ends the occupation [...] and results in” a state at peace with Israel, as per Reuters.
The White House has staked considerable political capital on the negotiations, which are the result of intense pressure exerted on both sides.
For the Cameras
He was entering direct peace negotiations with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to reach an “historic compromise” that would enable both peoples to live in peace for generations ( 01 September).
“President Abbas, you are my “partner in peace”. It is up to us to overcome the agonising conflict between our peoples and to forge a new beginning.”
Mahmoud Abbas Bowing to domestic pressure he has threatened to end the talks if the settlement deadline of 26 September is not abrogated. As per a CNN commentary, however, he has expressed his confidence that the talks would result in a meaningful action plan acceptable to both the sides. Let us see. He needs better interpreters! (Pun intended).
On the Agenda
At stake are four basic issues viz, the two state solution, the Israeli settlements, Jerusalem and the Refugees. Hamas are the detractors and have condemned the process and therefore could become a major stumbling block in the negotiations.
Two-State Solution Obama wants to create a Palestine state based on West Bank and Gaza alogside Israel. Netanyahu wants the Palestinian state demilitarised lest they become “Iranian-sponsored terror enclaves.” The Palestinians, while not objecting to this demand have kept it open for the negotiations. As per Reuters, the issue has been severely complicated by the fact that Gaza and the West Bank are run by different Palestinian parties, which are virulently opposed to each other. Hamas Islamists, who govern Gaza, denounce the notion of direct talks and do not recognise Israel’s right to exist. Hamas’ military wing, the Izz al-Din Qassam Brigades, claimed responsibility for an attack, which killed four Israelis in West Bank, calling it a “heroic operation”. While Netanyahu has not blinked yet these attacks could tilt the negotiations in favour of detractors of talks in Israel.
Israeli settlements Mahmoud Abbas has called for a total freeze on the expansion of settlements built by Israel on land it captured in the 1967 war. That would be in line with a commitment Israel made under a 2003 US-backed peace ‘road map’. Netanyahu imposed a 10-month halt to new housing starts in West Bank settlements that expires on 26 September. He did not apply the measure to East Jerusalem, captured from Jordan in 1967, and has not committed to extending the West Bank moratorium. Palestinians say all settlements should be evacuated, and along with the World Court and major powers, consider them illegal. Israel has said it intends to keep several major settlements in any future peace deal, a move that could result in territorial swaps with the Palestinians.
Jerusalem Palestinians want East Jerusalem, which includes the Old City and its sites sacred to Muslims, Jews and Christians, to be the capital of the state they aim to establish in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Netanyahu has said Jerusalem would remain Israel’s “indivisible and eternal” capital. Israel’s claim to the eastern part of Jerusalem is not recognised internationally.
Refugees Palestinian negotiators have signalled they would accept “a just and agreed-upon” solution for refugees who fled or were forced to leave in the war of Israel’s creation in 1948. Israel says any resettlement of Palestinian refugees must occur outside of its borders.
The scars are deep, mistrust complete and the domestic pressures intense to holding any meaningful give and take at this stage. Whether Netanyahu will be able to stop the construction in the West Bank settlements will primarily decide the fate of the talks as 26 September does not give him enough levey to dither further. He will have to take a call on that count. It is no gainsaying the fact that Obama has a lot at stake here in the field of foreign policy and would have pressurised the two privately to at least agree to talk directly at regular intervals. If anything these talks could deliver agenda for further talks and to that extent would not be termed as failure.
Netanyahu’s coalition could very well abandon him if he agrees to extend the soon-to-be-expired ten-month moratorium on settlement construction in the West Bank. Abbas, meanwhile, lacks the formal support of any faction of his government heading into the negotiations. Abbas, plagued by the Hamas, has a problem with the back door and has to find a solution. Netanyahu knows this and is likely to play hard ball initially for his domestic audience. While Abbas and Netanyahu are risking their governments, there is a ray of hope that signs of momentum will compel the critics to squelch their opposition.
Coming into the talks, NY Times on 21 August had articulated that, “There is little confidence — close to none — on either side that the Obama administration’s goal of reaching a comprehensive deal in one year can be met.” Now that Michelle is on board and Obama has rolled up his sleeves – there is every reason to believe that there will be some headway. Quoting from the same post:
Haim Assa, who served as a close political consultant to Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in the 1990s and continues to advise centrist Israeli leaders, said that even though the talks were between the Israelis and Palestinians, the power of success was with the Americans.
“The main player is the United States,” he said. “All the cards are in its hands. When the U.S. leaves Iraq it will want to put together a coalition of Israel, Jordan, Egypt and the Palestinians. These talks are central to that happening. If they push and take it seriously, they can do it.”
The two heads of states are on their way back after what they publically called “cordial and constructive” talks where they decided to work on the “framework of further Negotiations”. The two are meeting again after two weeks. Speculations on the private component of the talks between the two heads of states fighting for their country’s honour and their own survival may not be pragmatic right now.
While Obama is “cautiously hopeful” to find a solution, he has put the entire weight of his government behind success of the talks in some measure palatable to the Israelis and the Muslim World. It is here that he wants to redeem some lost ground on Bush’s War on Terror being called the War on Islam.
Can he risk considering a one state solution based on secular values and principles? Can he convince the two to beat de Klerk and Mandela? The questions are many and there is always more than one way – the other way. Risking the untrodden utopian path may finally be the best solution. The challenges are too many and the detractors infinite – one mistake and this fragile effort may blow into a naught.
Going into the peace talks early in his presidency Obama has the advantage of time to see the process through. For now, he has his eye on the ball – let us see if he can putt well! There is more than a solution at stake.