Saturday, May 15, 2010

Israel-Palestine proximity talks start amidst pessimism

Published in The Daily Star, May 15th., 2010
M. Serajul Islam

THE Israel-Palestine indirect talks, also called proximity talks, started this week after 17 months in the limbo following Israeli attack on Gaza in the winter of 2008-2009, the deadliest Israeli assault since the 1967 war. The re-start, with the United States as the intermediary, has come a month to the year since President Obama's Cairo speech in which he outlined his vision for bridging the gap with the Muslim World. The Palestinian issue is the single major issue that has given the extremists among the Muslims the cause for their acts. President Clinton realized this and had made the resolution of the Palestinian issue his administration's number one foreign policy priority in the Middle East.

Unfortunately, his efforts were aborted shortly before his tenure ended when Yasser Arafat declined to sign the agreement offered by Prime Minister Ehud Barak that would have given Palestine 95% of the West Bank, entire Gaza strip and control over East Jerusalem for ceding 69 Jewish settlements in West Bank that comprised 85% of Jewish settlements in the West Bank. That was the closest Israel ever got to giving Palestine its legitimate rights. In the eight years under President Bush, Afghanistan and Iraq were the priorities following 9/11 and the Palestinian issue went to the back stage, although the Quartet consisting of the US, UN, Russia and UK tried to move the peace process ahead with the Road Map.

The Obama administration has been in office for almost seventeen months. In Cairo in June last year in his reach-out address to the Muslims, President Obama identified the Israel-Palestine conflict as one that goes to the heart of Muslim anger on the West. He also called for a settlement freeze on the West Bank and creation of an independent Palestine. However, his preoccupation with a faltering economy and health care reform at home left him with little time to seriously attend to the Israel-Palestine conflict where the peace process continued to remain practically suspended. The return of the hardliner Benjamin Netanyahu for a second term as Prime Minister of Israel in March 2009 just after President Obama took office was also not good news for the peace process. Under US pressure, Netanyahu announced in September, 2009 a 10 months freeze on settlements demanding a lot more in reciprocity that the Palestinians rejected. He then initiated a bill that became law requiring a referendum on any withdrawal from land, thus pushing peace prospect further apart. When the US Vice President Joseph Biden visited Israel to jump start the proximity talks in March this year, Israel announced its decision to build 1600 Jewish apartments in Ramat Shlomo in northeast Jerusalem claimed by the Palestinians as the capital of their independent state when it comes. That was a slap on the face of the US and halted the start of the proximity talks.

The Israeli decision was followed by a period of heated exchanges between the US and Israel. However, following behind the scene consultations by all sides, the proximity talks started this week with the US looking like the only interested party. The Palestinians are pessimistic as they do not trust the Israelis to remain committed to their promise to halt construction of new settlements during the proximity talks. In fact, while Netanyahu made such a commitment before the talks, a Minister in his Cabinet told the media that the Israeli Prime Minister has made no such promise.

The Arab League has endorsed the proximity talks but reiterated the conditions held by the Palestinians to end the conflict, like return of all territories seized by Israel after 1967; cessation and dismantling of all settlements on occupied land; return of refugees; and East Jerusalem as the capital of the future state of Palestine. The reiteration notwithstanding, the two sides have drifted apart and the situation in the region has also changed significantly as a result of 9/11 and President Bush's war on terror; changes that have been bad for the Palestinians. During President Bush's tenure when Palestine issue was sidetracked, the Israelis managed to consolidate their own position internally where their action in Gaza in the end of 2008 and early 2009 left few in doubt that they could do pretty much what they wanted in the region. They have also gone ahead with the settlements at will and their audacity to start new settlements in East Jerusalem while Joseph Biden was in the region should leave no one in any doubt that despite the intentions of Obama made public in Cairo last year, the Israelis hardly feel threatened or under pressure from the US President to deviate from their chosen path to dictate and browbeat the Palestinians to accept a peace agreement on their term.

The Israelis also used Bush administration's interest in Iran where towards the end of President Bush's term even war appeared a possibility to good use by diverting interest of the US and its allies away from Palestine. The Obama administration's choice to follow the same line in Iran and also Afghanistan where, against his pre-election promise, President Obama has sent additional troops have not helped to keep the Palestinian cause sidetracked despite its legality and President Obama's strong words in his Cairo speech last year. The resumption of the proximity talks thus does not suggest any dramatic breakthrough in the offing.

The proximity talks have also started with the two major stakeholders in asymmetrical position that also raises negative vibes about its outcome. Israel under Benjamin Netanyahu is now in the hands of the hardliners who have no intention to compromise on the major issues like returning to pre 1967 borders, settlements and East Jerusalem that the Israeli Prime Minister has said is non-negotiable under any circumstances without Palestine on its knees. In fact, the Israeli position today is the toughest since the two sides started negotiations directly and/or indirectly where Netanyahu can compromise the legitimate Palestinian demands only at his own peril. On the other hand, the Palestinian Authority and the Hamas are in antagonistic relationship. With the US's commitment in the Palestinian issue divided by its commitment to other more pressing issues like Iran, ending war on terror in Afghanistan-Pakistan and establishment of democracy in Iraq, the Palestinian cause will not get from the US the attention it deserves. Under these circumstances, time is not opportune for the proximity talks.

Israel is today in a position where it can virtually do anything in the region. The Palestinians, suffering internal split and having lost a lot of focus due to changed international environment, are too weak to oppose. Still, the proximity talks are taking place because the US has to show the Muslim world that it is still its friend with first anniversary of President Obama's Cairo speech just round the corner. In fact, the way both the sides have reacted to the proximity talks has left no doubt about the outcome. Both sides have agreed to the proximity talks only to please the US. That notwithstanding, the talks, expected to continue for 4 months, will bring the Israel-Palestine conflict back on world stage after quite a while and perhaps help remind the Obama administration and its friends that the Palestinian problem is still at the heart of Muslim anger on the West and drive home the truth that the war on terror can be won only by a just resolution to the many decades old Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The author is a former Ambassador to Japan and a Director, Centre for Foreign Affairs Studies.

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