Sunday, October 17, 2010

Illegal settlements threaten Israel-PLO peace talks

The Daily Star, October 16, 2010
M. Serajul Islam

In his speech at the United Nations on September 23rd, 2001, President Obama confidently stated that the Palestinian problem would be resolved within a year. His optimistic statement was based on the success of diplomatic endeavors of his Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Middle East (ME) Envoy Senator John Mitchell that have resulted in, first, bringing the two parties on the negotiating table, and second, to push the peace process ahead. He has been given significant support by Jordan and Egypt, with the latter also offering the venue for the talks that started early last month after being in cold storage from the time of President Bush.

President Obama's speech in Cairo last year offered friendship to the Muslim world and placed the Palestinian problem on top of his administration's foreign affairs agenda. Nevertheless, serious domestic issues and Iraq and Afghanistan kept him busy to be able to focus on Palestine. Only after gaining a handle on these issues, President Obama did find the time to come back to Palestine. His leadership and intense efforts of his Secretary of State and Middle East Envoy helped jump start the direct talks between the Israelis and the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) early last month.

Although both parties discussed the substantive issues without threatening to disrupt the talks that perhaps encouraged the US President to make his optimistic statement, the issue of settlement by Israel on occupied land was there in the backdrop even when the talks started as a dark cloud threatening to derail the talks. The end of 10 months moratorium on settlements that ended on September 26th and whether Israel would extend the moratorium was the overriding issue that hampered forward movement on the substantive issues. For the PLO with Hamas breathing fire down its neck, it was well known to everybody that it would be impossible to continue with the talks unless Israel extended the moratorium. For Israel, given the fragility of Prime Minister Netanyahu's coalition, it 2qw equally well acknowledged that it would be very extend the 10 months moratorium on settlement that is the key for the US brokered peace talks that started in early September to proceed.

The US sponsored direct talks have thus hit serious snag when the Israeli moratorium on settlements ended on September 26th , threatening to sidetrack Obama's optimism. The Arab League meeting early this month has provided a lifeline but the talks have not yet re-started, as both sides remain ambivalent. The League issued a statement supporting the Palestinian position that the talks should not go on if the settlement activities do not stop. The Palestinians cannot go back to the talks without an extension on the moratorium. The Israelis cannot give that moratorium without the fragile coalition snapping that Prime Minister Netanyahu is understandingly reluctant to do. The Arab League stand is expected to put pressure on the Israelis not to break the talks on the settlement issue because it does not want to be seen as the party that ended the talks. The Arab league's stand it thus expected to keep the parties negotiating by encouraging the Israelis to extend the moratorium for the talks to continue. Israel, despite the pressures of domestic politics, is also well aware of the pressure of international opinion that it cannot just set aside; international pressure that had almost cornered it after the incident a few months ago involving the Turkish peace flotilla to Gaza.

Nevertheless there are a few other factors that dampen President Obama's optimism even if the Arab League's stand helps the peace process to remain on rail. The decrease of violence and terrorist attacks on Israel has changed the mood in Israel about giving concessions to Palestine. Many Israelis feel that a Palestine state on the West Bank will create another Lebanon and more security problems. A poll taken by Tel Aviv University among high schools recently showed that 48% were ready to oppose Government's orders to evacuate settlements in West Bank. Half of the students said that Israeli Arabs were not entitled to the same rights as the Jews.

The perception in Israel as revealed by the Tel Aviv university survey is not good omen for Palestine because the threat perception in the past had made many Israelis support the peace process. On its side, the Palestinians are now more divided internally with Hamas and the PLO as opposed to each other as they are against Israel.

Despite President Obama's optimism, the ME peace process is thus far from being resolved. In fact, the peace prospect may have become more difficult to resolve than before. New realities such as as perceived in Israel on the issue of security and nature of Prime Minister Netanyahu's coalition have emerged as new obstacles to Israel's interest and sincerity to the peace process. Internal division in Palestine between PLO and Hamas has weakened the Palestinians at the negotiating table. As a consequence, the rights and claims of the Palestinians that are recognized under international law and have been endorsed in umpteen US resolutions have lost a lot of strength. In the process, Israel has been encouraged to dispense with the illegality of its occupation and to go ahead with the illegal settlements as if such settlements were being built on land legally owned by Israel.

It is indeed a pity that at a time when the western powers led by the United States lay claims to morals and principles to make their war of terror a legal one do not see that the same principles and morals are trampled with contempt by Israel. The Palestinians have been pushed to such a corner that they cannot even ask for a complete cessation of settlements on land that is theirs to continue with talks, settlements that are illegal under international law; that can be endorsed only if international law accepts the principle that might is right.

Nevertheless, the ME peace process, despite what many Israelis may be thinking these days, is crucial to peace not just in the region but the world. If the West perceives that Iran is a threat to future world peace, then they must see that Muslims are not victimized in the name of the war on terror and the Palestinians are given their rights. Else, Iran will have the reason to stand up to the West using these issues as reasons to oppose the West and the rest of the Muslim world would be encouraged to look Iran's way. President Obama as the leader of the world's only Super Power and the harbinger of peace must now not just ensure that Israel would extend the moratorium on the settlements for the peace talks to continue; he must now do more. He must put pressure on Israel to help create the state of Palestine with East Jerusalem as its capital and also come to agreement on the other major issues that have remained unresolved for many decades such as return of those who were made refugees when the state of Israel was created in 1948 and water and other related issues. The US must now stop urging Israel to do the right thing in the context of the peace process; it must now arm twist Israel, if necessary, to stay in the negotiating table till the peace process ends successfully because only by creating the state of Palestine can the PLO succeed over Hamas which is the key for a peaceful Middle East.

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

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