Aug 26 2010

US, Israel and Palestinians in Tripartite Talks, but Will They Succeed?

Published by at 1:40 pm under Articles,Palestinian politics

Under much international and Arab pressure, Palestinian leaders finally buckled and accepted to hold direct talks with Israel. Many Palestinians believe that the intended talks are nothing but a photo opportunity that aims to create the impression of a peace process while avoiding making any substantive commitments.

In a season when images represent the narrative, a political cartoon in the Jordanian newspaper a Al Ghad daily newspaper captured the Palestinian and Arab skepticism in the peace process. Emad Hajjaj captured the moment by repeating the Facebook image of the female Israeli soldier posing in front of a blindfolded and handcuffed Palestinians by making the old man none other than the Palestinian leader Abbas sitting across the negotiating table across from a smiling Israeli female soldier that represents Israel.

Conditions do exist that can result in both success and failure of the upcoming talks. On the positive side, there is a much greater chance of a resolution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict with a rightwing than with a centrist or center-left Israeli government. The centrist Kadima will surely provide a safety net if hardline members of the right wing refuse to vote for any agreement brokered by Israeli Premier Benjamin Netanyahu.

The Americans plan to be much more proactive this time around. Unlike in the past when the US shuttled between the parties, the upcoming talks will be tripartite US, Israelis and Palestinian talks chaired by the Americans. Secretary Clinton plans to sit in on the first session while Mitchell will continue heading the direct talks throughout the one year set aside for their conclusion. Ironically August 2011 is also the concluding date for Salam Fayyad’s plan for building up the Palestinian state.

Also on the positive side is the fact that the Palestinians are much more confident yet reasonable in their expectations. Gone are the bravado talks of the Arafat era, and there is no attempt to use the political and the military arsenal simultaneously. Now under the leadership of Mahmoud Abbas, it is clear that the Palestinians are committed to the political track only.

Under Abbas and his Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, the security situation has dramatically improved, even by the admission of members of the Israeli army. On the ground, Palestinians led by the energetic Fayyad are putting more effort in building and preparing for statehood than in cursing the occupation.

Finally, on the positive side, the fact that the US will be a direct partner at the talks, with a seat at the table, means that the moment of truth has come and that both Israelis and Palestinians will have to present realistic, flexible and pragmatic positions every time they make an offer to the other side.

But despite these positive elements, a number of negatives facts continue to provide plenty of opportunities for failure.

Settlements continue to be the most obvious point of contention. The fact that Israel has refused to commit to a settlement freeze before the beginning of the direct talks is worrisome to Palestinians. Having won that battle, it is unlikely that the Israelis will accept at the negotiating table what they refused before getting into talks, unless they get a major bonus in return.

On the other hand, Palestinians will not reward what they consider theft of their land, in violation of the Geneva Conventions. It is more likely that Israel will choose areas to allow settlement activities, presumably in the settlement blocks closest to Israel rather than in outlying and isolated settlements. Will Palestinian negotiators accept that and move on, or will they take a principled stand despite the pressures? Abbas has warned in writing that he will quit the talks if settlement activities and building permits are issued for Jewish only settlement in Palestinian areas.

The status of Jerusalem will also continue to be a major stumbling block. Nothing has happened since 2000 to indicate any change on either side vis-a-vis this sensitive and contentious issue. The fact that Israel is poised to deport a number of elected Palestinian legislators from East Jerusalem simply because of their thoughts and ideas will not be conducive to productive talks on Jerusalem. However, unlike the last time (in 2000) when the talks collapsed over Jerusalem (and not on the right of return) a Canadian team has been working hard to come up with practical ideas for Jerusalem.

On the issue of the right of return for refugees, the present Israeli government also is inflexible. Netanyahu’s insistence on the Jewishness of Israel has been clarified in recent days to mean that not a single Palestinian refugee will be allowed back to the state of Israel. It has been accepted thinking that a deal in which Israel would take historical and humanitarian responsibility for causing the refugee problem, coupled with an international scheme as well as the acceptance of Israel to allow over a period of time tens of thousands of refugees (mostly from Lebanon) under the family reunification process, could be the formula that solves this contentious issue.

While the crux of the success will depend on the courage and creativity of the negotiators, there is no doubt that outside parties, especially the radicals on each side, have the ability to sabotage any beginnings of an agreement. Therefore, it is crucial to keep most of the negotiations outside public discussions and to present whatever agreement is reached to the public as a package deal that neither side can cherry pick from.

The failure of the direct talks in 2000 produced a very bloody reaction. But while the Abbas-Fayyad legacy seems much more restrained, it is hard to predict what failure will produce.

Finally, much of the success or failure of the direct talks will depend on the role of the international community in general and on the American position in particular. The idea of having a one-year limit allows for that talks to be concluded within the period that follows the mid-term elections and before the beginnings of the 2012 presidential elections. The clout that the president of the United States can use in this situation is tremendous, and if it can be devoid of domestic and political constraint?, all the better.

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