Jul 10 2013

Political Will Lacking For Israel-Palestine Peace

Published by at 11:53 pm under Articles,Palestinian politics


By Daoud Kuttab

The unexpected and serious deterioration of the health of Teresa Heinz Kerry may delay or cancel a reportedly record sixth visit by America’s top diplomat to the Middle East. But if and when US Secretary of State John Kerry does make it to the region, he will find it even more troubling than it was when he left just a couple of weeks ago.

The events in Egypt have been unfolding dramatically amid the total absence of any real role for the world’s most powerful country. In fact, in an unusual reversal, US officials, including President Barack Obama, are accused of being more supportive of the Muslim Brotherhood than the democratic and liberal elements in Egypt.

If and when Kerry does return to the region, it would be with the continued hope of restarting direct Palestinian-Israeli peace talks. The talks have been stuck for years because of Israel’s insistence not to stop or suspend its settlement activities in the occupied Palestinian territories. Palestinian leaders are also refusing to return to the talks until the Israelis accept the concept of the two-state solution based roughly on the 1967 borders as the basis for negotiations. The Netanyahu administration is on the record as agreeing to the two-state solution provided that such a state is unarmed, and that Palestinians publicly recognize Israel as the homeland of the Jewish people.

Continuous US involvement in the talks seems to have produced a way to finesse most of the preconditions of both sides — even though the Israelis are saying they are willing to talk without preconditions. Palestinians insist that their demands are not preconditions, but rather the internationally accepted requirements for peace as stipulated by various international agreements and declarations.

To overcome this impasse, the Americans are suggesting a few compromises. On the settlement issue, they appear to have accepted that it is politically impossible for Netanyahu to keep his right-wing coalition partners if he makes such a declaration. Instead, the US seems to be considering an undeclared Israeli offer toslow down settlement activities, thus basically abiding by the spirit of the freeze without agreeing to utter the words that Israel has suspended settlement activities. The new term is a silent settlement freeze.

As to the framework for peace, the Israelis are reportedly suggesting that the Americans — possibly Kerry or Obama — declare its paramaters at the launch of the talks, a condition that is acceptable to Washington because Obama has already declared in a speech to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) in 2011 that the 1967 borders should be the basis of the two-state solution.

Since the US is unable to deliver de jure the Palestinian demands, discussions appear to have been focused on ways to sweeten the pie. By adding some confidence-building measures, it is hoped that the Palestinian leader will be able to sell the idea to his own people. Among the ideas that are being discussed is for Israel to loosen its administrative grip on building and development in West Bank areas that are off-limits to Palestinians, namely Area C, which consists of over 60% of the West Bank. The idea is that if something such as the international Palestinian airport, planned for a strip near Jericho, or other high profile projects are allowed to proceed, the Palestinian public will be less opposed to the return to talks without a settlement freeze and an Israeli public declaration about the 1967 borders.

While this offer is positive, Palestinians feel it is their right to develop their own areas and, as such, a loosened occupation cannot be marketed as some kind of Israeli concession. Palestinian leaders are insisting on a more visible demand, namely the release of Palestinian prisoners. Of special concern are 104 prisoners who were arrested before the Oslo Accords when the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) was considered an illegal terrorist organization by Israel. Mahmoud Abbas, president and chairman of the PLO, finds it very difficult to begin talks when individuals of his organization are still held in Israeli jails two decades after the launch of the peace talks.

On this issue, Israel appears to be holding back. While Israel has reportedly agreed to release some pre-Oslo prisoners, it is refusing to allow them to be released in one stage. Instead, Israel wants to release Palestinian prisoners in various stages, and perhaps use such a release as a reward for Abbas for continuing to attend peace talks.

The release of 104 Palestinians — including those who lived in Jerusalem and within the 1948 borders when they were arrested — would be a positive development. Nevertheless, all indications in the region point to an absence of a will for a political breakthrough. Palestinians and Israeli officials appear to be more interested in not being blamed for the failure of the talks instead of showing any serious commitment to their success.

Naturally, the major decision-making lies in the hands of the Israeli government, which is physically in control of the occupied Palestinian territories. Ultimately, it will be the Israelis who have to withdraw.

Palestinians have very little positive power to force such an eventual acceptance to withdraw in talks. What Palestinians can and have done in the past is to practice their negative power, namely to refuse giving the Israelis credit for their four-decades long illegal occupation and the photo opportunity of peace talks that go nowhere.

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