Scepticism lingers over peace talks

25 March 2014

The deadline is drawing near for Israelis and Palestinians to negotiate a final status agreement under a US-brokered plan. So far, neither side looks willing to compromise

By the end of April, the nine-month deadline set by the Obama administration in the US for Israelis and Palestinians to negotiate terms for a final status agreement will have expired.

At that point, one of two basic scenarios will play out: either the two sides will work to complete a US-authored framework agreement – aiming to reach a final settlement of the region’s longest-standing conflict by the end of the year – or consensus will once again prove elusive and the proposed deal will meet the same fate as too many of its predecessors.

This latest attempt by Washington to rejuvenate the peace process took root in August last year, when a reluctant Palestinian leadership agreed to President Barack Obama’s demand to resume direct talks with Israel.

The approaching 29 April deadline for the talks to conclude prompted a recent burst of diplomatic activity. Both Israel’s Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu and President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority (PA) have visited the US for talks with Obama, each side looking to extract preferred terms from the proposed framework agreement.

Moving forward

The precise details of that framework deal are still sketchy, although Obama’s speech to the Brookings Institution think-tank in Washington in December provided a hint at the outlines, expressing a need to arrive at a framework that did not “address every single detail”, but which “gets us to a point where everybody recognises it is better to move forward than backward”.

The framework agreement is being proffered as a last-gasp bid for a two-state solution, with a Palestinian state to be created on the basis of land swaps and an explicit recognition of Israel as a Jewish state.

The plan takes as its reference the 1967 borders of Israel, prior to the seizure of the West Bank and East Jerusalem. However, it involves some large Jewish settlements in the West Bank remaining in situ, with an exchange of Israeli territory to the Palestinians as compensation. According to leaked documents presented to the PA, Israel would annex 6.8 per cent of the territory of the West Bank, with the PA taking control of 5.5 per cent of previously Israeli-controlled territory within the Green Line.

The plan is expected to permit as much as 80 per cent of West Bank settlers to remain on occupied territory, with major settlement blocs such as Maale Adumim near Jerusalem envisaged to become part of Israel proper.

Jerusalem, claimed as the capital of both states, would be shared, although the precise territory envisaged for the Palestinians is unclear. The Jordan Valley would, meanwhile, have a continued Israeli military presence as part of a proposed security zone. Jerusalem’s status – the issue that broke the back of the Camp David talks in 2000 – remains a source of fierce contention. Reports in Palestinian newspaper Al-Quds that US proposals envisage the future Palestinian capital being located in Beit Hanina – a suburb that is as close to Ramallah as it is to the Old City – have riled the PA leadership.

What Obama wants is… to ensure that when the deadline for the talks expires, he will not have to admit failure

Ahron Bregman, King’s College London

Perhaps most contentious of all for the Palestinians is the call to renounce refugees’ right of return, a cornerstone of Palestinian identity since 1948. This renunciation of the entitlements of an estimated 5 million refugees would be accompanied by a major compensation package. The Obama team’s thinking behind these measures is to facilitate an agreement that shifts the parameters of the relationship towards peaceful coexistence rather than bitter opposition.

That is a big ask, however, given the palpable lack of trust between the antagonists. Palestinians warn that Israel’s actions on the ground suggest it has no genuine commitment to peace, citing plans announced in July 2013 to build more than 10,000 housing units on occupied territory, potentially increasing the number of West Bank-based settlers by 10 per cent from the current 500,000.

Scepticism in Tel Aviv

Israelis, for their part, seem equally unenthused by the proposed framework plan. In Tel Aviv, the main fear is that US Secretary of State John Kerry (viewed as the chief architect of the peace plan) is seeking to limit its autonomy, with no apparent gain in terms of security guarantees. Israel’s Defence Minister Moshe Yaalon dispensed with diplomatic niceties, telling a local newspaper earlier this year that it would be better if Kerry left Israel alone, given that the US-backed security plan “would provide neither peace nor security for the state of Israel”.

There’s no evidence the US is doing the kind of heavy lifting needed to get the deal Clinton was talking about in 2000

Yezid Sayigh, Carnegie Middle East Center

Criticism has also focused on the lack of clarity as to whether the 29 April deadline is a real one. “Without a firm deadline, each side will procrastinate forever,” says Yossi Mekelberg, an associate fellow at UK think-tank Chatham House and director at Regent’s University London. “But then, if you do set a deadline, you must also tell the sides what will be the repercussions if they don’t reach agreement, if it is to be credible.”

Some seasoned analysts detect a more cynical agenda emanating from Washington. “What Obama wants to achieve is not so much peace, which he knows he can’t produce, but to ensure that when the nine-month deadline set for the negotiations expires, he will not have to admit failure,” says Ahron Bregman, a fellow at King’s College London’s department of war studies.

Bregman argues that Obama and Kerry really just want a simple extension, say to the end of the year, so that the issue does not come up in the mid-term US congressional elections. “If asked, Netanyahu will give Obama an extension, which in turn will enable Netanyahu to keep building settlements in the Occupied
Territories,” he says.

Pressure to compromise

Critics warn there is little conceivable incentive for the Israelis to compromise and give up on their tangibles, given that the Occupied Territories remain quiet and there is no real international pressure on them to compromise.

“The Israelis only move when under pressure,” says Bregman. “For them to start compromising, there must be at least two preconditions: first, a Palestinian non-violent intifada against them; second, significant international pressure on them. The current growing boycott movement is starting to produce good results, putting the Israelis under enormous pressure.”

There are clear incentives for Israel to commit to the framework agreement. A rejection of the agreement could make it more likely for the economic boycotts and disinvestment campaigns to gain traction. The Dutch Pension Fund for Care and Well-Being’s decision not to invest in Israeli banks due to their involvement in financing settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories is a possible harbinger of future action on this front.

The US has intimated to Tel Aviv the dire consequences of failing to commit to the plan. Obama warned in an interview with Bloomberg news agency that if Palestinians come to believe that the possibility of a contiguous
sovereign Palestinian state is no longer within reach, “then our ability to manage the international fallout is going to be limited”.

Although the US is not the world power it was back in 1991, when it kick-started the Madrid Peace conference, it still has some sway in shaping Tel Aviv’s actions. The big question, however, is whether Washington will choose to exercise that power. Up to now, the weight of evidence indicates it will not.

“There’s no evidence that the US is doing the kind of heavy lifting that would be needed to get the sort of deal that President Bill Clinton was talking about in 2000,” says Yezid Sayigh, a senior associate at the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut and a former Palestinian negotiator.

Palestinians suspect that Obama is unprepared to make the tough decisions that would ensure Israeli compromises. Kerry’s increasing focus on economic solutions to the conflict may suggest a loss of confidence in the political track. In May 2013, the US secretary of state announced at the World Economic Forum on the Middle East in Jordan a plan to attract $4bn of investment to boost Palestinian GDP by 50 per cent within three years, primarily through private sector initiatives.  

Palestinians fear that the Obama administration’s unwillingness to mount a sustained political confrontation with Netanyahu means it will inevitably fall back on the economic plan as a figleaf for looming political failure.

“The economic component is a reiteration of the same approach since 1993, which is to replace the necessary political struggle they need to wage in confronting Israel on issues such as what a viable sovereign Palestinian state would constitute,” says Sayigh.

Securing agreements on issues such as the borders of a sovereign Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital require intense political investment by the US and its allies, which they have largely stepped back from since the failed Camp David agreement.

Past economic measures such as the Bush administration’s Agreement on Movement and Access (AMA) – an attempt in November 2005 to ease the movement of goods and people within the Palestinian territories – have registered scant reward.

Failed plans

“Every economic plan has ended up failing because the Israelis have strategically undermined them, whether through border closures or simply by backing away,” says Sayigh. “The AMA, which was dead in the water within weeks of being signed, is a case in point.”

The next few weeks will determine whether there is a genuine possibility to advance a final settlement. The Palestinian leadership is keeping its cards close to its chest, with relatively few leaks emerging. Seasoned observers suspect a deal is being cooked up behind the scenes, and that the unwillingness to go public may indicate a reticence at allowing opinion to be built up before a deal becomes a fait accompli.  

No one is holding their breath, however. The dismal track record of previous agreements suggests scepticism is still the best policy when it comes to Arab-Israeli peace negotiations.

Key fact

The US’ proposed agreement is expected to permit 80 per cent of West Bank settlers to remain on occupied territory

Source: MEED

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