by Iqbal Siddiqui (News & Analysis, Crescent International Vol. 39, No. 3, Jumada' al-Ula', 1431)
The long-stalled Middle East peace process was finally resumed last month, when proximity talks mediated by US envoy George Mitchell between Israel and the Palestinian Authority finally began on May 9.
The long-stalled Middle East peace process was finally resumed last month, when proximity talks mediated by US envoy George Mitchell between Israel and the Palestinian Authority finally began on May 9. Two sessions of talks took place, with Mitchell shuttling the 10 miles between Israeli and Palestinian negotiation teams based in Jerusalem and Ramallah respectively. When the second round of talks concluded on May 21, no date was announced for the talks’ resumption, although they were reportedly scheduled to last four months.
If it turns out that nothing much was discussed, and even less achieved, few will be surprised. The reality is that the talks amount to little more than going through the motions of maintaining a peace process that has in fact long been dead. The supposed basis for them, the formula of “land for peace”, has been exposed as a sham with Israel determined to seize and hold as much of the occupied West Bank as possible.
Even in the run up to these talks, despite the hard line that the US government is supposed to have taken with Israel, Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu was assuring his right-wing coalition allies that Jerusalem would remain undivided and under Israeli control, any state that the Palestinians were permitted to establish would be demilitarised, its borders would remain under Israeli control, and its policies subject to Israeli veto. The Palestinians would also have to recognise Israel’s right to exist, its Jewish nature, and Jerusalem as its “eternal capital”.
In order to establish its hardline in the run-up to these talks, the Israelis have pursued a number of aggressive and provocative policies in the last few months, of which the determination to build new homes in East Jerusalem, despite the promise to suspend settlement, which so annoyed the US for a while, was only one. In February, Israel published a new list of “Jewish heritage sites” in Palestine, in order to be able to claim rights over them in future talks. These included the Ibrahimi mosque in al-Khaleel (Hebron) and the Bilal ibn Rabah Mosque in Bethlehem. The following month it provoked protests throughout occupied Palestine by allowing Jewish zealots to encroach on areas of al-Haram al-Sharif in al-Quds previously reserved for use by Muslims. A number of Palestinians were killed by Israeli troops in the clashes that resulted, which briefly reached such an intensity that there were genuine fears of the outbreak of a third intifada.
These provocations and Palestinians’ objections to them resulted in the proximity talks, originally scheduled to begin in March, being postponed until last month, but the reality is that none of the bases of the provocations have been resolved before the Palestinian Authority government of Mahmoud Abbas agreed to allow the talks to go ahead. Palestinian officials privately concede that they have no expectations of any progress in the talks, but agreed to take part in them in order to appease Washington, where the Obama administration is determined to create a sense of progress in the Middle East, and to try to demonstrate to the US that Israel is the main obstacle to progress, not the PA.
The other Israeli demand that makes any progress impossible is that the PA must solve “the problem” of Hamas and its control over Gaza before any agreement can be reached. Since the failure of talks between Fatah and Hamas late last year, which resulted in the cancellation of the Palestinian elections due to take place in January, meetings between the two sides have resumed, albeit with less urgency and with a lower profile. Here too, however, progress has been limited.
Last month it emerged that a broad agreement had been reached between the negotiating teams meeting in Gaza City, subject to approval of leaders on both sides. This was to return to the Egyptian reconciliation plan which failed to be approved last year, with a number of revisions proposed by Hamas in order to bridge the gap between the two sides. These concerned Hamas making political concessions in return for the Ramallah administration providing more aid to Gazans living under Israeli blockade, such as providing fuel for the power station in Gaza so power outages can be ended, and cooperating with Hamas efforts to lift the blockade.
Hamas negotiators were frustrated, however, by the fact that the agreement of the Fatah negotiators was subject to veto by senior PA leaders, with Abbas reportedly insisting that Hamas sign up to the full Egyptian plan before any possible revisions could be discussed. Hamas sources quoted in Al-Ahram Weekly newspaper (May 20) played down the prospects of any imminent agreement.
The problem, as Hamas officials must know, although they have resisted saying it in public, remains the one that scuppered the agreement last year: that the US and Israel have forbidden Abbas from making any deal with Hamas, least of all making any move towards a national unity government. When Netanyahu talks of solving “the problem” of Hamas, the only solution acceptable to him is Hamas’s defeat and destruction; and this is not going to happen considering Hamas’s support and credibility in Gaza in particular, but also in the West Bank.
For ordinary Palestinians, who have no real expectations of peace with Israel, the failure of their leaders to be able to agree any solution to the division of Palestine is a great frustration. While many understand that the problem is Abbas’s subservience to the US and Israel, the suffering of people in the West Bank under Israeli occupation, and the people of Gaza under Israeli blockade, mean that dissatisfaction with authorities in both parts of Palestine are increasing. While Gazans are largely sealed off from the rest of Palestine by the Israeli withdrawal and siege, Palestinians in the West Bank, still subject to direct Israeli controls in many areas, are increasingly restless.
The clashes in March may have proved to be just another bout of the episodic protests that characterise Palestinian life under occupation; but, in the absence of any prospect of political progress on any front in the foreseeable future, many still suspect that a third intifada could erupt at any time.