Sunday,19 August, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1357, (17 - 23 August 2017)
Sunday,19 August, 2018
Issue 1357, (17 - 23 August 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Palestinian-Israeli opportunities

Washington has dispatched not one but two envoys to the Middle East. Ahmed Eleiba assesses current prospects for a resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict


Palestinian-Israeli opportunities
Palestinian-Israeli opportunities

اقرأ باللغة العربية

US President Donald Trump decided to dispatch two new envoys to the Middle East to discuss “a path to substantive Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.” The White House announced last Friday that presidential adviser Jared Kushner and negotiator Jason Greenblatt would meet with the leaders of Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Qatar, Jordan, Egypt, Israel and the Palestinian Authority. Deputy National Security Adviser Dina Powell, who will also be on the trip, commented: “While the regional talks will play an important role, the president reaffirms that peace between Israelis and Palestinians can only be negotiated directly between the two parties and that the United States will continue working closely with the parties to make progress towards that goal.”

This trip will kick off the Trump administration’s first official drive to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict, even though it has departed from a number of established principles and commitments on this question. As Mustafa Barghouti, general secretary of the Palestinian National Initiative, told Al-Ahram Weekly, “The current US administration has not committed itself to the two-state solution. It hasn’t even mentioned it.” The same applies to US opposition to Israeli settlement construction in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem, the rate of which has soared by 70 per cent since Trump took office. Barghouti points out that this policy is inherently inimical to the establishment of a Palestinian state and, in general, it embraces the Israeli view on a political settlement.

One notes, however, that this is the first time that the US has sent two envoys to the Middle East. Said Okasha, Israeli affairs specialist at Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies, told the Weekly in interview, “the purpose of this is to broaden the scope of negotiations in the regional framework. Dina Powell indicated as much when she said that the envoys will be holding talks in a number of countries in this region such as Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Qatar, Jordan, Egypt and the Palestinian Authority, as well as Israel. This means that the forthcoming proposal will probably be a regional one and, perhaps, by autumn it will have crystallised.”

Although there had been some signs of a possible opportunity for a resumption of peace talks, hopes faded amid other developments. Of particular importance is the crisis that is unfolding now in Israel surrounding the corruption investigations into Netanyahu, threatening his long grip on power, especially now that one of his chief aides, Ari Harrow, has turned state witness in the probes into allegations of “bribery, fraud and breach of trust.” In addition, a poll published by Israeli Channel 10 on Sunday found that two thirds (66 per cent) of Israelis believe Netanyahu should resign if indicted for corruption, and just over half (51 per cent) say they do not believe his protestations of innocence. The survey also indicates that the Likud Party would win in any forthcoming general elections with or without Netanyahu as its leader and that former Likud minister Gideon Saar would stand the best chances of being elected prime minister if Netanyahu was out of the running.

After the news about Harrow broke, The Jerusalem Post on Monday last week foresaw three possible scenarios for Netanyahu. He could refuse to resign, which is clearly his preferred option and the course he intends to take. The second is dismissal by his cabinet and a call for early elections. The third is to wait to see what the public prosecutor decides which could take until 2018. This is the most realistic scenario and means that his fate and that of the Israeli leadership will be determined in Spring 2018.

“On the basis of previous experiences and events, forecasts should not be based on the results of the opinion poll,” Okasha remarked. “Netanyahu has fought many battles in the past and ultimately prevailed. In addition, many Israeli voters might change their minds by election day and then there is the question of the large bloc of undecided voters. But he still stands the better chance than his rivals because of his ability to handle the political and security questions in Israel.”

Okasha also pointed out that Saar as well as the finance minister had been mooted before as possible contenders but their lack of experience in handling major political and security concerns always gave Netanyahu the upper hand.

Jacky Khoury, Israeli political affairs specialist, put the situation as follows in interview with the Weekly: “Of course, it is possible for Saar to replace Netanyahu, but it’s premature to draw conclusions.” He added: “The Likud is in a real predicament and it is searching for an alternative.”

As to how developments surrounding the Netanyahu corruption crisis affects conflict settlement prospects, Barghouti said: “The main problem with the negotiating process is Netanyahu and his government, which is filled with racists and advocates of settlement expansion and which is not seriously interested in dealing with any proposal for a genuine peace agreement.”

Indeed, many believe that the composition of the Israeli government needs to change considerably in order for there to be any serious peace talks. Hopes for this quickly faded when Israeli opposition leader Isaac Herzog lost his bid for re-election as head of the Labour Party. He had been seen as the person best poised to tip the coalition balances away from the current conservative and ultra-right government. It was with this prospect in mind that Cairo received Herzog along with Netanyahu last year in order to meet with President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi.

Meanwhile, there remains a third major concern with regard to US intentions. In addition to commitment to the two-state solution and curbing Israeli settlement expansion, there is the problem of proposing a formula for talks that is “substantive” as opposed to the old formula of “negotiating for the sake of negotiating”. It was reported that Kushner, while speaking to a group of congressional interns last week, confessed that he was not certain that the Trump administration could offer anything “unique” for a solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict.

“So, what do we offer that’s unique?” Kushner said. “I don’t know… I’m sure everyone that’s tried this has been unique in some ways, but again we’re trying to follow very logically. We’re thinking about what the right end state is, and we’re trying to work with the parties very quietly to see if there’s a solution.”

As for the approach he would follow, in order to attain progress, his remarks revealed that he had already been officially tasked with the peace-making mission well before it was announced. If with analysts are wondering, “what comes after Netanyahu?” the same question has arisen concerning Mahmoud Abbas, in light of recent reports about the state of health of the 83-year-old Palestinian president. Some fear political paralysis on the Palestinian side, which is already encumbered by several well-known problems. Cairo, until recently, had hoped to address this issue. A source in Cairo familiar with details of this issue told the Weekly, “Cairo fears the repercussions of failing to accommodate this matter. The signs of this could be seen in the previous period of frostiness between Abbas and Cairo. However, at the same time, Cairo does not want to see a dispute or circumvention of Abbas’s role, whether on [the peace process] or on other matters, for example the question of Gaza.”

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