Thursday,21 June, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1158, (25 - 31 July 2013)
Thursday,21 June, 2018
Issue 1158, (25 - 31 July 2013)

Ahram Weekly

Why peace talks now?

While Palestinian-Israeli negotiations look set to resume, little indicates that anything new is on the table for Palestinians, Ahmed Eleiba writes

Al-Ahram Weekly

Martin Indyk, former US ambassador to Israel, has just been chosen by Barack Obama to lead his administration’s mediating efforts in Palestinian-Israeli negotiations. Indyk is fully familiar with the details of the negotiating process. In addition to serving two tours as ambassador to Israel, he was assistant secretary of state of Near East affairs in the Clinton administration. With respect to Israel, the negotiating team is to be headed by former prime minister Tzipi Livni and former legal advisor Yitzhak Molcho. Saeb Ereikat, chief Palestinian A negotiator, will head the Palestinian team.

In spite of John Kerry’s many shuttling rounds in the region, reports from Amman, which the US secretary of state had used as his base for trips to Tel Aviv, Ramallah and Arab capitals indicate that his efforts to kick-start negotiations had made no progress until very recently. According to sources in Jordan, Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas was keen to begin a new phase of the peace talks that had been stalled since September 2010, just as the wave of popular uprisings began to sweep a number of countries in the Middle East. He encountered considerable resistance from various Palestinian political circles, including from within the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO), who argued that Israel was offering very little to tempt the Palestinians back to the negotiating table. However, evidently Abbas was reluctant to let even the small window of opportunity pass, especially once Israel acceded to Kerry’s request to offer some “goodwill” gestures. The most significant of these was Israel’s agreement to release 104 Palestinian political prisoners. Although it was originally rumoured that 25 of these would be released as a first instalment, Israeli newspaper reports have since cited officials as saying that the number might be as high as 80.

The release of the prisoners was only one of the items haggled over in order to bring the two sides to agree to resume negotiations. According to sources with which Al-Ahram Weekly spoke, the items related to the framework of the negotiations with respect to which it was agreed to launch an extensive process with a 6-9 month time ceiling and based on the principle that there would be no conditions outside of the understandings that had been reached at the beginning of the negotiating process. Jordan is to join the sessions related to the questions of Jerusalem, refugees and borders. With respect to borders these would worked out on the basis of a land exchange deal encompassing 8-10 per cent of West Bank territory. Meanwhile, Israel has pledged to freeze construction in some West Bank settlements, although these will not include the major settlements on the outskirts of Jerusalem and in the Jordan Valley, such as Maale Adumim, Rafaat Gaiv, Harahoum, Gilo, Nevi Yakov, Ramat Shlomo, Ramat Alon and Keriyat Araba. Residents in these settlements would be given the choice between Israeli and Palestinian citizenship, or both.

Final borders are only one of the outstanding “final status” issues on the table since Oslo and that will be included in the forthcoming talks. Of the other four, the question of Palestinian refugees and the right to return is the most central to the Palestinian cause. Under the framework agreement, “return” would not be to the State of Israel but rather to the West Bank, Rafah and Gaza and it would be assisted by funding from the Gulf. With respect to Palestinians that do not wish to return, Arab states that are currently hosting refugees would grant citizenship at least to those who have resided in those states for over 10 years.

Nevertheless, there is another point of particular concern to many Palestinians. In the event of an agreement, the two sides would issue an historic declaration proclaiming the end to the conflict and in accordance with which the Palestinian side would recognise Israel as a Jewish state and Israel would recognise the Palestinian state. The Arab League, whose committee to monitor negotiations will have been present throughout the process, would lend its blessing to this ceremony. But according to a highly placed Palestinian diplomat closely connected with this matter, this demand represents an attempt to erase the history of Palestine from the map and lay the groundwork for scenarios that no Palestinian could accept. The source added that there were strong objections to the Qatari bid to assume the right, several months ago, to present an initiative in the name of the Arab League. Today, the US is using every means at its disposal to pressure the Palestinians into offering Israel gains in exchange for which the Palestinians will receive nothing substantial in return.

In the opinion of this source, the Palestinian front is so weak that the Palestinians can gain nothing by returning to the negotiating table at this juncture. “The purpose of this attempt to rush into negotiations is not to forfeit Palestinian opportunities. Rather it is another ruse to forfeit more Palestinian rights,” he said. “We have not grasped the many details regarding why we are returning to negotiations now when there is nothing new. In fact, the situation on the ground is only being made more difficult as new settlement projects are under way, even as Netanyahu announces that negotiations are of strategic importance to Israel. I can only understand this to mean that [the negotiations] are to serve as a cover for Israel to press ahead with declared policies the nature of which has been exposed. In addition, whatever is being said in the Arab or Israeli media about the realness of these negotiations has little bearing on the farcical reality that the US is imposing on the negotiations. So what are we speaking about now? Frankly, we’re not speaking about anything important.”

Netanyahu signalled his approval of the new negotiating initiative in his statement describing it as vital to Israel’s strategic interests which he issued following the first visit by King Abdullah II of Jordan to Egypt since the 25 January Revolution. This visit, in turn, took place after Foreign Minister Nabil Fahmy outlined Cairo’s stance toward the negotiations, which according to many diplomatic observers was not unexpected. As former assistant minister of foreign affairs Ambassador Hussein Haridi put it, this was Cairo’s “classic” stance as no more than this can be asked of Egypt at this current political juncture. He went on to explain that the Foreign Ministry will chiefly work on restoring political balances that Egypt lost in the course of the past year in the Arab environment, the Palestinian question central in this regard. He added that Egypt’s actions in this context would emanate from an approach that applies “the logic of the state rather than the logic of the group”. By “group” he was referring to the Muslim Brotherhood whose approach to Palestinian issues was characterised by a bias towards Hamas, whereas today, he said, Egypt will regard Hamas as a faction that has no official diplomatic status as a representative of the Palestinian people, unlike the Palestinian Authority.

In the course of Israel’s haggling with the US, Netanyahu reportedly had asked Kerry to release Jonathan Pollard, currently serving a sentence of life imprisonment in the US after he was ruled guilty of espionage on behalf of Israel, in exchange for the “goodwill gesture” of the release of Palestinian political prisoners. According to an Israel news report, when Kerry refused, Netanyahu began to backtrack. First he said that he would call for a referendum in Israel before taking any step forward with the Palestinians. Then he announced his approval of the construction of 1,600 new housing units in the West Bank.

This report sustains the opinion of a number of observers who see little point in moves towards the resumption of negotiations. Said Okasha, head of the Israeli Studies Unit in Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies, told the Weekly: “The positions on the Palestinian and Israeli sides have not changed. The last Israeli elections gave rise to a government that may want to resume negotiations in a general sense, but the parties that make up the coalition are not interested in considering the real details that get to the heart of the issue. A party such as Yash Atid, led by Meir Labid, spoke at length about a peace settlement but it was interested only in a single demand, namely recognition of the Jewishness of the state. Meanwhile, on the Palestinian side there is a desire to move forward. [Abbas] has received nothing substantial in exchange for agreeing to return to negotiations. The ideas proposed with respect to the historic issues, such as Palestinian refugees and the right of return, are not very different from those proposed in all US initiatives since Annapolis. In addition, there is no Arab incubator for the negotiations. Even if some countries now claim that they will help, they realise that such offers are little more than gestures. There are crises in Jordan, Syria and Lebanon — the countries that have absorbed the largest numbers of Palestinian refugees — due to various political circumstances and strikes. These countries are unlikely to participate in a process of naturalising Palestinians. Other parties, such as Syria and Iran, are just as unlikely to approve a project for naturalising Palestinian refugees in their countries without exacting for something concrete in return from the international community. Ultimately, therefore, the countries neighbouring Israel are not in the picture as a bolster for these negotiations in any real way.”

Okasha continues: “The question now is, as long as the relevant parties are aware of all this, why do they insist on going ahead? There is a whole range of possible answers. Washington wants to stage a political return to the region after the many failures it met during the Arab Spring phase. Both Israel and the Palestinians have messages of their own that they want to market. With respect to [Abbas], who is not widely supported even among his peers, he is keen to take advantage of Hamas’s current weakness following the fall of the Muslim Brotherhood regime in Egypt in the hope that his star will rise again. What is clear, however, is that there can be no real solution without a comprehensive regional settlement that resolves all outstanding issues of a dispute in a profound and meaningful way acceptable to all parties.”

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