Special Reports
 
 


THE MIDDLE EAST PEACE 'CHIT-CHAT'

by

Alessandro Bruno
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Optimism in Short Supply
As the World witnesses the beginning of yet another round of US sponsored peace-talks between the Israelis and the Palestinians (more of a chit-chat considering the seriousness – or lack thereof – with which they are being approached), there is little optimism that this time, ‘peace’ may actually emerge. The Obama White House has enthusiastically promoted the peace initiative at a time when it needs some positive press in view of the forthcoming US Mid-Term elections, which many expect will be a set back for the Democrats. Obama’s current political standing (apart from jobs and the economy), is in difficulty because of the Islamic centre at ‘Ground Zero’ debacle which prevents the administration from continuing to forcibly criticize Israel’s settlement policy, as Vice-president Joe Biden attempted when visiting Tel Aviv last March. He suggested there not unrealistically, that Israel’s intransigence on this puts US interests in the region at risk.

Moreover, what kind of lasting peace can be achieved if either of the negotiating parties - the president of the cash-strapped Palestinian National Authority (PNA) Mahmoud Abbas, or Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, were to be replaced by others, antipathetic to a deal? Whom does Abbas represent, when perhaps near to half of all Palestinians live under Hamas authority in Gaza and when the last legislative elections in the West Bank were won by Hamas? Indeed, whom could Netanyahu deliver on a deal, seeing as there are even more hawkish figures than himself in the Israeli government, who would flinch at the very notion of giving up even one settlement.

No matter what progress is made in the talks, there is the problem of Hamas, veritably an elephant in the room. Both the pro-Palestinians and pro-Israeli sides can at least agree that without Hamas, no real deal is possible. Abbas should probably have sought some kind of reconciliation with Hamas before embarking on the peace talks such as to give them greater validity, but this would not have been an easy thing to do. Hamas remains the main political and military force in Gaza, while Mahmoud Abbas is president by default only, since the PNA elections have been postponed twice already and he has overextended his mandate. The United States and the other parties are presenting the very fact of the peace talks as a great success, even though nothing has been achieved so far. Benjamin Netanyahu claims there is a possibility of reaching an “historic accord” though he has not shown even the slightest intention of controlling the excesses of his right wing partners and the related expansion of Israeli settlements. There is a distinct impression that Israel’s presence at the negotiating table is almost entirely due to US pressure.

Israeli Obstacles
The more radical elements in the Netanyahu government, such as the minister of foreign affairs Avigdor Lieberman, are all too aware of these anomalies which he uses to suggest that the Palestinians are not being serious about the peace process, because they sent a negotiator who lacks the legitimacy and authority to enforce any kind of deal. The same Lieberman also stated that his Yisrael Beitenu party, a coalition member, would refuse to abide by any peace agreement that would extend the ten month long partial moratorium on settlements beyond September 26! For their part, the PNA must secure, absolutely, a halt to the settlements in the West Bank and Arab East Jerusalem. Should it fail to do so, it would spell political suicide for the PNA and favour Hamas’s penetration in the West Bank. And perhaps that is what the hard-line Israeli leadership wants, because a more radicalized West Bank, would then justify the adoption of even more restrictive policies, providing plenty of excuses for invasions in the ‘Cast lead’ fashion.

Hamas and negotiating deadlock
This scenario suggests that the PNA is even more afraid of Hamas than it is of Netanyahu. The status quo offers Mahmoud Abbas more chances of political survival than a half-baked peace agreement, drafted solely to ensure more inevitable American aid to both sides. Indeed, the best hope for the parties, including the Obama presidency, is for the talks to come to a complete halt after the mid-term election, with both the Palestinians and the Israelis (but more the Palestinians) blaming the other for the failure. Everyone can return to the status quo in peace. Of course, Hamas would gain strength anyway, because this Israeli government has no restraints and it will not stop the construction of settlements. Perhaps, then the strategy for these Palestinian-Israeli talks should take care to isolate or weaken Hamas. This requires the United States and Israel to talk to Syria and settle the Golan problem which is quite do-able, before attempting to resolve the thornier Palestinian one. Syria, which is closer to Hamas than it is to the PNA serves as one of the main channels of support from Iran to Hamas. Secular Syria has no particular interest in Hamas, a fundamentalist organization, other than to use it as an advantage to force Israel to discuss the Golan.

The road to the two-state solution appears to pass through Damascus. Yet so far, neither Washington nor Jerusalem has offered anything resembling an incentive to Syria.

Any Fragments of Optimism?
The PNA has embarked on this latest peace process attempt from a position of weakness. The PLO, in September 1993, similarly embarked on the peace process from a position of weakness; nevertheless, it was a different kind of weakness. In 1993 the Palestinian people had been brought closer together after four years of rock-throwing and economic boycott (discouraging Palestinians from earning money in Israel), intifada (not suicide bombings), which earned the Palestinian cause some sympathy, as the struggle took on the symbolism of the ‘David vs. Goliath’ myth. Yet, Yasser Arafat’s PLO was bankrupt from the toll of the struggle and from the isolation (western and Middle Eastern) it found itself in, by siding with Saddam Hussein in the first Gulf War. Whether or not Arafat agreed, or was pushed, to pursue peace talks with the Israelis (though in some way he had suggested a negotiated solution since his famous ‘gun and olive branch’ speech at the UN in 1974), he was indisputably the Palestinian leader. Hamas was still a sideline movement and it wasn’t the thorn in the flesh that it is now.

The Incentives
The PLO was less willing to compromise than the current PNA and the years between the first round of peace talks with prime minister Yitzak Rabin and the famous ‘rejection’ of a ‘great offer’ from prime minister Barack in 2000, could be seen as a period of re-grouping for the launch of the second and much more violent Intifada. Today, the PNA, the heir of the PLO, is in an even weaker position, as it comes to the negotiations representing a divided Palestine. If it were now able to secure a peace agreement that would ensure a halt to Israeli settlements, avoiding the future Palestinian state from looking like a collection of South African apartheid style Bantustans, it could plausibly gain sufficient support in the West Bank to push back the Hamas advance. A peace agreement would also earn the PNA grateful financial aid from the United States. Of course, this is only possible if the terms of the peace agreement are even better than the terms that Arafat refused in 2000, when his counterpart was Ehud Barak of the Labor party. Prime minister Netanyahu, who leads a mixed coalition including key ultra-conservatives, is not even in a position to offer Mahmoud Abbas half of what Barak had described as a ‘generous offer’ to Arafat. That ‘offer’ essentially left the Palestinians 20% of pre-1948 Palestine (according to the Israeli peace organization Gush Shalom).

The Regional Context
The PNA is relying on a political calculation that it will succeed in isolating Hamas whose leaders have shown no intention of compromising at all. Hamas has already sent Abbas ‘a message’, by launching attacks against settlers near Hebron on the eve of the talks in Washington. The PNA have retaliated as its security forces have arrested hundreds of suspected militants in the West Bank, demonstrating how serious Abbas considers the Hamas threat to be. However, Abbas is under additional pressure than Arafat was from Arab states. In 1993, no regional power was pursuing nuclear weapons (other than Israel who already has them); it had been bloodily proven that even the feared regime of Saddam Hussein in Iraq lacked the capability of pursuing nuclear weapons. Today, the same Arab countries in the Gulf that feared the Iraq that invaded Kuwait in 1990, now fear Iran’s pursuit of nuclear technology. Today, Iran sponsors Hamas and Iraq’s Sunni elite has been replaced by a Shiite ruling class.

The Sunni-Shiite rift is seen as having become an even more important threat to the Middle East region than the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, so there is a decided political will on the part of the powers, which would help finance the construction of any Palestinian state, in order to isolate and weaken Iranian backed groups. There have been rumours of contacts between the settled regional powers of Saudi Arabia and Israel, which now share Iran as a common threat. An Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement would enable several Arab states to make peace with Israel and make their alliance (against Iran) more overt. The PNA, therefore, is also under regional pressure to conclude an agreement. The Sunni generally are looking to the Islamic Republic of Iran as an existential threat. They are less inclined to consider niceties, such as a fair deal for the Palestinians, than they are to ensure that Iran and its allies are more isolated. This means few would care if the Palestinians were left to fight each other, as the PNA might struggle against Hamas after being forced into signing any peace deal that gives too much away. That is perhaps Israel’s gamble.

In Israel’s favour is the fact that the world, especially the Arab world is quite fed up with the sixty-plus year old Palestinian-Israeli problem, and it really wants a solution now. This means the Palestinians will have to forego a couple of key demands; there is little hope that the ‘right of return’ for refugees living outside the West Bank or Gaza will have even a chance of being heard, let alone discussed. There is also little chance that the Israelis will give up any settlements near the central areas. Netanyahu cannot push further than even his predecessors could; should he give up too many settlements he risks breaking his ruling coalition, and unless this were the only substantive issue remaining, it is doubtful that for this he would be willing to risk his government for a (shaky) peace agreement. At this point the only result of the talks in Washington has been the agreement for the two parties to continue meeting every two weeks, which works out as a convenient way of stalling, even on an extension of the ten-month long ‘settlement freeze’. Netanyahu may also face the prospect of the Labour ministers, such as Ehud Barak, leaving the government coalition and inevitably anger from the US leadership if he fails to secure the settlement freeze extension.

Some Likely Scenarios
Israeli observers are suggesting that Netanyahu may have to invite Tzipi Livni’s Kadima to join the government coalition to overcome the far right and attempt to reach a peace deal. That is probably do-able if it is the key to progress.

The next round of talks has already begun in Sharm el-Sheikh, where Abbas and Netanyahu will be joined by US secretary of state Hillary Clinton, but the real test for any possibility of an agreement will come when the Israeli parliament, the Knesset, will be called to vote on whether or not to extend the settlement freeze. That should give a clear indication of where the ‘peace talks’ may expect to reach if anywhere at all. For its part, the Palestinian Authority has to secure real gains if it hopes to displace or win over Hamas to its side. The United States can influence this process to some extent, as has Saudi Arabia, by establishing closer links to Syria and promoting its own talks with Israel over the Golan. If the United States would offer Syria more ‘carrot’ than ‘stick’, it could convince it to erode some of its support for Hamas.

Ultimately, the settlements freeze, the return of refugees and the borderlines are not even the main obstacle. The core problem is the very fact that Israelis were allowed to build settlements in the West Bank in the first place, avoiding them having to admit that this practice violates international law by claiming higher authority, that the land they take was ‘promised by God’, who although invoked on all sides, unfortunately is not a party to these negotiations.