Restarting indirect talks between the PA and Israelis is an attempt to manage the crisis rather than resolve it, writes Saleh Al-Naami
Jaber Abdullah, 48, was visibly distressed after the last glimmer of hope that he would be able to reclaim his land in Al-Khudr village in Bethlehem evaporated. The Israeli army confiscated Abdullah’s land a few months ago for “security reasons”.
What those security reasons actually were emerged on Monday when Binyamin Netanyahu’s government announced that 112 residential units would be built on the annexed plot and merged with the neighbouring Beitar Illit settlement.
As Abdullah’s children and wife wept over their lost land, US Vice-President Joseph Biden landed in Israel on a visit which the US embassy in Tel Aviv said was aimed at creating an atmosphere conducive to relaunching indirect talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority (PA).
Biden’s five-day trip is aimed at mending already frayed relations with Israel. “The cornerstone of the relationship is our absolute, total, unvarnished commitment to Israel’s security”. In a message certain to sheer his Israeli hosts, Biden began with a little sabre-rattling aimed at Tehran. “We are determined to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons,” said Biden a few hours after his arrival.
Restarting dialogue was given the green light by Arab foreign ministers despite the fact that Israel has not halted settlement building while the US administration did not think that Israel’s incendiary decision to build the residential units “represents a violation of the requirements to make talks a success”.
Palestinian hopes were dealt a further blow when a senior US official told Haaretz newspaper on Tuesday that Washington does not feel Netanyahu’s government is obligated in any way by understandings reached between Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and former Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak. This means that indirect talks will begin at square one, effectively erasing 16 years of negotiations between Israel and the PA.
Biden’s schedule, which included cordial meetings with Israel’s leaders, appeared aimed at appeasing Jewish American organisations on the eve of Congressional elections. The Democrats are trailing in opinion polls which predict losses in both houses.
This is the backdrop against which Israel’s Foreign Ministry issued a report saying that it does not expect Washington to pay much attention to the peace process before the end of next year.
Tel Aviv has seized the opportunity to display ever greater intransigence. Israel’s finance minister, Yuval Steinitz, told Israel Radio that the PA must end Hamas’s reign in the Gaza Strip as a prerequisite before any progress is made in negotiations. “In order for talks to be of any consequence, the PA must disassemble the missile systems in the Gaza Strip,” he said, “and recognise the Jewish nature of Israel.”
Shifting positions in Israel and the US caused Saeb Erekat, the Palestine Liberation Organisation’s (PLO) chief negotiator, to appear uncertain in his response to media questions about restarting indirect talks with Israel. Erekat portrayed the decision by Arab ministers — despite their certainty that Israel is not sincere — as a way to “expose Netanyahu’s government to the world and force the US to shoulder its responsibilities”. He admitted that the PA has not received any guarantees from Washington over talks, and that the US had turned down a request by the PA for a precise framework for negotiations. “Restarting talks is an extension of the Arab peace initiative,” Erekat asserted.
Hamas, on the other hand, is firm in its rejection of the decision by Arab foreign ministers. Deposed Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh described the motion as “a reward to Israel for its hardline positions, including adding holy Muslim sites in the West Bank to its national heritage sites.”
“The official Arab stance is validating the judaisation of Jerusalem, Hebron and Bethlehem,” he argued. “There should have been a more resolute response from Arab governments in reaction to what is taking place at holy sites in Palestine.”
Haniyeh called on the Arab League to reconsider its position regarding negotiations with the occupiers. “The nation should move more effectively for the sake of Jerusalem, Al-Aqsa, the Ibrahimi Mosque and other holy Muslim sites,” he insisted.
In Israel, reactions were predictably reversed. Netanyahu argued that the Arab decision to restart talks confirmed that his government’s policies towards the Palestinians and the Arabs were working. Addressing the Knesset on 4 Thursday, he sneered at opposition leader Tzipi Livni’s criticisms of his disregard of any requirements needed to ensure that negotiations succeed.
Netanyahu reminded Knesset members of the implications of the Arab decision at a time when Israel is continuing its settlement projects in Jerusalem. He said the Arab world was well aware of his cabinet’s political agenda to maintain settlements in Greater Jerusalem and the Jordan Rift Valley and to refuse the right of return for refugees. Commentators who once criticised Netanyahu for not pursuing a political resolution of the conflict have ceased their condemnations. Some of them, including Shalom Yerushalmi, have even begun singing his praises, asserting that Netanyahu has proven that, “his method is more fitting in dealing with the Arabs than that of other politicians”.
What is ironic about the position of the Arab ministers, say many Israeli commentators, is their justification that the decision gives Israel a chance “to prove its good intentions”.
Zvi Bar’el, Haaretz newspaper’s commentator on Arab affairs, mocked such reasoning given that Israel’s current government is more committed to continuing settlements in Jerusalem and the West Bank than anything else. Other Israeli writers reminded Arab ministers that in four months time the temporary freeze on settlement building in the West Bank will be nearing an end and Netanyahu and senior ministers have already promised massive settlement projects across the West Bank, including a town for 14,000 settlers.
Palestinian writer and commentator Talal Okal believes that the PA has agreed to indirect negotiations because it lacks other viable alternatives. Internal Palestinian divisions, he argues, make another Intifada a very distant possibility. “The Arab position is also a very weak link. Discrepancies in the Arab positions do not help push Israel to act seriously. In addition, there is a general sense among the majority of Arabs that negotiations must restart regardless of what they are based on.”
“Israel has succeeded, for many domestic, regional and international reasons, to quash the will of the Palestinians,” observed Okal, “forcing them to retreat from the sound position the PLO and PA had adopted regarding the need to stop settlements before negotiations begin.”
There is a consensus among Palestinian political and intellectual circles that re-launching indirect talks between the PA and Israel is no more than a ploy by the US to attempt to manage a deteriorating situation and that the upsets dealt by Obama’s administration to the Palestinians and Arabs have already predetermined the outcome of negotiations, even before they start.
The link: http://sites.google.com/site/weeklyahramorgeg/re/dead-end-decisions