Friday, October 08, 2010

Ashes amid the hopes

Middle East peace talks are again - "still" is likely a more appropriate word - moribund, stalled now over the Israeli refusal to extend its moratorium on settlement construction in the West Bank. The Arab League described the talks as "negative" and "not bearing fruit."

Reuters quoted Arab League chief Amr Moussa as saying Arab leaders will begin drafting alternatives, which in the bizarro world of Middle East peace talks is seen as a hopeful development because it means Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is likely to put off any final decision about quitting the talks, giving him and others a little time to try to prevent a complete breakdown. As the New York Times noted,
[n]either the Palestinian nor the Israeli leader seems willing to take significant political risks and immerse himself fully in the process, yet, pressed by an American administration that is so heavily invested in the process, neither wants to be seen as the one who walked away.
That concern with the US's position may mean even more than you think. Author and journalist Thanassis Cambanis, an instructor at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs, wrote this in The Daily Beast on Tuesday:
Not a single person I interviewed in the Middle East during the last two months expected anything to come of the current talks—certainly not anything good—although, for the record, no one predicted either that a failed peace process would unleash a new intifada or wholesale change in Israeli priorities.

Instead, the Arab diplomats, analysts, and activists who support Hamas and Hezbollah with whom I spoke seemed in accord that for the time being, neither the Israelis nor the Palestinians saw anything to gain from dialogue, except for earning chits with Washington.

The main benefit of a peace process, in this view, is that Washington wants one, and so long as it doesn't cost anything, Washington's allies in Ramallah and Jerusalem are happy to oblige.
In short, the word he's getting is that this is all a show: Neither side expects to gain anything but with an eye on the US, for PR reasons each wants the other to be the one to call it quits.

So okay, then, let's cut through the crap and the posturing and get to the meat of the immediate matter: the settlements. It is true that Netanyahu originally promised a one-time, not-to-be-repeated, 10-month, moratorium. It is also true, as any number of sources have pointed out, that he could face serious internal political difficulties if he supported an extension; it could lead to a major reshuffling or even potentially a fracturing of his ruling coalition.

However, it is also true that this "freeze" was much more a PR stunt than a freeze. As columnist Dror Etkes noted in the Israeli daily Haaretz, citing figures from the government's Central Bureau of Statistics,
[w]hat took place in the past few months is, in the best case scenario, not more than a negligible decrease in the number of housing units that were built in settlements. ...

[T]he truth is that the settlers know better than anyone else that not only did construction in settlements continue over the last 10 months, and vigorously, but also that a relatively large part of the houses were built on settlements that lie east of the separation fence....
And it is also true that the settlements are illegal under international law! Article 49 of the Fourth Geneva Convention makes it quite explicit:
The Occupying Power shall not deport or transfer parts of its own civilian population into the territory it occupies.
By pussy-footing around that simple fact and going on about a "moratorium" (which, let's not forget, means a pause, not an end, and which even if it became something permanent would leave the existing illegal settlements untouched) the White House and most of the US media are enabling defiance of international law and dodging an issue more central than is often realized.

That's because, and finally on this for the moment, it is also true the one of the avowed purposes of those settlements was to create "facts on the ground," to establish such a strong and widespread Israeli presence in the West Bank that dislodging it in order to create a Palestinian state would be impossible. (Note well that when Israel refers to "illegal" settlements, it means only those that have not gone through the process to receive official government approval.) The intent was and is to present Palestinians with a fait accompli, to say "This land is part of Israel. Get over it." And thus essentially to turn Palestinians into refugees or perhaps "merely" outsiders in their own homeland.

With over 300,000 Israelis already living in over 120 officially-approved settlements in the West Bank now - over 10% of the combined Jewish-Palestinian population and a figure which does not include another 190,000 in East Jerusalem - it's rather hard to imagine why the Palestinians would be willing to accept continued construction and a continued expansion of that number as talks go on. And on. And on.

(Parenthetically, the excuse some Israeli reactionaries have offered to counter that blatant illegality is that the West Bank is not "occupied," it is "disputed." Unfortunately for them, that doesn't help because that runs them up against UN Security Council Resolution 242, adopted in 1967 and agreed to by Israel in 1968, which opens by "Emphasizing the inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by war" and shortly thereafter calls for the "Withdrawal of Israeli armed forces from territories occupied in the recent conflict," that is, the 1967 war, during which Israel seized the West Bank.)

Which bring up the big question, the one no one really wants to address: Do the sides actually want a peace agreement?

I'm convinced the Palestinians - in this case referring to the Palestinian Authority and President Abbas - do, provided certain goals are achieved. The biggest of those are borders that are something like the 1967 borders, the at least symbolic acceptance by Israel of a "right of return" of Palestinians driven from their homes in 1948, and resolving the status of East Jerusalem. That latter is the toughie as the Palestinians want it as their capital and the Jews (I use the term here as an alternative to Israelis because not all Israelis are Jewish) have deep emotional and for some religious connections to the idea of a united Jerusalem as the "eternal capital" of Israel.

But figure what a real settlement would mean to Abbas. For one thing, it would make him a huge hero and through that give him a major leg up in the ongoing long-distance political fight with Hamas. It would open up the possibilities of aid and investment to build the Palestinian economy. And it would expand his administration's authority. It's rarely realized just how geographically limited Palestinian "autonomy" really is, which is why I've included the map on the left. (I'm reminded of Yassir Arafat complaining about an earlier Israeli offer of "autonomy." He said "They offered me autonomy over garbage collection and little else.")

So Abbas has good reasons, more than adequate incentives, to agree to a settlement that meets those base requirements, the first two of which hardly seem outlandish or particularly difficult.

But Israel? Netanyahu? That is a different story.

The truth is, I don't believe Netanyahu is sincere. I don't believe his government is sincere. And I haven't believed for a while now that previous Israeli governments were sincere. In the present case, a report in the Israeli daily Haaretz says Netanyahu spent the second of his three meetings with Abbas arguing over what are the "core" issues - even though at least two previous Israeli governments had already reached agreements with the Palestinians on precisely that. And at the third meeting, he would not even talk about the details Abbas presented on his previous negotiations with former PM Ehud Olmert or the positions Abbas presented on issues such as borders, security, the refugees, Jerusalem, and the settlements. Instead, he simply repeated his position on security arrangements. What's more, according to what Abbas told diplomats after the meeting, Netanyahu wants to reach a framework agreement in a year - but implement it over 20 years. That's a lot of settlement construction.

Certainly, you would not expect all those issues to be resolved at a single meeting. But to go into such a meeting being unprepared if not outright unwilling to even talk about them? To not even be able (or again, willing) to present a position on them? This is not the mark of a serious negotiator.

Too many times there have been the dragged-out, go-nowhere negotiations, too many times there have been the bogus offers, too many times there have been the impossible demands ("a complete halt to all 'terrorism' no matter who did it before talks even begin"). And too many times the squandered - better yet, evaded - opportunities, too many times the provocative action just at the wrong time, just when it could provoke an angry reaction that would undermine the possibility of progress.

I've commented on that last point a few times before: In December 2003, when Israel launched a large-scale raid into Ramallah just two days before several Palestinian factions were to meet in Egypt to discuss halting attacks on Israel. A month later, when right after Syria offered to reopen talks, Israel announced plans for its biggest-ever settlement drive in the Golan Heights. And again in October 2007 when, just as Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was starting a peace mission to the region, Israel declared Gaza a "hostile entity" in a move that provoked Palestinian anger and threatened to cripple preparations for a Mideast conference.

And now, just when it appears that these talks, as futile as they are, may not fall apart after all, particularly not in a way that Netanyahu could blame on Abbas, comes this:
Israel's cabinet next week will consider a bill that would require non-Jewish candidates for Israeli citizenship to pledge allegiance to the country as a Jewish state.

The bill, backed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, calls for an amendment to Israel's citizenship law to include "a Jewish and democratic state" in a mandatory oath of loyalty.

In addition to kicking up accusations of discrimination against the country's Arab minority, observers suggested the proposal is timed to push Israel's diplomatic campaign to force the Palestinians to recognize Israel as a Jewish state as a condition for a peace accord. ...

The amendment was made public at a sensitive diplomatic juncture.
Well, surprise, surprise, surprise. The Israeli government making a provocative announcement at a "sensitive juncture." Will wonders never cease.

Not quite two years ago I wrote "An open letter to Israel" which began by saying
Israel, I write to you as someone who has never, not once, questioned your right to exist. Someone who for nearly 40 years now has advocated the "two-state" solution of mutual recognition between Israel and an independent Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza. Someone who, that is, would like to address you as a friend - but cannot. Cannot because you have made it impossible for me to be anything other than a dedicated foe of the course you have set, a course of war, of bigotry, of colonialism, of oppression. You have demonstrated for anyone with eyes to see and ears to hear that you do not want peace except the cold, deadly "peace" of domination and control.
The past two years have given me no reason to change that assessment. And more's the pity.

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