Discussing the recently revived talks and negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, Mustafa Barghouthi, leader of the Palestinian National Initiative party (Al Mubadara), expressed his scepticism about the approach taken by the peace process hitherto with a colourful simile, “Continuing the negotiations while illegal settlements continue to grow is like having two sides negotiating over a piece of cheese: one side, the Palestinians, is stuck behind bars while the Israeli side have access to the piece of cheese and are eating while negotiating. At the end of the day we will not have anything to negotiate about.”
This may seem a crude summation after all the ramifications produced by the sixty years’ ‘quarrel’, but it is not far off.
On January 12, Peace Now, one of the most outspoken and informed of Israeli human rights group, released a report revealing a 20% increase in the rate of illegal Israeli settlement expansion in the West Bank in the year 2011. Between January and September 2011, the report named at least 3,500 housing units under construction, 1,850 of which were construction project ‘starts’. Throughout the same time period, the Israeli Ministry of Housing published a document for the upcoming construction of 1,577 units in the West Bank and 2,057 in East Jerusalem. If these numbers indicate anything at all it is that the Occupation is not only going to be maintained but indeed further intensified. PLO officials held five rounds of exploratory talks with Israeli representatives in January but insist they cannot progress to direct negotiations until Israel halts settlement building on occupied Palestinian land. This position is largely supported by the UN, EU, the Russian Federation as well as single countries (Nick Clegg’s definition of the ongoing expansion of settlements as “deliberate vandalism” is a clear example) and almost the majority of UN humanitarian agencies and NGOs operating in the area.
It is plausible, though, that the talks will restart if the Arab League, when it meets in mid-February, will be able to convince PLO Chairman Mahmoud Abbas to rejoin the Arab caucus. The organisers of the Amman meetings, Jordan and the Quartet, succeeded in persuading Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu's representative, Yitzchak Molcho, to spell out the territorial limitations of Netanyahu's position for the first time, and Molcho reportedly (but not officially) offered to present security positions in another meeting. There were also apparently some favourable indications that Netanyahu would consider Israeli confidence-building gestures if the talks continue, though he has backed down on commitments in this regard repeatedly over the past three years.
The territorial parameters allegedly put forward by Molcho ostensibly confirmed the PLO's assessment that the two sides are too far apart on this issue (without taking into consideration problematic issues such as holy places and the right of return of Palestinian refugees) to give negotiations any likelihood of success. Molcho purportedly offered the Palestinians a state bordered approximately by the security fence on the west and a long-term Israeli security presence in the Jordan Valley to the east. There was no Israeli offer of a Palestinian capital in Jerusalem or, for that matter, any concession regarding a ‘united Jerusalem’.
These positions do indeed correspond with what we know of Netanyahu's thoughts regarding a Palestinian state. They cannot feasibly constitute the basis for a two-state agreement.
Therefore, the talks were not a success, but they were also not a complete disaster. All the parties have an apparent interest in pursuing the talks further, although largely to gain political consensus at home. Netanyahu, cleverly anticipating elections later this year, wants in some way to demonstrate to the Israeli political moderate parties that he is taking the issue of negotiations seriously. On the other hand, King Abdullah II of Jordan needs to show Jordanians (and Palestinians living in Jordan) that he is making an effort on the Palestinian issue. On Sunday, January 29, he openly (and cunningly, one may add) ‘exposed’ himself as hosting the Israel-PLO talks by inviting for a brief visit the exiled Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal. As for the PLO, Abu Mazen (Mahmoud Abbas) now has to decide what sport he is interested in playing and on what pitch. Without the Amman talks, he is forced to return to his United Nations initiative and pursue reconciliation negotiations with Hamas. He and Hamas chief Khalid Meshaal were expected to agree on the structure of a Palestinian national unity government during a meeting in Amman on Thursday, February 2. According to the secretary-general of Fatah Revolutionary Council, Amin Maqboul, the failure to appoint a new government is the main obstacle to elections in the West Bank and Gaza.
On the other side of globe, the Obama administration is playing it safe. They needs a “harmless” process of some nature as the election year is beginning, and upsetting the powerful Jewish lobby (AIPAC) is, without any doubt, a counterproductive path for an American president seeking re-election. The French and Russians also have election considerations. For its part, the Quartet (the US, EU, Russia and the UN) enjoys some sort of relief whenever negotiations take place, as worldwide criticism has meanwhile been fomenting and questioning the true effectiveness of an international task force specifically created in order to facilitate the peace process, but labelled as a smoke screen for gullible liberals.