Israel and Palestine re-enter peace negotiations

Indirect Israel-Palestine peace talks underway after four-month deadlock. Death toll rises as Thai peace plan stalls. Afghan peace draft considers Taliban exile. four killed as elections begin in the Philippines. All this and more in today’s security update.
Laura Hilger
10 May 2010

After four months of deadlock, indirect peace talks between Israeli and the Palestinian Authority are again underway. US Special Envoy George Mitchell held several meetings this week with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Mitchell will return to the region next week and shuttle between the two sides in an effort to narrow their differences on the term of Palestinian statehood. Mitchell hopes direct talks can start within four months.

Palestinians broke off direct peace talks in late 2008 after Israel launched a military offensive on Gaza. The US initiative to restart indirect talks in March was halted by the Israeli announcement of settlement expansion in East Jerusalem, creating political deadlock in the region. In November, Israel announced a ten-month suspension of new building in the West Bank, but considers Jerusalem as part of its territory and not subject to the restrictions.

The Palestinian Authority formally refuses to enter direct talks unless Israel completely halts building in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

openSecurity Verdict: After months of sporadic violence, renewed talks, though indirect, are a marked achievement in the Israel-Palestine peace process and raise hopes that the Obama administration can make some concrete achievements in the middle east peace process. However, there are still considerable obstacles that could easily hinder this renewed effort.

Public support for the process has been largely replaced by scepticism, as the public on both sides grows weary of the frequent stops and starts in negotiations. Continued animosity between militant Israelis and Palestinians will be an important obstacle to any viable peace solution and the negotiations generally. Violence, whether perpetrated by the Israeli military, settlers, or Palestinian groups could destabilise ongoing talks.

Evidence is provided by the recent wave of violence, including Israeli air strikes against Gaza over the weekend.The roots of this hostility continue; the ‘ghetto-isation’ of the Palestinian people and the restriction of the flow of goods and people in and out of Palestinian areas, for example. Public support will be crucial for the success of any peace process and any solution; governments on both sides will need to act in a way that restores public faith in the process and in their capacity as popular representatives if they are not to be overtaken by events.

Additionally, the adversity of the Palestinian Islamist group, Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip, to negotiations could pose a serious challenge to the process and the sustainability of any solution. The talks went ahead after receiving the backing of the Palestine Liberation Organisation. However, Hamas urged the Palestinian Liberation Organisation to reject the talks, warning "the executive of PLO not to take any decision to resume talks with the enemy and to give cover to the Israeli occupation to commit more crimes against our people."

Despite casualties suffered during the Gaza offensive of winter 2008-2009, Hamas retains sufficient political and military strength to be deemed a powerful player in the middle east peace process. The success of ongoing talks and of any viable solution will require their contribution and support. Their aversion to the current initiative in an ominous beginning and could pose a challenge in the near future.

Regional tensions could also pose a threat, particularly in light of Iran’s nuclear project. Any serious setback to a diplomatic solution could spark talk of military intervention, which could sideline peace efforts. Both Hamas and Hezbollah, a Shia Islamist militant movement in Lebanon, have Iranian support and could be enlisted as proxies by Tehran in the event of a conflict.

Most centrally, talks could be stalled, as they have on numerous occasions, by the issue of Israeli settlements. The final status of Israeli settlements and their ongoing construction are the greatest immediate impediment to peace negotiations between the Israelis and Palestinians. The United States will need to pressure Israel against settlement expansion in Jerusalem if they hope to achieve direct talks in the near future. Netanyahu has stated that peace would be impossible without direct talks, however Palestinians will refuse direct negotiations without an end to settlement building.

What is clear is that compromise will be needed on both sides if the renewed talks are to achieve anything. Both the Israeli and Palestinian governments will need to take positive, public steps to show their commitment to the process and make en effort to increase public trust and support for the negotiations. The United States, as the facilitator, will need to play a strong hand in the coming weeks, to persuade both sides to compromise in the ways necessary to achieve a positive outcome, particularly around Israeli settlements. Arab support for the Palestinian cause is central to the conflict and will be central to the success of any peace plan. It would also be in the US’s best interest to incorporate other regional leaders into the process, to garner greater trust between Arabs and Israelis and ensure that all parties with a stake in the outcome have their needs and concerns addressed.

Death toll rises as Thai peace plan stalls

Gun and grenade attacks killed two policemen and injured thirteen people over the weekend in the latest violence of the Bangkok protests, bringing the death toll to 29. More than 1,000 people have been wounded during the two-months of protests. Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva has said he will not abandon his efforts to find a peaceful solution to the political crisis, but appears to be running out of patience with "red shirt" protesters, stating that he wants a reply early this week to his recent proposal.

Abhisit’s proposal calls for an early election on 14 November 2010, though he is not legally required to call an election until the end of 2011. He has also proposed additional reforms to address social injustice, an independent body to ensure unbiased reporting by the media, a committee to investigate violence, and political reform, possibly including constitutional amendments.

Despite the ongoing occupation of Bangkok’s commercial centre, which has closed major hotels and upscale shopping centres for two months, Abhisit has ruled out the use of martial law to end the protests. Martial law would give troops more freedom to act to end the rally -- for example, allowing detention without a court order for seven days. The state of emergency, declared on 7 April, has already granted security forces wide-ranging powers; however, many army commanders and security forces are reluctant to use force in an effort to avoid further violence and bloodshed.

Afghan peace draft considers Taliban exile

A newly released draft peace proposal in Afghanistan is considering exile in foreign countries for Taliban leaders as one measure to end the nine-year war. The plan comes weeks before the meeting of a grand council that will discuss peace measures with the insurgents. Saudi Arabia, which has facilitated talks between the Afghan government and insurgency in the past, has been suggested as a possible place for exile.

The draft has also outline possibilities for an Afghan Peace and Reintegration Programme. The draft says reintegration at the tactical and operational level will focus on foot soldiers, small groups and local leaders who form the core of the insurgency. Some proposals on reintegration have also called for ‘deradicalisation classes’ for insurgents, or manual jobs for those who renounce violence. Donor nations offered nearly $160 million to help fund the reintegration programme earlier this year and the programme will be discussed further at a donors’ conference in the next two months.

The Taliban have made a comeback in recent years inflicting heavy loses on Nato and Afghan forces. Offers for peace negotiations from Afghan President Hamid Karzai have been repeatedly rebuffed by the Taliban, who say they will only engage in talks if foreign troops leave. The United States is cautious about peace talks and will remain so as military operations gain momentum in the coming months.

Four killed as elections begin in the Philippines

As polls opened in the Philippine elections, three people were shot dead and another ten wounded in police clashes with supporters of a mayoral candidate in the southern Zamboanga Sibugay province before dawn. In a separate incident, the cousin of a vice-governor in the North Cotabato province was also shot while riding his motorbike. These deaths bring the death toll from the four-month election period to 33. Security forces are patrolling the country in an attempt to prevent further violence.

Philippine voters will elect a new president and vice-president, in addition to more than 17,000 local and national positions. Benigno Aquino, the son of the popular former president, Cory Aquino, leads the polls, with former president Joseph Estrada also in the running. There is some concern that new automated voting systems will cause problems in the elections, with difficulties already reported.

Elections are taken seriously in the Philippines, where voter turnout is expected to be around 85 percent. Already there are reports of long lines at polling stations, despite the heat.

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