Image courtesy of Flickr user DonkeyHotey.
Here's a remark that probably won't be uttered this weekend at the kitchen table: “Hey, honey, great news! Middle East peace talks are resuming on August 14th!”
A yawn is more likely. The Israelis and the Palestinians are indeed set to negotiate again after a three-year hiatus, but virtually nobody— except maybe US Secretary of State John Kerry, the peripatetic diplomat who talked the two sides into talking—seems stoked about the prospects of a historic breakthrough. That's because, after two decades of faint hopes and dashed dreams, the phrase “Middle East peace talks” has become an oxymoron, like “government intelligence” or “legitimate rape.”
Consider what happened last weekend. On the cusp of the talks, the Israeli government authorized the construction of nearly 1,000 more Jewish settlement homes in the occupied West Bank. That decision is more provocation than peace gesture, given the fact that the Palestinians' top priority in the talks is to establish an independent nation in lands held by Israel since the 1967 war—notably the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem, where settlements already house 560,000 Israelis.
In other words, the prospects for long-term peace begin with Israel. Unless Israel signs on to a viable state for the Palestinians, unless Israel's bulldozers stop leveling Palestinian dwellings to make way for more settlement condos, the talks will stall just as they did in 2000 and 2008 and 2010. But Israel is led by a prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, whose Likud party platform flatly opposes the establishment of a Palestinian state.
No wonder so many Palestinians are jaded about the new talks. According to a June opinion poll conducted by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Research, 58 percent of respondents in the West Bank and Gaza believe that the two-state solution is no longer doable because of the Israeli settlement expansion; worse yet, 69 percent believe that the odds of establishing a Palestinian state within five years are slim or non-existent. And 82 percent believe that Israel's end game is to formally annex the occupied lands, to either expel all Palestinians or deny them political rights.
Distrust is endemic on both sides of the divide. Hard-line Israelis in the government and the settlement community believe that Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, spurned an Israeli olive branch in 2008. Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert pitched the idea of a Palestinian state, but the talks stalled amid disagreements over how many Israeli settlements would remain (too many, in Abbas' view), and how many Palestinian refugees could return to Israeli turf (too few, in Abbas' view). It all became moot when Olmert resigned in the midst of a corruption probe; soon thereafter, Netanyahu got the job.
Dani Dayan, a prominent spokesman for the West Bank settlers, recently told The Guardian, “The two-state formula has proved futile innumerable times....Abbas has also not changed since his 2008 rejection of the most generous offer an Israeli leader will ever present.” And, like many Israelis, Dani remains psychologically scarred by the terrorist attacks and intifadas that have bloodied his people: “We can only hope that when this new round of talks also fades away, this time the inevitable failure does not explode in our faces again, leaving debris and scorched earth all around.”
Given this Israeli attitude, why has the government agreed to resume peace talks? Because, for public relations reasons, it had to.
Israel's settlement policy in the occupied lands is constantly being condemned by the international community. The European Union recently assailed the policy as “the biggest single threat to the two-state solution.” President Obama said, “We do not consider continued settlement activity... to be something that can advance the cause of peace,” and the United Nations Human Rights Council said in February that the settlements breaches international law. Worse yet, the European Union has decided to halt EU financing of any Israeli projects—grants, scholarships, you name it—in the occupied lands.
Put simply, Netanyahu has agreed to sit at John Kerry's table because he didn't want to be the bad guy and get blamed for nixing the latest peace dream. He has agreed to talk about talking in the hopes of easing the international pressure.
But it might also be said of Abbas that he's at the table simply to avoid being blamed. And distrustful Israelis suspect that he'll use the talks for his own public relations agenda—namely, to condemn the West Bank settlements as illegal and seek a formal opinion from the International Criminal Court in The Hague. Which he has the standing to do, because last November the U.N.
recognized Palestine as a “non-member observer state.”
And even if they get substantive, the details are daunting. For instance, how many West Bank settlers would the Israelis being willing to move out (assuming they'd agree to move any)? How many Palestinian refugees would be allowed to move in? What kind of land swaps? Whose security forces would police the peace? And, politically, how far can Netanyahu extend his hand without risking a domestic backlash? And how far can Abbas extend his, given the fact that his more militant domestic opponents, such as Hamas, distrust him simply because he's talking to the occupiers?
But perhaps it's Kerry, and the nation he represents, that has the most to lose. As the guy who goaded the adversaries to talk, he has raised the stakes. In April he told a congressional committee: “I believe the window for a two-state solution is shutting... a year, a year and a half, or two years, or it's over.” If that window snaps shut, he'd own the failure. He'd be wise to prepare for the worst while he hopes for the best.
Dick Polman is Writer in Residence at the University of Pennsylvania, and he blogs daily on American politics at Newsworks.
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