By Lamis Andoni, Al-Jazeera – 15 July 2010
Barack Obama, the US president, has asked the Palestinians to resume direct talks with Israel before an Israeli moratorium on settlement building expires in September.
The Palestinians have so far refused to participate in direct talks until there is progress in US mediated indirect talks with Israel.
But five rounds of so-called proximity talks have failed to bridge the gap between the two sides over what should be the basis and final outcome of any negotiations.
Despite this, the US and Israel are now pushing for a resumption of direct talks – each for their own reasons.
Washington is seeking a semblance of progress on the Israeli-Palestinian issue in the aim of boosting its efforts to rally Arab opinion against Iran and to allay anti-American sentiment among Arabs and Muslims.
Israel mainly wants to refocus attention on “the Iranian threat” and to ease continued international condemnation of its deadly interception of a Gaza-bound aid flotilla in May.
But, the Palestinians have little to gain and much to lose if they resume direct negotiations under the current Israeli conditions.
For one the Israelis have not offered much. There are no promises to extend the partial freeze on settlement building. In fact, Israel has already announced its plans to further expand settlements and to demolish Palestinian homes and consequently displace their residents once the freeze expires.
Binyamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, emerged even more intransigent after his recent meeting with Obama. In the days following the meeting, Israel even announced a plan to build 2,700 housing units in the West Bank and 24 in East Jerusalem. It also demolished Palestinian homes in East Jerusalem and declared its intention to erase most of the Arab village of Dohmosh in Israeli proper.
The Palestinian Authority (PA), which already suffers from low credibility, cannot afford to anger a Palestinian constituency that no longer believes in the so-called peace process.
The US administration may need an Israeli-Palestinian handshake in front of the world’s media and bringing the two sides to one table might appear as progress. But for Palestinians, particularly those on the ground, the resumption of negotiations represents no more than the US providing cover for the continuing Israeli onslaught on their lives and lands.
If it were to participate under the existing circumstances, the PA will be perceived as an accomplice to Israel’s escalating land grab, its eviction of Arabs in East Jerusalem and its suffocation of Palestinians in the besieged Gaza Strip.
It cannot, therefore, afford to backtrack on its insistence that the goal of any negotiations must be the establishment of a Palestinian state in all of the West Bank, including East Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip.
The Palestinians have used the proximity talks to demand an unequivocal Israeli position on one major issue: That the border of a future Palestinian state should be based upon the pre-1967 war boundaries, which means that it will include all of the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip.
The PA has also expressed its readiness to make minor adjustments in terms of the 1.5 to 2 per cent land swap required to facilitate the establishment of a highway linking the West Bank with Gaza Strip. But, the idea of a land swap does not enjoy wide Palestinian support, not only among the opposition and Hamas but also within the ranks of the Fatah movement.
A shrinking state
In fact, the very survival of Fatah, which has been weakened by the failed negotiations, largely relies on not compromising on the refusal to resume direct talks without a total freeze on settlement construction in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.
Although the Israelis have not conveyed an official response to this, their actions over the past week have spoken louder than words.
Most significantly, in statements to the Israeli press, Netanyahu suggested that Israel plans to annex at least 40 per cent of the West Bank and to keep control of East Jerusalem.
According to the Israeli prime minister, “a demilitarised Palestinian state” would then be established on the remaining territories subject to the Palestinians accepting some unspecified Israeli conditions.
Given that Israel has already announced that it wants to keep its troops in the Jordan Valley and along “its eastern borders” inside the West Bank, those territories designated by Israel for a Palestinian state would almost certainly continue to shrink.
Israel’s actions and announcements come as no surprise to the Palestinians and serve only to confirm the view held by many that Israel has effectively killed the two-state solution.
But the lack of any surprise should not be taken to mean that the Palestinians are any less affected by the continued expropriation of their lands.
And if the PA buckles under US, and possibly Arab, pressure to resume negotiations, it will be faced with an angry constituency which will turn not only against Israel but also against its own representatives.
No confidence in confidence-building
George Mitchell, the US special envoy, is due to arrive in the region on Saturday with a promised “package of confidence-building measures” to lure the PA into direct negotiations.
It is not clear exactly what kind of measures this might include, but a further relaxation of the blockade of Gaza and Israeli “readiness” to stop or reduce its continued raids and arrest campaigns in the West Bank may be among them.
But these will not be enough for two reasons. Firstly, experience has shown that Israel almost always reneges on such “confidence-building measures” whenever it sees fit and secondly such measures cannot compensate for the land rapidly vanishing from beneath Palestinian feet.
Vague promises to extend the partial freeze on settlement building and to alleviate some of the daily hardships encountered by Palestinians are no more than the blackmail tactics Israel has always employed against those under its control.
Promises to make the occupation and the siege more palatable, while blackmailing the occupied, is not acceptable. Only ending the occupation will do.
Lamis Andoni is an analyst and commentator on Middle Eastern and Palestinian affairs.
More IOA articles by Lamis Andoni