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What are negotiations for?

January 23, 2014 at 7:23 am

You can’t fault John Kerry for trying. The US secretary of state has just completed his sixth visit in four months to the Middle East, attempting to restart face-to-face negotiations between Israel and Palestine.

His visit, to Amman in Jordan, was focused on winning support from the Arab League group of 22 nations, as well as meeting with Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas. His hope was that their influence would overcome reluctance from Palestinians to resume talks, which stalled three years ago. In a press conference on Thursday, Kerry announced that he had won the backing of the Arab League to resume talks, which could provide the Palestinian Authority with the political cover it needs to return to the negotiating table.

Back in 2002, the Arab League put forward a peace proposal that offered full Arab recognition of Israel if it gave up land seized in the 1967 war and accepted a “just solution” for Palestinian refugees. This peace initiative remains the basis for Palestinian negotiators: they are still arguing for an independent Palestinian state, along 1967 borders. Whether these demands have been watered down by the Arab League was not clear from Thursday’s press conference. In a statement, it said that Kerry’s initiative “constitute a good ground and suitable environment for restarting the negotiations, especially the new and important political, economic and security elements.”

It is hard to imagine that the Palestinians would abandon their commitment to a state along 1967 borders. But is this still realistic? On this visit, Kerry did not meet with Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu. It has been reported that President Obama personally phoned Netanyahu to urge him to return to the negotiating table.

Yet even if the Palestinians could be convinced of the merits of restarting talks, it is unlikely they would get anywhere. Netanyahu is notoriously hawkish and conservative, and since January’s election, has been forced even further to the right by the success of settler politicians. These ultra-nationalist, far right parties make no bones about the fact that they do not want to see a Palestinian state. In particular, Naftali Bennett, who heads up Netanyahu’s coalition partner, the Jewish Home party, has been outspoken on the “Palestinian problem”. Bennett has said that Israeli settlements on the West Bank are changing the “facts on the ground” and reducing prospects for a Palestinian state.

And while Kerry indefatigably tries to get talks back on the road, that is what is happening. Under Netanyahu, settlement construction expanded. During the election campaign, he pledged that not a single settlement would be dismantled. As settlements grow, and with them a whole infrastructure of roads, workplaces, and transportation, it will become less and less feasible to restore pre-1967 borders. In the words of Israeli historian Avi Shlaim, this is essentially “land-grabbing”. International bodies widely agree that settlements are the biggest obstacle to peace.

The Palestinian Authority has said that it refuses to resume talks unless settlement construction is halted. Israel has refused, saying that the Palestinians should negotiate without conditions. Kerry has offered a package of economic incentives to tempt them to negotiate while settlement building goes on. “The Palestinians are cooperating but it is time for the Israeli side to show the same cooperation,” said the Palestinians’ foreign minister, Riad al-Malki, who attended the Amman meeting.

Clearly, Kerry is dedicated to getting peace talks off the ground. But even if Palestinians can be convinced to resume negotiations while settlement building continues, those settlements will still render the negotiation process meaningless. The more housing units that are built, the less likely a two-state solution becomes, which begs the questions: what are negotiations for?

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.