By Fahmi Huwaidi
This has been a week of shocks in the Middle east "peace process". In fact, it's been a week of scandals which should leave Arabs shamefaced. Forget the talks about talks, the listing of two historic mosques on the occupied West Bank as "Israeli national heritage sites", pictures of Israeli soldiers wearing shoes inside one of those mosque; all of these were shocking. But the scandal was the near-total silence of the Arab "leaders" towards what has been happening.
Groups of Jews have broken into Al-Aqsa Mosque, while others have seized even more Palestinian homes in the Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood of Jerusalem; dozens of Palestinian youths have been arrested, accused of throwing stones at Israeli soldiers. Then throw in the building of a synagogue near Al-Aqsa to mark the launch of the Israeli project to rebuild the Temple of Solomon, fulfilling the prophecy of an eighteenth century rabbi who, it is claimed, said that building should start on 16th March 2010. Yes, he was that specific and such a brilliant sage that he didn't foresee that this would be rather an uncomfortable time for Israel's PR machine to have to deal with that particular time-bomb.
Into this challenging atmosphere has been inserted the circus of "proximity talks" between the Palestinian Authority and the Netanyahu-Lieberman government. The US puppet-masters sought and were given a fig-leaf of cover for this to take place by the "Arab liaison committee" of the Arab League. The Israelis – ever ready to push the peace process forward, it is claimed – celebrated the arrival of US mediator George Mitchell and Vice-President Joe Biden by announcing the approval of plans to build hundreds of new housing units for settlers in the West Bank.
The response from the Arab world was tragic and illustrated the lack of self-respect among the Arab leaders. More concern was expressed about the Israelis' insult to the two Americans than to the rights and dignity of the Palestinians. So the stage is being set for another round of talks that will – like those before them – lead us everywhere but towards peace and justice.
The Arab resentment (which may well be too strong a word) towards the Israeli occupation was confined to a press statement and was not translated into anything tangible. As for boycotting the proposed talks, this was never a serious option, and both the Americans and the Israelis knew this. For Benjamin Netanyahu it was the green light for business as usual because he had proved that his policy for dealing with Arabs is successful. Writing in Maariv newspaper on 5th March, Shalom Yerushlmi – normally a critic of the Israeli prime minister changed his position and, like others, noticed the Arab passiveness when faced with Netanyahu's policies and was convinced that the man has his own reading of the Arab reality and a perception of their frailty and inability to act.
Arab Foreign Ministers have not been spared from the ridicule of Israeli commentators, who mocked the Arab League statement supporting the return to the negotiation table to give Israel the chance to demonstrate "good will". Zvi Bar'el, editor of Arab affairs at Haaretz newspaper was scathing: he said that the current right-wing government in Israel is committed to continuing settlement activity in Jerusalem and the West Bank more than its commitment to anything else now or after the four months suggested by the Arab League. Some Israeli commentators reminded the Arab Foreign Ministers that after four months the temporary freeze of settlement building would be almost over, noting that Netanyahu and his senior ministers are getting ready for a boom in settlement projects in various parts of the West Bank.
Things do not stop at the humiliation aimed at the Palestinians and Arabs who endorsed the indirect negotiations and set a time limit for them. They were proposed by the Americans and adopted by the Arabs led by the Palestinian Authority, Egypt and Jordan even after the U.S administration notified the Palestinian Authority that it does not regard the Netanyahu government to be bound by the previous understandings reached with the former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. This means the upcoming negotiations will be starting from scratch, which favours the Israeli government as there are no preconditions.
The conclusion is that the Palestinians will go into "proximity talks" while at their most vulnerable. Even so, they are well aware of several things, namely that despite more recent rumblings of discontent from the Americans towards Israel, time will tell if the Obama administration is willing and able to exert genuine pressure on the Israelis. To do so will challenge the strength of the Zionist lobby on Capitol Hill and its possible effect on the November mid-term elections in the US.
The Palestinians know very well that the official Arab position is linked to the American will and cannot be separated from it. They also realize that negotiations will probably not bring them anything due to the current balance of power. Their experience from Washington negotiations in 1991 through Oslo and Camp David up to Annapolis in 2007 convinces them that Israel is there to take, not to give.
This was expressed by Palestinian writer and political analyst Bilal al-Hassan in a recent article in which he said that Israel does not want to discuss the origins of the whole Israel-Palestine conflict; it does not want to accept the refugees' right of return or a full Israeli withdrawal from the territories occupied in 1967; it does not want to remove the settlements; and it does not want to approve of an independent Palestinian state within the 1967 borders. On top of this, Israel wants half of the West Bank, the West Bank's water and control over its airspace; it wants Gaza's territorial waters and a military presence along the Jordan valley. Despite this, of which the Americans are well aware, the US promises an agreement within two years, and actually expects us to believe it.
The current situation can be put down to two reasons: the neutralisation of Egypt through its peace treaty with Israel, which removed from the Arab side, according to Dr. Ali Jarbawi, the former political science professor at Birzeit University, their strongest partner. Massive amounts of US foreign aid continues to play a huge part in keeping Egypt "on side" with the US and Israel.
Second, the lack of genuine options open to the Palestinians and Arabs. When negotiation is the only viable option, they have lost straight away because they will, inevitably, lose to a stronger power and have to grant concessions in the process.
Resistance is a legal option, as is a refusal to negotiate. But since it has been declared that peace through negotiation is the strategic choice the Palestinians have squeezed themselves into a corner that is getting smaller day by day. Combine that with the choice of turning the other cheek every time Israel slaps them down and the situation of the Palestinians is grave indeed.
Al-Sharq Qatari Newspaper
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.