By Bilal Al-Hassan
Palestine-Israel negotiations have failed miserably over the past seventeen years and the Palestinian Authority itself describes those talks as absurd. Despite this, for the first time in this lengthy conflict a round of talks has just begun about which there is an overwhelming sense of failure already. Perhaps this is because both parties know each other’s position and can predict reasonably accurately what is going to be offered, accepted or rejected.
This is clear by the way that the Israeli government of Benjamin Netanyahu no longer feels the need to keep their negotiating positions confidential; on the contrary, they use them to gain external support. When this leads to a crisis between Israel and its main supporter the USA, Israelis are encouraged by the subsequent reduction in US pressure on their state, even on one issue like the illegal settlements in Jerusalem.
The situation a few weeks ago which saw the US President himself calling Netanyahu to assure him of continuing US trust and support for Israel’s security was put into perspective when a White House spokesman was unable to provide details of when President Obama would be meeting the Palestinian Authority President, Mahmoud Abbas.
What is equally clear is that this time the Palestinians simply do not trust the promises of the US administration. Long years of trust have provided little or nothing in return. While this is frustrating, so-called proximity talks have started, with US envoy George Mitchell shuttling between the two sides in different cities. The Netanyahu government has, meanwhile, already announced “some” of its demands, including:
- Palestinian recognition of the Jewish identity of the State of Israel.
- Acknowledgement that Jerusalem will be the capital of Israel and it will never be divided.
- The adoption of the principle of “exchanging land for peace” to ensure that the settlements surrounding Jerusalem will be part of the State of Israel officially (they are built on occupied territory and are therefore illegal according to international law).
- The refugees’ right of return will not be put up for negotiation, because such a concept does not exist in international law where the land in question is “no longer your own country”.
- The Palestinians must recognise and take into account the “realities on the ground” when examining the issue of the illegal settlements. This was included in a letter from former US President George W. Bush to Ariel Sharon when the latter was prime minister of Israel.
- Taking into account Israel’s security needs when considering the issue of borders, especially to ensure a permanent Israeli army presence on the River Jordan.
When reading these Israeli demands, it is clear in advance that the indirect negotiations will fail just as they will probably fail when they become direct negotiations because of what are essentially Israel’s extremist policies expressed as virtual preconditions. The status quo in Israeli society is not represented by the extreme right-ring coalition government cobbled together by Netanyahu, but the longer such policies are allowed to be expressed without any serious dissent in the country the more that Israeli society will begin to accept them as the norm and the march even further to the political right will continue.
This shift to the right is an issue inside Israel, with public discussions reaching all the way up to the Knesset (parliament). When the ultra-right party Yisrael Beitenu led by the Foreign Minister, Avigdor Lieberman, submitted a draft bill calling for the vote to be withdrawn from citizens regarded as “prejudiced” against the basis of the state’s democracy, it was rejected by the Knesset because it was considered to be undemocratic.
A similar proposal, adopted by members of Tzipi Livni’s Kadima Party, calls for Israeli civil society organisations to be outlawed if they call for the prosecution of Israeli soldiers and politicians accused of committing war crimes.
Various right-wing individuals and organisations are playing out their agenda openly. Campaigns have also been launched against Haaretz newspaper, regarded as too liberal by these right-wing zealots. The demonization has included calls for Haaretz to be outlawed as a “terrorist” organisation. Such moves have been made against Jewish Israelis but the country’s Arab citizens have fared little better. It is now illegal for any Arab Israeli to commemorate the Nakba of 1948 instead of celebrating the founding of the State of Israel. Within the past few weeks in the West Bank there have been arson attacks on mosques carried out by Jewish settlers.
Haaretz has responded by describing these events as a general “fascist mood”, if not yet a political movement. Jewish extremist groups, claims the newspaper, have seized control of Zionism in Israel and attack anyone who criticises them, especially those on the political left. Haaretz reminds its readers of the irony of a party called Yisrael Beitenu (“Israel is our home”) which is actually destroying national feeling in the state.
When Israeli society is immersed in a heated argument to this extent – a struggle for control of the nation’s soul – where the views of other Jews are rejected, how can we expect the views of the Palestinians to be treated with respect? Even the demands that are in accordance with the Oslo agreement and signed by Israel are not being accepted by the extreme right-wing.
In a classic case of “the pot calling the kettle black”, the radical right in Israel has called on Palestinians to halt what it refers to as “incitement”. According to Israel, this all-embracing term includes all positions that are announced via the Palestinian media, everything that Palestinian children are taught in school about their history and homeland and everything said about Israel’s checkpoints, the wall, arrests, prisoners, extrajudicial killings and so on.
On top of all of this, believe it or not, Israel still insists that it is a democracy, the only democracy, in fact, in the Middle East. Believe it. Or not.
The author Bilal Al-Hassan is a Palestinian writer
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.