The source of the latest (but almost certainly not the last) attempt to revive the so-called "peace process" is shrouded in mystery. Egyptian officials claim that they kicked it off; an Israeli newspaper, Maariv, reports that it is a US initiative. The reality, of course, is that the source is irrelevant; whether Egypt or the USA, we know from bitter experience that the overriding factor will be Israel's security and Israeli interests. In that respect, Egypt mirrors the US, doing as it's told to protect its own interests, the $200m in US aid it gets annually.
Shuttle "diplomacy" intended to make the rest of us believe that people are really serious about achieving peace, is attempting to get the Israelis and Palestinians in the same room, possibly even around the same table. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas have both been to Cairo, where they were followed by King Abdullah of Jordan; Abbas then went to Doha at the same time that Egypt's Foreign Minister and intelligence chief were preparing to meet American officials in Washington. According to Arab media sources, Cairo consulted with the U.S. and Israel to produce a plan to resume the negotiations. The same sources claim that the initiative has received approval from the U.S. and the green light from both Israel and the Palestinian Authority.
According to the Egyptian plan, Israel has expressed "secretly" a willingness to freeze settlement building and is ready to discuss the borders of a Palestinian state on the basis of land exchange. Apparently the plan includes the release of Palestinian leaders in Israeli jails, as well as the strengthening of security forces in the West Bank to confront the Islamic resistance movement, Hamas. The media sources point out that the Egyptian initiative aims to curb Hamas and Islamic Jihad in Palestine in case of the collapse of the current Palestinian regime's authority.
A source close to the Palestinian Authority said that there was a two year deadline for negotiations. It is expected that a conference of leaders from Egypt, America, Israel and Palestine will take place in Sharm el-Sheikh, probably by the end of this month. Maariv offers more detailed information. It claims that pressure has been exerted on Mahmoud Abbas by the Americans and Egyptians to return to the negotiating table on the basis of the "American peace plan." The newspaper also says that Shimon Peres, with the approval of Netanyahu, has made contact with Abbas, urging him to take part in the new initiative.
According to Maariv, the US peace plan includes discussion about permanent borders, an agreement on which should, say the Americans, be reached within nine months. The central issue will be the Palestinian demands for a return of all the land occupied by Israel since 1967. Secondary issues in the negotiations will be the status of Jerusalem and the Palestinian refugees. The bait for Abbas to take part is the "guarantee" that the Palestinians will get from the US concerning their rights. This says that the Palestinians will have the right to ask for American support to obtain land equivalent in area to that which has been seized by Israel since 1967 if negotiations fail. In other words, Israel can't lose, because all it has to do is sit tight on its colony-settlements and the US will tell the Palestinians that they can ask for other territory in exchange. Why bother with "negotiations"? Anyone who has seen the size of the Israeli colonies knows full well that there is no way that the Israelis are ever going to abandon them, so a territory exchange – prime West Bank land for some lump of the Negev Desert in all probability ‑ is the best that Abbas can hope to get out of it.
Maariv has predicted Arab League support for the initiative. Abbas has expressed his approval of the plan while calling upon Israel to stop settlement activities and to recognize the international basis for negotiations. Netanyahu, meanwhile, has rejected any preconditions to the negotiations, so settlement building will not stop. He will obviously seek to change the positions of the Palestinian negotiators, as has happened many times before.
Following a meeting with Tony Blair, the so-called Quartet's Middle East Envoy, Israel's Minister of Foreign Affairs, Avigdor Lieberman, said, "The most important of these initiatives is to establish dialogue in a candid and open fashion, away from obstacles and pitfalls that would cause frustration." Lieberman believes that no peace agreement can be achieved within two years. The main opposition party in Israel, Kadima, called upon Netanyahu to draw "the borders of Israel" to include all the major colony-settlement blocs built (illegally) in the West Bank. Kadima's chairman, Haim Ramon, said, "The minute that Netanyahu announces his support for unilateral drawing of our borders, he will help to bring Kadima into the government coalition." Israel is unique amongst the member state of the United Nations, in that it has never declared its borders.
Reviving the peace process requires an agreement on reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas. A leading figure in Hamas said that the Egyptian leadership agreed to listen to the resistance movement's comments on the Palestinian reconciliation paper. However, it is known that Cairo has rejected these observations and urged Hamas leader to give their approval without any delay.
Peace negotiations have failed in the past, so what are the chances of the new initiative having any success? While the proposed time limit is unrealistic, it will not be the main cause of what is predicted to be yet another failure. This will be continued Israeli intransigence and refusal to accept UN resolutions to withdraw from the occupied territories and permit the return of Palestinian refugees to their land. There is nothing to suggest that Netanyahu will change Israel's position on this.
The most important thing, therefore, is what the sponsors of this initiative will do if no agreement is reached, or if the Israeli government refuses to deliver on its commitments (as it has done in the past). Do the Americans have any alternatives lined up for the Palestinians?
The current situation in world politics precludes any real pressure being exerted on Israel. It truly has a unique position in international relations; just look at the statement of the British Attorney General about changing the law to allow Israelis accused of committing war crimes to travel freely; and the hypocrisy over Israel's possession of nuclear weapons compared to the hysteria about Iran's nuclear programme. The Obama administration will not be able to do more than Clinton's administration did – which is basically nothing at all – and no Israeli political party will accept the Palestinians' demands, which are actually less than their entitlement under international law and conventions in any case.
The Palestinians have always shown themselves to be the party willing to compromise, and this is seen as a sign of weakness to be exploited. The only way forward will be for the weaker party – the Palestinian Authority – to be pressurised into an agreement. Any such deal would face strong opposition from the non-Fatah Palestinian factions, headed by Hamas. I do not think that any agreement can be reached without the participation of Hamas so I expect attempts to be made to get the party engaged in the political process. The condition for such engagement would undoubtedly be, at least, the lifting of the siege on Gaza and an acceptance of its terms for Palestinian reconciliation. Hamas has altered its position over the past few years – it suggested a long term truce, remember, which was rejected by Israel, even though a truce is de facto recognition of the state of Israel – but it is unlikely that the movement will agree to drop its demands for a return of all the territories occupied in 1967 and a return of the refugees.
This means that we will probably see the continuation of current impasse, which in turn will lead inevitably to more armed clashes as Israeli resorts to raids and bombing in an attempt to force Palestinians to come to terms with Israeli hegemony. That would be a backward step, leading to more isolation for Israel and more political chaos. It needs really strong Israeli leadership to see that, acknowledge it, and have the courage to do something different instead of the usual belligerence and the "we are Israel and we don't care what the world thinks" attitude. Such political wisdom is rare, but if the Israeli leadership can have the foresight to see what is necessary and act on it, then we may have a glimmer of hope for a just and comprehensive peace agreement.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.