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Failure to launch: Why the peace talks never succeed

April 18, 2014 at 11:00 am

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas (L) shakes hands with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) during an East Room statement at the White House on the first day of the Middle East peace talks September 1, 2010 in Washington, DC [Alex Wong/Getty Images]

Direct negotiations between Israel and Palestine began on 29 July 2013. Backed by the US, the framework agreement for Middle East peace has been in the making for nine months. The deadline for the talks is fast approaching and there has been no agreement as to whether or not an extension past the 29 April cut-off currently set will go ahead.

To date, a number of clauses have been discussed during the US’ bid to attain peace between the warring sides, yet none have been agreed upon as the two sides hold firm to their demands.

One of the most contentious issues during negotiations has been Israel’s insistence at being recognised as a “Jewish State”. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has called this issue the biggest single obstacle to an accord and has made it the central point in his talks with US Secretary of State John Kerry. At face value the problems arising from this would be that a Jewish state fails to acknowledge the existence of its other denominations; Muslims, Christians and other religious groups which are Israeli nationals and have lived in the country since its formation in 1948. However, there are greater issues arising from this.

A Jewish state would lead to those who follow other religions being treated as third class citizens. Their rights may be ignored or rather the rights of a Jew in and outside of Israel would be of greater superiority than that of any other person. The recognition of Israel as a Jewish state would compromise the position of the country’s 1.5 million Arab citizens. It would also mean surrendering the demand of a “right of return” for the five million refugees who include those who fled their homes during the Nakba.

The main players:

Palestinian team:
Saeb Erekat and Muhammed Shtayyeh

Israeli team:
Tzipi Livni and Isaac Molcho

US mediators:
Martin Indyk and Frank Lowenstein

There are thought to be over five million Palestinian refugees living in the Occupied Territories, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, and Egypt. The peace process is due to find a solution for the problem which spans generations and has left millions without basic rights, freedoms or official nationalities. Refugees living in refugee camps have had poverty forced upon them as they are prevented from obtaining jobs in many professions in their host countries.

Israel insists that lasting peace can only be attained once these host countries assimilate the refugees. It argues that the new generations have become part of the diaspora and have now moved to Canada and the US, amongst other places, and no longer live in refugee camps in the Middle East. Therefore, it argues, the number of refugees who should be considered for the “right of return” should be limited to those who were forced out by the Nakba and not their descendants.

This supports their insistence that Israel be identified a Jewish state which would mean Palestinian refugees have no right to return as they have differing religious beliefs and cannot find a home in the Jewish country.

However, Palestinians and the nations that have played host to them for over six decades are not willing to succumb to this demand. The refugees have been living with travel documents which are renewed every couple of years and do not afford them equal rights as nationals. They have withstood this because of their hope to return to their land, their home and the stability of their country.

The host nations are unwilling to assimilate these large populations because of the burden they would place on their already limited resources. At present refugees are cared for by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) who provide them with medical care, education and look after of the refugee camps in which they reside. Should a peace agreement be signed and the right of return be annulled, this external help would be dissolved and the host nations will be left to cover the costs.

On the other hand, Israel has introduced the idea of “Jewish refugees” who it says must be compensated. They are making the issue of this group, displaced Jews who came from Arab countries, synonymous with talk of the right of return. The number of these refugees has been calculated from the date of the partition decision the UN issued in 1947 up until 1968. According to this standard, 800,000 Jewish refugees need to be compensated in comparison with 600,000-700,000 Palestinian refugees during the same period.

Tel Aviv has not only asked for personal compensations for Jewish refugees of Arab origins, but also asked for compensation for the state of Israel which spent resources in order to accommodate them during the 50s and 60s.

The Separation Wall built by Israel in the occupied West Bank

The Separation Wall built by Israel in the occupied West Bank

In another concession to Israel, the peace agreement proposes a peace deal along pre-1967 borders but with land swaps that take account of “demographic changes” on the ground – a phrase the Palestinians dismiss as designed to enable the Israelis to keep settlements in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem. Many believe the border will inevitably run alongside the Separation Wall built by Israel and which cuts through the West Bank and separates Palestinians from their land and community.

There have been reports that Israel is trying to introduce the idea of having Beit Hanina as the capital of a future Palestinian state and not East Jerusalem. In reports and comments including on the BBC, Israeli officials have been known to mention Jerusalem as one Israeli entity and not an international city or one split into a Jewish West Jerusalem and an Arab East Jerusalem.

Beit Hanina is a Palestinian neighbourhood in East Jerusalem. It is on the road to Ramallah, eight kilometres north of central Jerusalem. Beit Hanina is divided by the separation wall into Al-Jadida (the new village), which is located within the Israeli Jerusalem municipality and includes the vast majority of the built-up area, and Al-Balad (the old village), which lies outside the municipality.

Palestinians have rejected this idea and have insisted that no viable Palestinian state will exist without Jerusalem as its capital.

Israel insists on maintaining sovereignty over the Jordan Valley and the Palestinian state’s land, sea and air space. The idea of a state without control of its own borders falls outside the definition of what state lines are and leaves a future Palestinian state susceptible to future Israeli action within its borders.

In addition to this, the land grabs which are being proposed leave Palestinians with even less of the land which is expected to form their official state.

Finally, the signing of a peace agreement between the two sides would mean that all UN resolutions regarding the Palestine-Israel conflict would be nullified and the Palestinians would give up any rights they have to trying Israeli ministers and army officials in international criminal courts. In addition to this, it would bring about the end of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and acknowledge the state of Israel as a legal entity, one which many Palestinian factions, especially Hamas refuse to recognise.

Since the start of peace talks there have been many developments on the ground which have further hindered its progress. Israel has approved the construction of over 2,000 housing units in East Jerusalem, demolished Palestinian homes on the basis that they lack the necessary planning permissions in addition to razing villages to the ground in the Jordan Valley and expelling Bedouin families from the Negev.

Israel was due to release a fourth batch of Palestinian prisoners at the end of March as per the agreement signed with the Palestinians in Oslo 1993. Many had hoped the release of the prisoners would help move peace talks along and allow negotiations to be extended at least until the end of the year.

Israel’s failure to release the prisoners lead to the Palestinian Authority (PA) applying to join 15 UN organisations and treaties, which it had not applied for previously on the condition that Israel releases the detainees. The PA has since been threatened with sanctions, blockades and a backlash from Israel for violating the agreement signed, however Israel has faced no such repercussions. Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman threatened that “Palestinians will pay the price” for turning to the international community.

An Israeli soldier stands guard at the Al-Aqsa compound in Jerusalem

An Israeli soldier stands guard at the Al-Aqsa compound in Jerusalem

In the past few months Israel has allowed rabbis to take Jewish citizens on tours of Al-Aqsa Mosque courtyard and hold prayers there. This has raised tensions with the Muslim community and meant Palestinian students have been unable to access their schools while the tours are held.

There has also been a call for unilateral action to transfer the sovereignty of the Al-Aqsa Mosque from Jordan to Israel thus changing the situation on the ground. The Jordanian Parliament reacted angrily to these calls and Israel delayed talks on the matter, however any move to do this would call into question the security of the Al-Asqa Mosque and the ability of Muslims to access the site in the future.

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