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Indirect proximity talks between Palestinians and Israelis: the background and prospects of success and failure.

Strategic assessment number (24) – July 2010

Assessment Summary: Two decades after the Madrid Conference and the launching of the peace process in its current framework, the American sponsor has failed to bring together the Palestinians and the Israelis at one table. Even though the Obama administration announced that a Palestinian state was now in the US national interest, it did not act quickly to provide guarantees to the Palestinian negotiators, such as setting a date for the establishment of this state. Nor did Obama exert sufficient pressure on the Netanyahu government to engage with the Palestinian Authority in serious negotiations that could lead to a final agreement.

The so-called proximity talks do not have a serious chance of success, in the sense of reaching a final peace agreement that deals with difficult, sensitive and thorny issues. We must keep in mind that both concerned parties have agreed to this step reluctantly – with each having its own reasons – and take into account that the US is pushing them towards direct negotiations and may present such a move, if it occurs, as an achievement on the path to reaching a definitive solution to the conflict before the end of President Barack Obama’s first term at the end of 2012.


Proximity talks

A week into his presidency, Barack Obama appointed veteran Senator George Mitchell as his Middle East Envoy. Almost a year later, after much shuttling around the region, Mitchell succeeded in establishing indirect (“proximity”) talks, whereby the US Envoy acts as the link between the two groups of negotiators sitting in different cities. The intention was not to reach solutions, but to reach agreement on moving to direct negotiations at which the three main – and incredibly difficult – topics would be on the table: Jerusalem, borders and refugees.

The appointment of Mitchell was a reflection of President Obama’s interest in the conflict, a solution for which is a cornerstone of his foreign policy. In his Cairo speech to the Muslim world Israel-Palestine was an important part whose time had come for a solution. For almost a year the US administration considered making a freeze on Israeli settlement activity a prerequisite to the re-launch of the peace process; the Palestinian Authority actually stipulated a total freeze on settlements before a return to negotiations, the starting point for which should be where they were left at the end of 2008. The PA says that former US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice presented a summary on that point to current incumbent, Hillary Clinton.

The Israeli Government of Benjamin Netanyahu made no secret of its absolute rejection of a full settlement freeze, especially in Jerusalem, the country’s self-declared “eternal and undivided capital”. After a short stand-off between the Obama administration and Netanyahu’s government, the US dropped its demand for a full freeze and used the term “reduction” for the first time during Obama’s speech before the General Assembly of the United Nations in September 2009. Then the Netanyahu government announced in late November a decision to reduce or restrain settlement activity temporarily for a period of ten months, excluding Jerusalem, and official institutions such as synagogues, schools and clinics, as well as the settlement units already under construction, which range between 3,500 and 4,000 units. The Obama administration rushed to welcome the Israeli decision and considered it unprecedented, before pressurising the Palestinian Authority to return to direct negotiations.

US pressure, some vague commitments over construction in the settlements and political cover from the Arab Follow-up Committee for the Arab initiative led to approval for the Palestinian Authority to return to negotiations.

It was assumed from various sources that indirect negotiations would be launched in March 2010, but the Jerusalem municipality’s plans to build 1,600 housing units in the settlement of Ramat Shlomo, north of the city, announced during a visit by US Vice President Joe Biden befuddled the schedule and fuelled the dispute between the US and Israeli governments. A subsequent “cold” meeting between Obama and Netanyahu in early April at the White House and further shuttle diplomacy by Senator Mitchell in April and May, as well as a renewal of Arab support for the PA at a Tripoli summit, led to the proximity talks being launched in May. The deadline for the end of the talks was set for September when the “temporary freeze” on settlement activity is due to end; interestingly, September is also the month when the yearly sessions of the UN General Assembly are held in New York.

Why go to proximity talks?

1. US Administration

Since occupying the White House the Obama administration has made no secret of its interest in the Israel-Palestine conflict, not only as a way through which it can improve US relations with the Islamic world, but also because it believes that the establishment of a Palestinian state is in the best interests of America. A number of military officials, including General David Petraeus, have said that a resolution of the conflict will help to alleviate Arab/Muslim hostility towards the US, thus protecting the lives of American soldiers deployed across the region.

The administration has adopted the “two-state solution” as its preferred basis for resolving the conflict, defined by Obama  and his Secretary of State Hillary Clinton as a viable Palestinian state, contiguous on the borders of June 1967, with agreed-upon adjustments taking into account the current realities, alongside an Israel that is both Jewish and secure. Based on this, Washington called for a resumption of the peace process and negotiations in the hope of reaching a final agreement within two years. This call collided head-on with the Netanyahu government’s right-wing extremism and intransigence, particularly with regard to the freezing of settlement activity, the terms of reference for negotiations and their ultimate goal. As such, the US administration worked on compromises, as is always the case when American interests conflict with Israel’s; the first victims were the main points of discussion for the proximity talks. In turn, the Palestinian Authority insisted, at first, on a resolution of the borders dispute, which meant an automatic override of the settlements issue on the one hand while facilitating the move towards direct negotiations on the other. Once again, Israeli intransigence led to security being added to the agenda and Netanyahu insisted on talking about water rights, economic relations and the culture of peace.

With some reluctance, the US administration agreed to the principle of indirect negotiations and dealt with them as a step towards direct negotiations. It understood Israel’s demand that difficult and sensitive issues need to be discussed face to face and worked as fast as possible to move on to direct negotiations before the September deadline for the end of the temporary freeze on settlements. Israeli media sources, meanwhile,  pointed to Netanyahu’s ploy of linking a continued reduction in settlement building to the Palestinian Authority’s consent to move to direct negotiations.

2. Palestinian Authority

The Palestinian Authority was also reluctant about indirect negotiations, due to a lack of conviction over the possibility of reaching any agreement with the current Israeli government. When it accepted the idea of proximity talks, it called for discussions on the border issue alone and for leaving the other issues to the direct talks. That did not happen, of course.

The PA agreed to engage in indirect negotiations for several reasons:

i.            Intellectual stagnation and a lack of political will to abandon the option of negotiations.

ii.            A fear of relations with the United States and European Union turning sour, especially following EU threats to abandon its support for the Authority, politically and economically, as long as the political process is stalled.

iii.            Most importantly, according to the Authority’s point of view, to demonstrate that the stumbling block for peace is Israel, thus prompting the United States to put forward its own plan for an agreement, or at least not to use its veto when and if the Palestinians approach the UN Security Council for approval of a Palestinian state within the borders of June 1967.

3. Israel

The Netanyahu government was obliged, albeit reluctantly, to accept proximity talks in order to maintain its relationship with the United States and not worsen the dispute with the Obama administration. It tried hard to improve the conditions for the talks, rejecting a total freeze of settlement activity, particularly in Jerusalem. It made vague demands that were not conveyed in writing to the United States in this regard, such as refusing to resume negotiations from where they left off, and then refusing to recognize any prior unsigned understandings which the Authority had reached with the previous, Ehud Olmert-led government. When a proximity talks formula was reached, it called for discussing issues like the economy, water, relations and the culture of peace and security, issues that are not crucial and are intended to overwhelm the negotiations with detail. To-date, the Netanyahu government refuses to deal seriously with the issue of the Israel-Palestine borders.

The Israelis regard indirect talks as a technicality on the way towards direct negotiations, which they insist on initiating for the discussion of non-core issues, on the pretext of creating appropriate conditions on the ground before such a discussion by improving economic and security conditions for Palestinians in the West Bank.

The odds of success and failure

In the light of available data, it is fair to say that proximity talks do not have any serious potential for success. This is especially obvious following the claim by the Israeli organization Peace Now that there is no settlement freeze in reality, temporary or otherwise, and the boast by Israeli Minister Benny Begin about increasing the number of settlers by ten thousand during the supposed freeze. In the same context, we cannot ignore the fact that the Netanyahu-Begin-Lieberman government offers no more than the usual right-wing solution of expanded municipal self-rule, not an independent Palestinian state. Netanyahu’s speech at Bar-Ilan in response to Obama’s Cairo speech made approval of a Palestinian state conditional upon the Palestinian Authority’s acceptance of the “Jewish identity of Israel”.

It is worth mentioning that Netanyahu wants to deprive any future Palestinian entity of four basic rights: control over its borders, control of its airspace and electromagnetic frequencies, the right to have an army, and the right to sign treaties with countries considered to be hostile to Israel.

Conclusion

Indirect talks are already stillborn with no serious chance for success even if they mutate into direct negotiations. If Mitchell has been frustrated by Netanyahu and his government, with talks not evening reaching first base, what will be the situation when they are supposed to tackle complex, thorny and difficult issues? Netanyahu is clearly gambling on the outcome of midterm elections for Congress next November, in which it is expected that Obama’s Democrats will lose votes. In the Israeli prime minister’s view, this will tie the president’s hands and turn him into a lame duck for the second half of his term of office.

Even if that does not happen, the Israeli right-wing will insist on providing its own interpretation of the claim that a Palestinian state is in America’s national interest; there will be no objection to such a state per se, but it must be based on traditional right-wing parameters ‑ economic peace, expanded and updated municipal self-rule, no link to Jerusalem and no right of return for refugees.

Proposals

1.      The Palestinian Authority must be warned not to give Israel more time to create more facts on the ground in the West Bank, especially in Jerusalem and its environs.

2.      The PA and the leadership of the PLO should have a serious political and intellectual review of the negotiation process and its tangible benefits, so that it does not become simply a cover for Israeli practices including settlements and Judaisation, a process of building more facts on the ground.

3.      Internal Palestinian matters must be prioritised, with reconciliation and national unity at the top of the list in order to develop an alternative option in the face of Israeli plans and projects.

4.      Consideration must be given to a timeframe to go to the Security Council and declare a Palestinian state within the borders of the 4th June 1967, with Jerusalem as its capital, and announce that the Obama administration lacks seriousness about establishing such a Palestinian state, especially in case the US resorts to its veto.

*Zaytuna Center offers sincere thanks to Professor Majed Azzam for writing the main document, upon which this assessment was based.

Source: Zaytuna Center of Studies and Consultations

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Asia & AmericasCommentary & AnalysisIsraelMiddle EastPalestineUS
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