Israel/Palestine Peace Talks

Commentary No. 358, August 1, 2013

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has emerged from intensive discussions with the Israeli government and the Palestinian Authority having arranged the resumption of so-called peace talks. This is asserted to be a breakthrough. But is it?

On the Israeli side, the Israeli government promised to release some “heavy-weight” Palestinian prisoners (that is, prisoners involved in “deadly attacks”) as a gesture to make possible resumption of talks. But the promise turned out to be very unclear in detail. The release is projected to take place in four stages. The number to be released is unclear. The figure of 104 prisoners is in the press. But is this the total or the first stage? When the first stage will occur has not yet been decided. And the whole proposal was endorsed by the entire cabinet, only after considerable arm-twisting by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. We do not know what he promised the very reluctant cabinet about the negotiations in order to get their vote.

On the Palestinian side, the Palestinian Authority says it has only agreed to “talks about talks.” It wants to know what will be the baseline for future border talks, the extent of a slowdown in further Israeli settlements, and a precise timetable for the release of prisoners. And it wants to know all this before September when the U.N. General Assembly meets in order to maintain the option of pursuing its objectives in other ways at the United Nations. Hamas, which was not to be included in the talks, noted angrily that these talks, if they occur, would hinder, perhaps derail entirely, the other set of talks, those between Hamas and the Palestine Authority aimed at achieving Palestinian unity.

Furthermore, a new element entered the picture in June. For the first time, the European Union announced that it will establish new norms for trade with Israel. In July, the European Union directed that all future trade agreements with Israel must specify that they do not include the West Bank, East Jerusalem, or Golan, all of which the European Union considers not to be part of Israel. Catherine Ashton, the E.U.’s foreign policy chief, is seeking to implement this directive by working with the seven relevant E.U. commissioners to draw up a uniform set of guidelines for further trade as of January 1, 2014.

To be sure, Israeli government spokespeople, indeed Netanyahu himself, have objected strongly and asked that the whole process at the very least be delayed. Secretary Kerry added his voice to the same demand. Catherine Ashton is ignoring these pleas. The significance of this move is twofold. It hurts Israel economically, since trade with Europe is very important to it, and not least for the settlements. But even more important, it is the E.U.’s strongest intervention yet in favor of a two-state solution and undermines Netanyahu’s strategy for the talks, presuming that he has one other than their failure.

The whole picture is somewhat surrealistic. The principal actors in the possible talks about talks – Netanyahu and Abbas – are both in weak political positions, beset by contradictory pressures from inside their power bases. They are therefore in the end most unlikely to engage in any serious talks, even talks about talks. Netanyahu has constantly tried to redirect world attention, especially that of the U.S. government, from Israeli/Palestine talks to what he presents as the existential menace of Iran to Israel. Netanyahu is not having much success on that score either.

Let us deal with realities. Israel is not ready to make any agreement that does not include at least the following features: retention of the whole large bloc of settlements extending eastward from Jerusalem (about 5% of the West Bank); sovereignty over East Jerusalem; severe limits on the armed forces of a Palestinian state; stationing of Israeli troops on the border of a Palestinian state with Jordan.

Just to list these conditions is to underline how impossible it would be for any Palestinian political leader to accept such terms. Palestinian terms involve minimally the pre-1967 borders, sovereignty over East Jerusalem, and a state that has the rights of any other sovereign state. Abbas has asserted that not a single Israeli soldier or settler could remain on Palestinian land. Furthermore, the Palestinians believe that time is on their side for two reasons: growing world delegitimization of Israel’s positions as evidenced by the new stance of the European Union, and demographic evolution leading to an ever larger number of Arabs resident within Israel.

The two sets of minimal terms seem more or less unbridgeable. They have been that in the past and there is absolutely no reason to think that this will change in the foreseeable future.

Are not the main actors in the two countries and in the rest of the world aware of this? Of course they are. But they all feel they have no choice but to pretend that a total impasse has not yet been reached. Each side seeks to persuade world opinion that such an impasse, one that they know is in fact coming, is the fault of the other side. Blame games however usually change very little. What we may expect is the status quo for as long as that can possibly last. One thing we all have learned in the past decade or so is how unexpected is the moment when a status quo suddenly becomes undone, and how uncertain are the consequences of this collapse of the status quo.