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Peace in our time?

Recently, and in the last week in particular, there has been a flurry of speculation in the Arab and western media about changes afoot in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, and in particular, how the US intends to engage with the conflict and the region as a whole. If the reports and analysis are to be believed, something is shifting, and the various players are staking out their positions in the changing landscape.

One of the main questions being asked is whether the US and Israeli administrations are heading for a conflict. Many answer in the affirmative, including the Guardian’s Simon Tisdall, who yesterday wrote that Israel is “under siege” as PM Netanyahu heads for “showdown talks” with Obama on 18 May. Other commentators have also perceived a “widening rift between the U.S. and Israeli governments”.

This Friday, Israeli daily Ha’aretz reported that Israeli officials are complaining about a “sharp decline” in US-Israel coordination “on security and state affairs”. Israel’s lobbyists in the US are sufficiently worried to be already trying to “forestall” this “significant shift” in White House policy.

They might have their work cut out however, if, as reported in the Israeli media, Netanyahu intends to tell Obama that he is only willing to accept “Palestinian ’self-government’ “, rather than a sovereign state (leaving aside that this has been the practical position of Israeli governments since Rabin).

Apart from an explicit commitment to a two-state solution, the main issue that seems to have the potential to create US-Israeli discord is settlement construction. Work in Israel’s West Bank colonies has accelerated in the last few months, which as Ha’aretz noted, puts Israel “on a collision course with a US administration taking a hard line on settlement expansion”. Reportedly, Obama will “demand Netanyahu completely suspend construction in the settlements” when the two meet in a few weeks.

It is clear that the Obama administration is developing a regionally focused plan for the Middle East that puts the Israeli-Palestinian conflict alongside relations with Syria, Lebanon, and how the Arab states relate to Israel. Details are thus far unknown, since nothing will be official until after Obama has met with Netanyahu, Egpytian president Hosni Mubarak, and Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas.

This week, however, it was rumoured that the US was considering returning to the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative, having requested some changes in the content. According to a report in al-Quds al-Arabi, a redrafting of the plan was discussed during a meeting between Obama and Jordan’s King Abdullah, and discussions were being held on the matter between the Jordanians, Egyptians, Palestinians, Saudis, and even Syrians.

This has been subsequently denied as alleged changes include dropping the Palestinians’ right of return and the normalisation of relations between Israel and the Arab states. Since the story surfaced, Jordan’s foreign minister stressed that the initiative would continue “without change”, while Arab League secretary-general Amr Moussa also said there was “no amendment”.

Sensing an opportunity, the so-called ‘moderate’ Arab regimes are intending to present Obama with a united front for concessionary peace talks intended to contrast with Netanyahu’s inflexibility. A few days ago, Jordan’s Abdullah talked about a “package effort”, to bring Israelis, Palestinians, Lebanese, Syrians and Arab nations to the same (large) negotiating table.

Perhaps the main difference between Obama and the Bush administration is a move away from policies determined almost entirely in Tel Aviv and Washington, to this emphasis on engagement and coordination with the Arab governments. But it is worth asking to what extent a “new” initiative is even needed. Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat, speaking of Netanyahu’s professed “fresh approach to peace”, remarked that “implementing Israel’s obligations under existing agreements is precisely the fresh approach that Palestinians and the international community expect of his government”.

There is no shortage of UN resolutions and international legal rulings that have long provided a framework for a settlement in Palestine/Israel – the problem has been implementation. This leads to the suspicion that a heralded “new” initiative will either be useless without the requisite political will, or worse still, will serve as a means to circumvent these principles in favour of a “peace” of the strong.

What has already emerged in terms of the content of the US’s (and the Quartet’s) plan is enough to suggest serious doubts that this initiative can succeed where others have failed. The American idea of “confidence-building gestures” is almost a verbatim re-run of the bankrupt Oslo discourse, while Tony Blair’s belief in economic peace from the “bottom up” in the West Bank means it is no surprise he believes Netanyahu can be a “peacemaker”.

There are other question marks too, such as the US support for a Palestinian Authority that has taken a decidedly authoritarian turn under US and European tutelage. Perhaps the most fundamental question is exactly how forceful the US will be with Israel. While even freezing settlement construction may be objectionable to the extremists in Israel’s cabinet, it is a token concession when compared to the expanding, solidifying colonial absorption of the Occupied Territories.

Given that there are even doubts about the extent to which Obama’s desire for engagement is reflective of his administration as a whole, the Palestinians are not jumping to any conclusions. A source in the PLO’s Negotiations Affairs Department – whose maps Abbas will be taking to Washington – told me they cannot predict how US-Israeli relations will develop until Netanyahu’s meeting with Obama.

Unfortunately, it is likely that the enormous disparity between the peace process and the facts on the ground in the occupied territories will live on in any new initiative. The Palestinian people continue to seek basic political and human rights, rather than gestures and Jericho casinos. The two-state solution may be the only game in town, but there is no evidence that Obama can – or wants to – prevent it being a slogan masking apartheid.

First published in the Guardian’s Comment is free.

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