x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Conditions on the ground in Palestine are ripe for failure

Despite the resumption of "talks about talks", the continuing stealing of Palestinian land and the ruling right-wing coalition in Israel make progress almost impossible

As soon as two military helicopters touched down at the Muqata' compound in Ramallah, which houses the Palestinian presidential headquarters, on Friday, speculation began.

Had John Kerry, the US Secretary of State, finally been able to extract an agreement from Palestinians and Israelis, getting them back to the negotiating table they left some three years ago? A carefully worded statement released by Mr Kerry later that afternoon in Amman explained that although an agreement to relaunch talks was not reached per se, a "basis" for resuming these talks was. And even then, the details of this framework were yet to be determined.

Despite being hailed as an important breakthrough by Washington, it's hard to imagine that this step will lead to anything meaningful. And for good reason: direct, indirect and secret/back-channel talks between Israel and the Palestinians have been continuing for decades, with very little to show for them, apart from massive city-bloc sized Israeli settlements expanding over the West Bank's hilltops.

Fatah, once the backbone of Palestinian resistance, has become irrelevant and outdated to many Palestinians, and the Palestinian Authority (PA) is now the focus of accusations that it acts as nothing more than a proxy force for Israel's military occupation.

Meanwhile Hamas, which currently governs the Gaza Strip, has seen its power and support base grow greatly since the last time Israel and the Palestinian leadership signed a peace agreement some 20 years ago.

With these factors in mind, many are questioning whether another round of talks will do what ample previous talk has not. One can be forgiven for imagining the following scenario unfolding: Thousands of air miles are logged and days-long discussions are held, only to be followed by a play of the familiar blame game - all the while the US administration plays honest interlocutor; a euphemism for Washington's unwillingness to exercise the kind of pressure needed to extract the necessary concessions from Israel.

The current conditions are ripe for failure. The Israeli government is led by a staunchly right-wing coalition and headed by a prime minister whose election platform last year rested on support for settlement expansion and his bitter opposition to the 1967 borders as a starting point for territorial talks. That is, frankly, reason enough to doubt this next round of "peace processing".

Meanwhile, many of Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud party members have explicitly stated their opposition to a two-state solution. Naftali Bennett, the minster for economy and trade, has already threatened to remove his party from the coalition should Mr Netanyahu enter negotiations on the basis of the 1967 lines.

In years past, his comments would have been dismissed as the ramblings of an extremist; however, Mr Bennett has made himself a political force in Israeli politics, riding the wave of the far-right's rise to power.

For their part, Palestinians remain divided across political and geographical lines, making it harder to imagine a consensus on any future agreement.

Barely a day after Mr Kerry's announcement, Palestinian factions, namely the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, Islamic Jihad and Hamas, derided the resumption of talks as political suicide and a concession to Israel's occupation.

Popular dissatisfaction with the current political stalemate and an economy in shambles is at an all-time high, leading to an increase in the number of Palestinians who no longer even believe that the two-state paradigm is plausible.

In a recent poll, 69 per cent of Palestinians said they thought the chances of two states in the next five years were low or non-existent. Today, about a third of Palestinians support a single, binational state that extends from the Mediterranean Sea to the Jordan River.

The talks to establish a basis for future talks are also being led by middle-men and -women, namely veteran negotiators Saeb Erekat and Tzipi Livni. The duo don't have the power to make their own decisions and will have to report back to Mr Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, a process both time-consuming and tedious - all while the region around them goes up in flames.

The continuing crisis in neighbouring Egypt, coupled with Syria's protracted civil war, threatens Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq and Turkey, and raises the question: Will Mr Kerry be able to sustain this level of rigour, optimism and attentiveness to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict without ignoring all the other foreign policy challenges of the region?

Further, more questions are being asked about how the process can be kick-started when even the basic ground rules are yet to be determined.

Will the 1967 borders be the basis on which to start negotiations? Is a settlement freeze still a precondition? How long will the talks last?

For years, disagreements have taken place over such preconditions. Many meetings, resolutions, initiatives and peace plans later, it's hard to imagine that these hurdles will be overcome by the wave of a wand.

If we were to use the US president's last trip to the region as a litmus test, then it would be safe to assume that Washington will not steer off its usual approach. Israel meanwhile is being governed by a right-wing coalition that doesn't even see the Palestinian state as a necessity for peace and the Palestinians have very little leverage to sway the pendulum in their favour.


Dalia Hatuqa is a journalist and writer based in the West Bank

On Twitter: @DaliaHatuqa