x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Drawn-out peace talks only prolong Palestinian miseries

For a region rocked by the turmoil and aftermath of the Arab uprisings, it's back to the 1990s for Israel, the Palestinian Authority (PA) and international leaders looking to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

A pattern reminiscent of the Oslo accords has been on display for the two weeks since the two sides agreed to start direct peace talks. Details of the peace talks have not been made public but it appears, according to Haaretz newspaper, that as at Oslo, the Israelis insisted on security coordination. Starting with the July 25 economic talks in Jericho, about a joint industrial zone, the Israelis have put off key Palestinian demands, such as the control of trade-tax revenues, while clashing with the PA  on issues such as building roads to make the economic zone viable.

The reality of the greatest barrier to Palestinian development in the Jordan Valley - vast Israeli agricultural settlements which use the best land and the majority of water resources - is unlikely to have been discussed at the meetings before the two sides went to Washington.

This process then continued in the US capital, where - if past precedent is anything to go by - talks about what to talk about focused on PA demands to discuss real borders, while Israel was interested only in security coordination with the PA to crack down on Palestinian resistance, a coordination loathed across the occupied territories and seen as a tool of Israeli outsourcing of repression.

The 46-year occupation has only intensified in 20 years of off-again on-again talks. In that time, a western-dependent PA has overseen the emergence of an aid-reliant economy, land loss, decline of industries and a split, manipulated by Israel, that has left 1.5 million Gazans sealed off from other Palestinians and the world.

For Israel, the drawn-out negotiation process has spanned the most intense period of settler colonisation, the brutal crushing of the second Intifada and the construction of a wall that has cantonised the West Bank and severed it from Jerusalem.

With Israel's economy minister, Naftali Bennett, declaring in the Israeli parliament last week that there would never be a Palestinian state, it was clear that the Israeli government already thinks it has won.

The illusion of an eventual solution endlessly discussed in isolation from the reality on the ground has given Israel the cover to solidify a system of segregation and forced Palestinian dependency.

In the territories Israel occupied in 1967, the Palestinian vision of a viable and independent state has been effectively replaced by a network of ghettos that are increasingly cut off from each other.

Even amid the aid-manufactured boom that's producing a vibrant downtown in Ramallah to serve a new, small, wealthy elite invested in the negotiations process, most residents are unable to travel freely or even reach Jerusalem, which is just 15km away. The reality of Gaza as the most segregated, deprived and attacked of the ghettos, surrounded by a wall of Israeli fire, is juxtaposed with Ramallah's plush and pampered feel of being trapped in golden handcuffs.

Travel for Palestinians between towns and cities - where possible - is interrupted by expanding Israeli settlements, while checkpoints disrupt trade and local business. At the same time, Bedouin and Arab citizens of Israel have faced an expanding process of marginalisation, urban ghettoisation and deepening structural racism. All the while, the issue of the right of return for Palestinians forcefully displaced in 1948 has never seemed so distant.

While popular faith in the PA and the negotiation process has all but evaporated, a new Palestinian revolt is unlikely. Although some 200 young left-wing Palestinians clashed with PA riot police in protest at the declaration of renewed talks, for most Palestinians cynicism has dovetailed with resignation and complacency.

It is only inside Israel's 1948 borders, where Arab citizens of the Jewish state have tried to forge alliances with southern Bedouin communities to resist a government plan to forcibly displace and relocate 30,000 Bedouin, that the protest movement is budding.

Clashes between hundreds of Arab Israelis and police raged in the north on Thursday while Bedouin and others gathered in the south by Al Arakib - a Bedouin village destroyed by Israel dozens of times over the last years - to protest against increased segregation.

It is striking that while the Arab Israeli activists carried Palestinian flags and tried to encourage Bedouin in Israel to adopt a Palestinian identity on the basis of the common experiences of dispossession, reference to the negotiations was completely absent.

Israel has severed Gaza from the rest of the Palestinian community, blockading and bombarding the strip in a containable conflict with Hamas. Predicated on sending the message that Palestinians can have a shot at the localised wealth of Ramallah if they remain quiet and continue complying with Israel on security and economic coordination, Gaza is the message of what Israel will do if they don't. That is probably what Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu meant when he promised "economic peace" back in 2008.

Throughout the talks, there will be optimistic platitudes from all sides about potential for peace, while the smoke and mirrors of various two-state solution formulas will be rolled out, in an Oslo re-enactment.

With quiet in the West Bank, a divided and unrepresentative Palestinian leadership, and a fractured Palestinian public increasingly put behind walls out of Israeli sight, Israel has the peace it has been looking for.


Jesse Rosenfeld is a Canadian journalist based in the Middle East


Editor's note: After print publication, the second paragraph of this article was amended to clarify the depiction of discussions at Jericho.