x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

There is no reason to talk to an Israel that has lost its way

Israeli soldiers demolish Palestinian homes in the Jordan Valley, but fail to removal illegal Jewish settler outposts. As long as Israel can do what it wants and Palestinian leaders are divided, who can think there's any hope in renewing negotiations?

News reports last week told of the Israeli military demolishing Palestinian homes in the Jordan Valley, clearing the area to consolidate Israeli control. On the same day, other reports told how the same military was being rebuffed in efforts to remove an illegal Jewish settler outpost in the very same occupied West Bank.

There were also reports that day of settlers in the West Bank committing violence against Palestinians and Israeli military personnel.

Still other accounts told of a rally outside Israel's Supreme Court, in support of two rabbis the government had arrested. They were quizzed about their support for a book which argues that in war it is acceptable for Jews to kill non-Jewish children. Both rabbis were released after a short time in custody.

All of these incidents, when combined, demonstrate why I have lost confidence in the so-called "peace process" and current US peacemaking efforts.

While Israel continues to oppress and humiliate Palestinians, and while extremist Israeli settlers continue to run roughshod over both Palestinians and the Israeli military, it just seems downright short-sighted for the US to have nothing more interesting to offer than the mantra that "parties need to return to the negotiating table".

And yet that is about all they have to offer - with results no more promising now than they have been for the past few decades.

As it stands, the Israeli-Palestinian problem is too big and too deep to be solved by pretending that simple negotiations can fix things.

Neither side is in a position to negotiate, and the US team doesn't appear to have a creative thought that can help change this situation.

Israeli politics have moved decidedly to the right. There are 500,000 settlers in the West Bank, many of them well armed and ideologically committed to stay on "their land" no matter what deal Israel might sign with Palestinians.

The Israeli government has no interest in finding a solution that would be fair to Palestinians, and I am not convinced that it could or would summon up the resolve to convince its hard-line public to accept even an unfair settlement with the Palestinians.

The Israelis have become used to having their way with the Palestinians and know that no one, including their patron and protector the US, will do anything to stop them.

For their part, Palestinians have no real leverage to stop Israeli behaviour, and are in no position to negotiate with their occupiers.

The Palestinian leadership is fragmented, and the body politic is divided. Gaza is isolated and under a blockade, while the West Bank is under complete Israeli control and has become dependent on the largesse of international donors.

Just a few weeks ago we had a glimmer of hope that Palestinians were ready to take steps to alter this stagnant situation. The major factions were reconciling and their leaders were ready to challenge Israel and the United States by demanding that the UN vote on Palestinian statehood.

But with the US and Israel opposed to Palestinian unity and a UN vote, and pushing Palestinians to stop both efforts, and with Palestinian factions unable to agree even on a temporary government, hopes have dimmed.

A UN vote by itself would not create a state, of course, and that Palestinian unity by itself would not bring peace. Healing the fractured Palestinian polity is quite simply a necessity so that the Palestinian Authority can represent its entire constituency.

The push for a UN vote, on the other hand, is an important effort by Palestinians to buttress their position with leverage from the international community (much the same way that Israelis buttress theirs using the US Congress).

What made both of the Palestinian initiatives more desirable than restarting talks is that they were attempts to rebalance the equation in the region. Restarting negotiations does nothing but bring together the parties, as they are, to talk about a situation Israelis don't really want to change and Palestinians are currently powerless to change.

If there is to be Israeli-Palestinian peace, the dynamics at work in both societies and in the relationship must be changed.

That will require strategic thinking, and a willingness to shake thing up, especially in Israelis' sense of entitlement and their lack of accountability. And meanwhile Palestinians must feel supported, empowered and responsible for their own destiny.

Palestinian unity, the political boost that would come from a strong UN vote and an expanded non-violent resistance effort in the Occupied Territories together might help to do the trick.

This combination would give the Palestinians a much-needed boost and would force the Israelis to debate and rethink their policies and the costs associated with their behaviour.

On the other hand, listening to the US and backing away from reconciliation, and dropping the UN vote (in much the same way the PA initially listened to the US and dropped the UN human rights report on the Gaza War) - would be devastating to Palestinian leadership. That approach would further embolden Israeli hardliners, and would, in the end, make peace even more remote than it is today.


James Zogby is the president of the Arab American Institute