x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Peace talks to build trust, not breakthroughs

Nobody is particularly hopeful for any breakthrough, but indirect talks are the best that can be achieved at this point.

After more than a year, peace talks between the Israelis and Palestinians are to resume - sort of. With the Arab League backing indirect talks, the last piece necessary for a resumption of dialogue is in place. The US envoy George Mitchell will begin shuttle diplomacy between the two sides to try and establish a framework for direct talks. Nobody is particularly hopeful for any breakthrough, but indirect talks are the best that can be achieved at this point.

The US has made painfully apparent the limitations of its clout with Israel. Barack Obama demanded a settlement freeze, and the Israelis called his bluff. Unwilling to tighten the screws to force concessions, Mr Obama weakened his country's standing in the peace process and rewarded Benjamin Netanyahu for his intransigence. As a result, there is little incentive for Mr Netanyahu to pay anything more than lip service to peace. Despite his temporary "freeze" of a portion of construction in East Jerusalem, building continues on what is Palestinian land. His standing in a fractious right-wing coalition government has been bolstered by his snubbing of the US, and he will not willingly make any move that would endanger his ability to govern.

Mahmoud Abbas supported the push for a settlement freeze as the Palestinians have long held that encroachment across the 1967 borders is the biggest barrier to peace. The subsequent failure of the US to obtain a complete freeze has put Mr Abbas in an awkward position. Already weakened by the collapse of the unity government and feuding with Hamas, Mr Abbas is not in any position to make bold moves that could further harm his credibility.

Meanwhile, those Arab states that went out on a limb to offer diplomatic normalisation through the Arab Peace Initiative have little to show for their efforts. They, quite rightly, will not make any major concessions or offer any confidence-building measures until they are sure of Israel's seriousness in the peace process. Certainly, Mr Netanyahu's government has not shown itself willing to make peace. It is too comfortable with the status quo. The US is unwilling to damage its relationship with the Israelis for the sake of the Palestinians. The Palestinians, in turn, have always had precious little leverage in the process, and even less so now given the fractured nature of their leadership. And the Arab world is on the outside looking in, understandably unwilling to be tarred by a faltering peace process.

But the decision to resume negotiations was the only way forward. Peace is more likely to happen by talking than not talking. What is needed in this process is trust, and trust can only be built through dialogue. Any steps toward building this trust and advancing peace is welcome, no matter how tentative.