x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

Hopes dim for stalled Middle East peace process

Israel's far-right foreign minister insists that "at least a decade" is needed to reach a comprehensive peace agreement with the Palestinians, with a call to shift the focus of talks on economic and security ties.

With Palestinians and Israelis blaming each other and a senior Israeli minister predicting that "at least a decade" is needed to secure a peace agreement, prospects appear dimmer than ever for the stalled Palestinian-Israeli peace process.

Analysts say that a fundamental rethink of approach, especially by the US, is now needed to salvage the process.

Avigdor Lieberman, the far-right Israeli foreign minister, yesterday said the parties should concentrate on deepening economic and security ties rather than pursuing a comprehensive peace agreement.

"I think we have good economic and security cooperation [with the Palestinians] and we should pursue that cooperation on both fronts and delay the political solution for at least a decade," Mr Lieberman told the Agence France-Presse news agency.

His comments came as Dennis Ross, adviser to Barack Obama, the US president, reportedly held secret talks this week with Israeli military and intelligence leaders and with the US insisting that it is continuing efforts to push forward the peace process.

But Mr Ross landed amid a round of finger pointing that suggests the parties are only moving further apart.

A report in the Israeli press earlier in the week said the US administration was exasperated with Ehud Barak, the Israeli defence minister and head of the Labour Party, for not being able to deliver on promises he had reportedly made the US. Little credence has been given to that report in Washington where a State Department spokesman on Monday characterised it as "more about political mischief than substance". But it suggests that the focus, for Israelis and Palestinians at least, has moved from pushing forward negotiations to avoiding blame for their collapse.

On Sunday, Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, explicitly fingered the Palestinians while also suggesting that it was the US administration that withdrew a settlement moratorium package he had otherwise been prepared to push through his hardline cabinet.

Analysts say the problems lie deeper and a new approach by all parties is necessary. If any blame is to be apportioned, most say Mr Netanyahu must be held largely responsible, not least for being unable or unwilling to present any constructive suggestions of his own.

"The only explanation for the collapse is that Netanyahu was not interested," said Yaron Ezrahi, a political scientist at Jerusalem's Hebrew University. "His positions are much more extreme right than he lets the world know and the rest is theatre."

Mahdi Abdul Hadi, the head of the Palestinian Academic Society for the Study of International Affairs, said: "Any message that came to the doorstep of Netanyahu from Washington, Cairo, Ramallah or any place in Europe found a shut door. Netanyahu was closed to any initiatives or proposals."

Even in Washington, analysts say Mr Netanyahu must shoulder a large part of the responsibility for the failure.

"The notion that the US in some way has slowed the process I would take exception with," said Robert Wexler, the president of the Centre for Middle East Peace and Economic Cooperation, a Washington think tank. While the former Democrat member of Congress said there is "blame to be shared in all directions ... with all due respect to Prime Minister Netanyahu, we, the US, have engaged with him for the better part of 18 months and he has yet to define any of his own thoughts and ideas regarding borders, Jerusalem or refugees".

Analysts say the Israeli premier's reluctance to accept the Palestinian and US demand for a temporary construction freeze on Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem showed that he is still opposed to making territorial concessions. They added that Mr Netanyahu preferred to cater to the pro-settler, ultranationalist parties that make up the majority of his ruling coalition so that he can stay in power.

The US had offered Israel diplomatic and security incentives in return for implementing a three-month extension to the freeze, but the deal fell through amid media reports that Israel did not want it to include East Jerusalem. Israel views East Jerusalem as an inseparable part of its capital while the Palestinians want the area, occupied by Israel in the 1967 war, as the capital of their future state.

The offer was criticised by Palestinians as far too generous to Israel and some analysts suggest it was just as well it fell through.

"I don't think it is bad that the offer was withdrawn, if indeed the US withdrew it," said Marwan Muasher, the vice president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

"Giving Israel a number of concessions for a 90-day extension of the moratorium does not make much sense," Mr Muasher, a former Jordanian foreign minister said. "It is clear that Israel would simply use the time to avoid engaging in any serious process and then, after 90 days, go back to settlement building, this time with American acquiescence, if not approval."

Critics said the US needed to have applied more pressure on Israel.

"Washington knows very well that the Israeli government was not ready for peace but it continued its balanced approach of blaming both sides for the deadlock, even as it knew there was no symmetry," said Michael Warschawski, a founder of the Alternative Information Centre, a joint Israeli-Palestinian activist group. "The least they should have done to pressure Netanyahu was to freeze discussion in congress on military aid to Israel."

With Mr Netanyahu in thrall to his hardline coalition and Palestinians divided between Fatah, the faction of Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, and Hamas, the Islamist party that controls Gaza and rejects negotiations, analysts say the onus is very much on the US to come up with a better formula for talks.

"There has been no movement toward conflict resolution in the two years of this administration's efforts to resolve the conflict," said Mr Muasher. "What we have seen is more of the same: an incremental approach, no ideas on the table, a move from indirect talks to direct talks and back again and a retreat on administration positions that give the impression to the parties that there is no price to pay."

A bilateral approach alone will not succeed, said Mr Muasher, unless it is complemented by the inclusion of other key regional players, crucially Saudi Arabia. Further down the line, he suggested, the US, along with Quartet, which also includes the UN, Russia and the EU, should put forward its own comprehensive package. The two parties, he said, "simply are not capable of doing that on their own".

Mr Wexler said the peace process was at a "defining moment". In the short term, he suggested, the US should pursue private diplomacy and hope the two parties "do what they previously have not done" and seriously engage on those issues.

Failing that, the US would, in "two to four months", be faced with a stark choice.

"We either withdraw from the process because it's fruitless, or we lay out what are in effect Obama parameters."

If the administration were to lay down its own parameters, said Mr Wexler, "I would respectfully suggest we do so from the point of view of advancing an American national security interest."