x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

Israelis and Palestinians dig their heels in

As both sides demand more concessions, pundits say Washington's efforts are little more than bribes for 'bad behaviour'.

JERUSALEM // What seemed like an agreement 11 days ago that could break deadlocked Mideast peace talks has failed to gain traction with a sceptical Israeli government.

At his weekly cabinet meeting yesterday, Israel's prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, did not put to a vote whether to introduce another freeze on settlement construction, let alone mention the issue.

If he had, and the measure passed, Israel could expect a raft of US gifts. At a meeting in New York on November 11, Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state, reportedly offered unusually generous security and diplomatic guarantees in return for a 90-day freeze. The administration of the US president, Barack Obama, hoped such a move would persuade Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority, to return to the talks. He walked out of negotiations after Israel refused in September to renew a partial freeze on settlement building in the West Bank.

Instead, both sides seem to be digging their heels in more firmly, casting further doubt on Washington's ability to cajole them back to the bargaining table. After a meeting with the Egyptian president, Hosni Mubarak, in Cairo yesterday, Mr Abbas said that "if there is no complete halt to settlements in all of the Palestinian territories including Jerusalem, we will not accept".

Earlier, Mr Abbas had agreed to enter direct negotiations merely with an Israeli pledge of a freeze only on building in West Bank settlements.

Israel is demanding more concessions, too. It was reported after the New York meeting between Mrs Clinton and Mr Netanyahu that the American offer involved US$3 billion (Dh11bn)worth of 20 F-35 stealth aircraft and a pledge to oppose Palestinian attempts to unilaterally declare statehood - all for a one-time-only, three-month extension of a freeze that would exclude East Jerusalem. Since then, the Israeli leader has demanded a written guarantee from Washington to placate his pro-settler cabinet. Philip J Crowley, the US State Department spokesperson, said on Friday that his country would agree to this.

But Israel's extreme-right Shas party, holding the swing vote in the cabinet, has upped the demand, asking that the guarantee explicitly state that East Jerusalem is off limits. Meanwhile, officials in Mr Netanyahu's Likud party have publicly scoffed at the idea of another freeze.

Complicating matters even more, there seem to be serious differences as to what was agreed on in New York. US officials initially said the fighter jets would be offered if the Israeli prime minister struck a final peace deal with the Palestinians, The New York Times reported on Friday.

Israel may now get them for simply agreeing to another freeze. The newspaper reported that the Israelis expected the planes for free while US officials thought they would be given at a subsidised price. Pundits have called the offers little more than bribes that reward Israel's "bad behaviour" regarding its internationally condemned settlements, as Daniel Kurtzer, a former US ambassador to Israel, said in The Washington Post yesterday.

"For the first time in memory, the United States is poised to reward Israel for its bad behaviour", he wrote, adding the offer is "a very bad idea".

Even with a three-month freeze, few expect the process of delineating the outlines of a Palestinian state, as is hoped by the US, would lead anywhere. That feat has failed to happen in nearly two decades of Israel-Palestinian negotiations.

"It won't bring the Palestinians closer to agreeing to the borders in which Israel seeks to confine them, or solve the refugee problem, Jerusalem's status or the division of water resources," Zvi Barel, a columnist for Israel's Haaretz, wrote yesterday.

Mustafa Barghouti, a prominent Palestinian commentator, said this sort of sentiment would likely persuade the Palestinians to push harder for unilateral statehood. "The whole process seriously calls into question the United States as an impartial, honest broker," he said.