The Washington process was predicted to fail by most analysts. There were many reasons for that, not least of which that it was largely a repetition of the Annapolis process that failed before it.
Otherwise, the settlement issue was clearly a make it or break it element in this process.
The settlement issue is crucial both because it can preempt the possible outcome of talks, and because it encompasses most of the elements of the conflict. First, settlements are a factor in determining borders, which is probably the most significant final status issue. They are also about Jerusalem because most of these settlements and the settlers who live there are in occupied East Jerusalem. Settlements also encompass the water issue, since many of these settlements were established strategically in order to control aquifers. Finally, they are about security because security parameters would change depending on the presence of Israelis and settlers.
But the issue of settlements was not the only obstacle to the Washington talks. It is obvious that since Benyamin Netanyahu became prime minister, he has successfully evaded any negotiating engagements. The proximity talks preceded the Washington negotiations and were meant to prepare for direct talks through the exchange of negotiating positions via the US negotiator Senator George Mitchell. But in these indirect negotiations, Israel refrained from presenting any negotiating position at all, despite the fact that the Palestinian side presented its full-fledged written and detailed positions on the two issues suggested by Mitchell--borders and security.
Israel was a good listener when direct negotiations started in Washington, but it never engaged in presenting its views or making proposals. This indicates one of the other reasons for the failure of the Washington process: the political position of the Israeli coalition. Bluntly, this government is completely incompatible with the basic requirements of the peace process terms of reference, including the roadmap, which was initiated by the Quartet, adopted by the Security Council and accepted by the two parties.
To truly engage in negotiations would either expose the position of the Israeli government as being too distant from the requirements of the international community, or endanger the coalition itself. This Israeli government cannot agree to any of the fundamental steps required to move the peace process forward. It is not mature enough to end the occupation in return for peace--the very heart of what this peace process is about.
The third and final main reason for the failure of the Washington talks was the role of the sponsor. The United States must have clearer positions on the process and its substance, injecting into the process both incentives and accountability. The Americans allowed this process to be launched without any terms of reference, which is exactly why the Annapolis process failed. A more involved role would encourage and pressure both Palestinians and Israelis to be consistent with the peace process terms of reference, especially signed agreements, the roadmap and the relevant resolutions of the United Nations Security Council.
So now the question is: what if the United States and the Quartet fail in convening serious and meaningful negotiations? Two scenarios are possible in this case. If Israel is allowed to continue stalling, it will obviously further undermine and weaken the moderate camp in Palestine. Second, it is possible that Israel's continued reticence would bring the international community, led by the United States, to realize its vision of peace and two states by helping to create a Palestinian state not necessarily as a result of a bilateral agreement.
At the end of the day, the international community, as represented in the World Bank, has testified that Palestinians are ready for statehood and it is time for us to realize our dream. - Published 18/10/2010 © bitterlemons.org
Ghassan Khatib is coeditor of the bitterlemons family of internet publications and director of the Government Media Center. This article represents his personal views.
AN ISRAELI VIEW
Plenty of blame to spread around
by Yossi Alpher
The peace process launched in Washington on September 1 essentially collapsed before it began. The failure lies with all three principal parties: Israel, the PLO and the United States. It is at once a failure of substance and of process.
At the most comprehensive level of substance, the ambitious goal of ending the entire conflict within a year, proclaimed by the Obama administration and the Quartet and endorsed by both Israeli PM Binyamin Netanyahu and PLO Chairman Mahmoud Abbas, is totally unrealistic, thereby putting undue pressure on the negotiating parties. Following upon the administration's misguided and myopic focus on a settlement freeze, it casts heavy doubt on Washington's grasp of this conflict. One wonders whether a more modest objective of defining the borders of a Palestinian state within a year might not have set the process on more stable ground.
In parallel, at the most detailed level of process, it was clear from the outset that none of the three parties had a formula for bypassing or otherwise neutralizing the expiration of the settlement construction freeze on September 26. Certainly the Obama administration offered no such solution. It apparently hoped, without foundation, that the very fact of direct talks would soften Israeli and Palestinian intransigence on the issue. But for political or perhaps ideological reasons, Netanyahu could not or would not renege on his commitment to his right-wing coalition to end the freeze as promised, particularly after the first nine months of the freeze had failed to persuade the PLO to enter into direct and active negotiations. And Abbas, having dithered throughout those nine months under pressure from virtually all Palestinian factions--from Hamas to the secular left--not to negotiate without a permanent freeze, could hardly capitulate at this juncture.
Perhaps even more pathetic is the current US effort to entice Netanyahu into an additional, final freeze of two or three months so the direct talks can resume. What could be accomplished in two months that would save this process? The link between this time-span and the November 2 midterm elections in the US is painfully transparent.
Meanwhile, the very failure of this brief process has generated a flurry of internal Israeli and Palestinian and even inter-Arab dynamics that bespeak instability and disarray and bode ill for future negotiations. Netanyahu has embraced highly problematic initiatives by the most narrow-minded members of his coalition to legislate loyalty oaths and referendums on future territorial concessions. He stands idly by while his foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, contradicts the prime minister's declared peace policies at the United Nations and insults European dignitaries who come to offer help. But he also meets for the first time in months with opposition leader Tzipi Livni, as unrest peaks within the Labor party and speculation grows that the coalition is beginning to fall apart under the pressures of this peace process.
Of course, Netanyahu could be trying to buy off his right-wing opposition; or he could be fishing for an excuse to extend the freeze; or, alternatively, he might be circling the wagons to rebuff an increasingly hostile international community. Israel's current political reality is too murky to tell. One thing is certain: Netanyahu's choice of a right-wing coalition is incompatible with his ostensible decision to opt for a two-state solution. Here, yet again, we confront the toxic interaction between Israel's dysfunctional political system and the Palestinian issue.
The Palestinian contribution to the current impasse is hardly less significant. Abbas' internal Palestinian political position is apparently so weak that he elected, for the second time since the current process began, to yield his decision-making responsibilities regarding negotiations to the Arab League. Ten months ago the League vacillated in its response, in effect telling Abbas the decision about entering indirect negotiations was up to him. This time it responded by giving him a month's extension in the hope that a compromise could be found. Abbas has also, not for the first time, threatened to resign and dissolve the Palestinian Authority, thereby adding a potential escalatory dimension to the conflict by forcing Israel to either renew its rule over the entire West Bank or acquiesce in some sort of international mandate.Considering that the late Yasser Arafat even spilled Arab blood to guarantee the "independence of Palestinian decision-making" in the face of repeated Arab state attempts to manipula
the Palestinians' fate, Abbas faces heavy internal criticism over his new reliance on the League. Thus the Palestinian capacity to embrace the demands of a new peace process appears to be as weak as that of Israel under Netanyahu. Meanwhile, the stewardship of Obama, Clinton and Mitchell clearly suffers from a failure to recognize what, if anything, is feasible and what is delusional in Israeli-Palestinian relations.- Published 18/10/10 © bitterlemons.org
Yossi Alpher is coeditor of the bitterlemons family of internet publications. He is former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University.
A PALESTINIAN VIEW
Like a soldier without weapons
an interview with Ahmed Yousef
bitterlemons: Was the Washington summit doomed to fail from the beginning? Why or why not?
Yousef: From the beginning we expected the failure of this summit. The Americans were using wrong mechanisms and wrong references. It was clear from the beginning that the negotiations would go on without end. We, the Palestinians, were not optimistic because no one understood what they were going to talk about, what were the main headlines.
First, I believe the main aim of these negotiations was for the Americans. They are about to start mid-term [congressional] elections and [US President Barack Obama] was trying to calm the Jewish community.
Second, [Palestinian President Mahmoud] Abbas was drowning in the water. He was lost and didn't know what to do. Israel was benefitting from the start of such negotiations because Israel had lost international legitimacy after the Goldstone report and the flotilla attack.
The only party gaining no benefits was the Palestinians, because it didn't seem that there were any benefits from negotiations at this time.
bitterlemons: If you were to create a format for viable negotiations, what would that look like? Who would be present and in what format?
Yousef: We Palestinians can't start any negotiations until reaching reconciliation and unity. After that, we have to form a special consulting body--one from all Palestinians--because these negotiations will follow the constant principles of all Palestinians. No one faction from Palestinians can run these negotiations unilaterally; decision-making should be through the national or legislative council.
Also, there should be overarching headlines for these negotiations. Constant principles are non-negotiable, for one. This is the main framework of any talks with Israelis because Palestinian constant principles will endow the talks with more trust.
But the way Abu Mazen is dealing with these negotiations is not really correct and will not lead to the return of our rights. We don't know what Abu Mazen is going to get from the Israelis, but we also don't know what he is going to offer. Abu Mazen is a soldier going to war without a weapon.
I believe that a national consulting body through the legislative council or the national council is how we should decide who should participate and the outcome of the talks. Unilateralism by Hamas or Fateh or anyone else is rejected.
bitterlemons: After some hopes that US President Barack Obama would pursue a policy closer to Palestinian interests, how would you rate his performance today?
Yousef: From my understanding of American political conditions, any American president's power is controlled or linked to the Congress, which is itself controlled by the Jewish lobby. From the beginning, we did not expect a lot from Obama because at any given point he would be forced to succumb to this pressure. Now he needs their votes and Palestinians are the weaker party.
bitterlemons: What do you predict will happen now that Israeli-Palestinian talks have collapsed?
Yousef: Everybody now is in front of a wall that is blocking the road. Now the ball is in the court of the international community. It is clear that Israel is blocking these negotiations and that it is not willing to give anything to Palestinians--including a minimum request of freezing settlement construction. Now what is needed is applying pressure to Israel to recognize Palestinian rights.
bitterlemons: Can Hamas' program of resistance succeed when Israel seems waiting to crush it?
Yousef: This [resistance] is the right of any nation under occupation, regardless of how strong he is and regardless of how strong his enemy is. All nations have resisted occupation because the power of the enemy is not a measure for regaining your rights or not. Resistance is a means of gaining justice.
On the other hand, we haven't shut all doors. From the beginning, we authorized Abu Mazen [Abbas] to negotiate if there is a path for negotiations. We said that we would not stand in the way of talks that would restore our rights. But as long as those negotiations fail in doing that, it is our right to defend ourselves from occupation. - Published 18/10/2010 © bitterlemons.org
Ahmed Yousef is the deputy foreign minister of Hamas.
AN ISRAELI VIEW
Why it can't succeed
by Mordechai Kedar
The "Washington process" that commenced in early September 2010 was intended to deliver an agreed solution for issues that all previous agreements between Israel and the Palestinians had bypassed. This was to be accomplished in direct and continuous negotiations, within a time frame of one to two years, and with intensive American involvement under the close supervision of President Barack Obama, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Senator George Mitchell.
Clearly this formula, and particularly its timetable, is meant to provide an important political achievement for Obama in the rundown to the presidential elections of 2012 and to improve his chances for reelection.
Yet less than a month after the current negotiation process began, and following a ten-month construction freeze during which the Palestinians refused to negotiate directly, Israel has renewed the building of settlements. This supplies the Palestinians a legitimate excuse in the eyes of the White House and the world to stop the talks.
Settlement construction was until now never a rationale for diplomatic stalemate. This time, however, the settlement issue has been seized on by the Palestinians as an "ejection seat" that enables them to evade negotiations they know will flounder over core issues like refugees. They prefer to exploit the settlements controversy and score points with the White House rather than being blamed for allowing the process to collapse.
It is naive to think that a conflict that has lasted more than 60 years can be resolved in two years of negotiations, however direct and continuous they may be. A real end of the conflict cannot be achieved for at least another generation, and for several reasons related to those core issues.
Israel is perceived by many Palestinians, as well as many other Arabs and Muslims, as an illegitimate entity. Israel demands that its neighbors recognize it as a Jewish state or at least the state of the Jewish people, whereas Islam generally views Judaism as having ceased to be a relevant religion since the advent of Islam. Jews are merely religious communities that belong ethnically to the peoples among whom they live, while the Land of Israel from the river to the sea is Islamic "waqf", holy endowment. Accordingly, Muslims and Arabs cannot recognize Israel as a legitimate state--a sine qua non for a successful peace agreement.
The issue of the Temple Mount and al-Aqsa mosque is the hardest to resolve. Jews consider the mount a holy place and insist on maintaining their sovereignty over it, even though many avoid entering the site due to its sanctity. The destruction of Jewish antiquities by the Palestinian Waqf authorities in 1996 proved to Israelis that Palestinians attach no significance to the remains of Jewish culture on the Temple Mount. For their part, the Palestinians' goal is to locate their capital in Jerusalem even though it was never the capital of Palestine and was never the seat of an Arab or Islamic khalif, amir or sultan.
Turning to the refugee issue, a mass return of Palestinians to their 1948 homes is perceived by Israeli society as a formula for national collective suicide. Israelis are united from left to right in rejecting massive return. So is the world: the European Court of Human Rights ruled in March 2010 that Greeks who fled or were expelled from northern Cyprus when the Turks invaded in 1974 do not enjoy a "right of return"--a relevant precedent. But among the Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority, the narrative of return remains dominant; return is expected imminently. Any attempt by the PLO leadership to compromise on the right of return will bring it into conflict with both the refugees and their Arab state hosts.
There are also reasons why the Israeli leadership does not seek progress in final status negotiations. One concerns borders and settlements. The events that followed the unilateral withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and northern Samaria in 2005 and the removal of 26 settlements and their occupants have prompted a reassessment of the utility of withdrawal among many Israelis. No Israeli government today can persuade the Knesset and the public to carry out a mass evacuation of settlers from communities that were established in Judea and Samaria on the basis of government decisions and on land purchased legally from Palestinian Arabs.
Secondly, Israelis fear that if a Palestinian state with territorial contiguity is established in Judea and Samaria, nothing will prevent it from, at some point, falling under Hamas rule--whether by dint of an election, as in January 2006, or through a military takeover as in Gaza in June 2007. Neither the White House nor the United Nations can promise Israel this won't happen. Accordingly, Israel is wary of proceeding through negotiations to the establishment of such a state. Further, the failure of UNIFIL in southern Lebanon to prevent the rearming of Hizballah deters many Israelis from relying on an international force to effectively separate Israelis and Palestinians.
In conclusion, the final status core issues are so complex that their solution in the foreseeable future is not achievable. Anyone--in this case, the Obama administration--who pushes the two sides into negotiations over a comprehensive solution is likely to generate a crisis or even a clash that no one needs.- Published 18/10/2010 © bitterlemons.org
Dr. Mordechai Kedar is a lecturer in the Department of Arabic and a research associate at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, Bar-Ilan University.
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Bitterlemons.org is an internet newsletter that presents Palestinian and Israeli viewpoints on prominent issues of concern. Each edition addresses a specific issue of controversy. Bitterlemons.org maintains complete organizational and institutional symmetry between its Palestinian and Israeli sides.