The Guardian reported yesterday that the Middle East peace process is on the brink of a breakthrough. This seems to be taking the form of Barack Obama caving in to the demands of Binyamin Netanyahu, the unsavoury prime minister of Israel. Obama had been looking for Israel to announce a freeze of settlement activity on the West Bank, including in East Jerusalem. From what the Guardian is saying, however, it looks like Obama will agree to Netanyahu continuing to evict Palestinians from East Jerusalem; in the rest of the West Bank, Israeli settlement expansion will freeze, except that settlement expansion currently underway will be able to proceed to completion. To sugar the pill of these non-concessions, Obama will cheer Netanyahu up by adopting a new tougher line against Iran and its alleged nuclear ambitions.
It is astonishing that anyone could consider this a breakthrough in the Middle East peace process, or that anyone could take Israel's commitments seriously as confidence building measures. Obama seems to be adopting the usual Clinton-Bush mode of reaching agreements with the Israelis and then presenting these on a take-it-or-leave-it basis to the Palestinians. Obama is currently facing domestic problems, and may have decided to park the Middle East process until the health care issue has reached some kind of resolution. If so then maybe he could spare us the pretence that this is something that is going to effect a just and lasting resolution of the Israel-Palestine conflict.
Even if Obama's "breakthrough" leads to the resumption of negotiations, they are unlikely to lead anywhere. One problem has always been the tendency of US presidents to blow hard about their credentials as an honest broker, but then to simply take an Israeli line during the negotiations. Jonathan Freedland in the Guardian also suggests a more fundamental problem. Recent negotiations have invariably focussed on the post-1967 situation, with talk being about Israel generously giving to a Palestinian state some of the territory it seized that year. Freedland feels that the conflict is more fundamental, and needs to go back to the issues of 1948, when the Israeli was formed. He may be right, though this does sound a bit like one-stater talk.
One other problem making any kind of credible outcome from negotiations unlikely is the question of who speaks for the Palestinians. At the moment, there are two entities purporting to be the government of the Palestinian Authority. One of these was appointed by the PA's president under emergency powers he was not constitutionally entitled to wield; that president's term of office has in any case expired, yet he clings on to office. The other government came into being through the PA's own constitutional features, and is based on the party that won a majority of seats in the last parliamentary election. As is the way of things, it is the more mickey mouse of these two governments that is going to be taking part in any negotiations, making it unlikely that it will be able to make any agreement stick. In any case, neither of these governments can credibly claim to speak for the wider Palestinian refugee community.
I would not, therefore, advise anyone to expect a resolution of the Israel-Palestine conflict any time soon.
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