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MIDEAST: Unwilling, Unable, Yet Talking

JERUSALEM, Jan 4 2012 (IPS) - After a 15-month collapse, Palestinians and Israelis have met only to agree on sitting down face-to-face publicly once more on Friday. So far there is no breakdown, but no breakthrough either.

The preparatory talks that began in Jordanian capital Amman on Tuesday aim at drawing the contours of a future Palestinian state and of ensuring security arrangements with Israel in advance of final peace negotiations.

In effect, what the Amman meeting highlighted is the stark divide between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, between the unwillingness of Israel’s prime minister to agree on a settlement freeze and on a Palestinian state along the 1967 lines as basis for a two-state solution, and the inability of the Palestinian president to sign on less than that.

In September, during Abbas’s pitch for statehood at the U.N., the Quartet for Mideast Peace (U.S., EU, Russia, and the U.N.) temporarily neutralised the unilateral drive by setting forth a four-month target date, Jan. 26, for both parties to present proposals on borders and security before formal negotiations can resume.

The Jordanian host, Foreign Minister Nasser Judeh, stated laconically, “the Palestinians presented their positions concerning borders and security and the Israelis heard them and promised to go over them in the next few days.”

Optimists pointed out that the meeting represented the first time ever under Netanyahu that an Israeli envoy accepted to receive Palestinian papers regarding core issues of the conflict.


Pessimists, the dominant force in the region, retorted that what’s clear is that “negotiations for the sake of negotiations” won’t augur any new beginning in Israeli-Palestinian relations.

Marwan Barghouti, the imprisoned leader of Abbas’s Fatah party convicted to five consecutive life sentences by an Israeli court for having masterminded the second Intifada uprising a decade ago, pronounced the peace process dead.

“There’s no point at making desperate attempts to breathe life into a dead body,” he wrote from his cell in a letter published by the Palestinian news agency Ma’an on the eve of the talks.

Torn between pessimism and optimism, the ‘pepsimists’ argue that no one would want to be blamed for such prognosis, and therefore, are ready to invest a last-ditch effort. The U.S. and the U.N. cautiously endorsed the talks’ modest outcome.

With Palestinian and, by and large, Arab public opinions (now powerful voices in international affairs) viewing such talks as essentially caving in to Israel, a close Netanyahu confidante summarised Israel’s motivation behind such talks:

“It’s important that it be clear that Israel is active in a real way,” Ehud Barak said. “It can hinder the effectiveness of attempts to isolate us internationally.

“There’s no reason not to work toward reducing tension with the Palestinians, with the Turks and the Egyptians (Israel’s two lost key allies in the region). Even if there’s no certainty we’ll see results,” the Israeli Defence Minister added prudently.

Rather than “reducing tension”, what was said and decided ahead of the meeting was symptomatic of the low expectations, and added pressure on the parties, above all on the Palestinians.

Only hours earlier, tenders for 300 new housing units in Jewish settlement neighbourhoods in east Jerusalem were officially issued.

The tenders are part of a larger scheme of 500 units in the occupied part of the city. Two weeks ago when the construction plans were initially announced, Housing Minister Ariel Atias declared, “We can’t both not talk and not build.”

On Tuesday at least they talked. Yet, this didn’t deter the right-wing minister from issuing tenders.

“Israel is slapping the face of (Jordan’s) King Abdullah and the entire international community, morbidly injuring the already low chances of renewed peace negotiations,” read a statement by the Israeli NGO Ir Amim which monitors the evolving situation in east Jerusalem.

Also in advance of the meeting, Abbas warned that if attempts at reviving negotiations fail, “after the Jan. 26 deadline, we’ll take harsh measures.”

The Palestinian leader is considering resuming his statehood bid as well as isolating Israel further at the U.N. with a new resolution condemning Israeli settlements.

Meanwhile in Gaza, Hamas and Fatah representatives sat together to further the reconciliation process launched in May. The power-sharing deal in the making aims to end four years of schism that virtually split Gaza and the West Bank into separate administrations.

A strange coalition of interests is evolving, and it may constitute the best chance for the talks to at least go on.

Israel wants to strengthen the Hashemite Kingdom, its sole ally left in the region. The Jordanian monarch is due to visit the U.S. this month. Even as probabilities of success tend to zero, he might try to stabilise the peace front, if only to alleviate the pressure of his Islamic opposition.

Hamas might want to adopt a more pragmatic, less rejectionist, stance in light of the electoral surge of the Muslim Brotherhood, its natural ally in Egypt.

Trying to desist from an increasingly embarrassing alliance with its traditional Syrian patron, Hamas wants to move its headquarters away from Damascus, maybe to Cairo.

During the previous round of talks with Abbas a fortnight ago, Khaled Meshal, the head of Hamas’ politburo, noted that “Fatah and we have political differences, but the common ground is agreement on a state within the 1967 borders.”

A joint committee was established in order to arrange Hamas’s inclusion into the Fatah-dominated Palestine Liberation Organisation.

In 1993, a landmark Declaration of Principles signed between the PLO as the legitimate representative of the Palestinian people and the State of Israel enshrined their mutual recognition, thereby opening the way to interim peace agreements.

Recognition of Israel and acceptance of past agreements signed with Israel are two of the three conditions – the third one being the renunciation of terrorism – demanded by Israel and set by the Quartet for accepting Hamas as a legitimate peace interlocutor.

 
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