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Middle East & North Africa

Peace No Longer Rests on the Palestinian Issue

JERUSALEM, Aug 27 2013 (IPS) - The end of the world’s most enduring conflict was always regarded as the essential linchpin of Mideast security. As direct talks between Israelis and Palestinians resume following a three-year hiatus, it seems too late for peace between them – if the declared goal of a peace deal within nine months is achieved – to end the violence unleashed by the ‘Arab springs’.

Since the resumption of the peace negotiations last month, from Lebanon to the north, Syria to the east, and Gaza and Egypt to the south, rockets sporadically target Israel.

As they closely monitor leakages from the civil war in Syria and the perils of civil wars in Egypt and Lebanon, Israelis like to say, somewhat self-righteously, that their country “is a villa in the jungle” and that the two-and-a-half-year Arab turmoil has already taken more lives than the 100-year conflict between Jews and Arabs.

Throughout the Israeli-Arab conflict, Palestine conjured up a raison d’être for the Arab and Islamic world, the banner under which their peoples mobilise. This continued from the war that created Israel (1948) to the Suez Crisis (1956), the Six-Day-War (1967), the 1973 War, and the two Lebanon wars in 1982 and 2006. This, besides the two Palestinian Intifadah uprisings in 1987-1993 and 2000-2005 and countless campaigns against Palestinian groups.

And throughout the quest for peace, from the inception of the peace process at the Madrid Conference (1991), many processes were inaugurated with great pomp – at the White House, in Camp David, Taba, Sharm el-Sheikh, Annapolis, now again in Washington.

Peace treaties were signed between Israel and Egypt (1979) and between Israel and Jordan (1994).

But the numerous agreements signed between Israel and the Palestinians – the Oslo Accords (1993), the Cairo agreement (1994), the Wye River Memorandum (1998), the Roadmap for Peace (2003) – were never fully implemented.

Until recently, the region still lived to the beat of periods of tension and quiet, of conflict and conflict resolution between Israel and the Palestinians.

Hence, during Israel’s operation Pillars of Defence against the Islamic resistance movement Hamas in Gaza last November, the U.S., the U.N., Egypt and Qatar (to name a few) were involved in negotiating a ceasefire.

Common wisdom had it that the resolution of ‘the mother of all conflicts’ would contribute greatly to regional stability and appeasement.

Nowadays it’s the other way around. The international community fears that the winds and fires of the ‘Arab springs’ will trigger instability in Israel and the occupied territories.

For their part, Israelis and Palestinians seem to worry more about what surrounds them than what divides them, as if they were protected under the eye of the cyclone blowing on their turbulent region.

Both Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas share the same concern. Both stress that the Arab upheavals are a key motivation for engaging in peace talks now.

Though the conflict isn’t the source of the ‘Arab springs’, it’s still a unifying dimension of the Arab condition. A sovereign independent Palestine remains an elemental Arab demand, side by side with the demand for democracy, respect for human rights, and social justice.

For years, the status of the U.S. in the region was largely dependent on its administration’s ability to act as an “honest broker” between Israelis and Palestinians.

These days, the U.S. role is judged as to its administration’s capacity to stop the carnage in Syria and to influence the Egyptian military to proceed with its promised roadmap for a return to democracy.

The multiple crises which plague the Middle East – notwithstanding the great issue of a nuclear Iran – certainly factored in the U.S. decision to prod Israel and the Palestinians to finally agree to renew the peace process.

The U.S. hopes that resumption of talks will demonstrate the effectiveness of its Mideast diplomacy, given that President Barack Obama until now has given priority to mediation, containment and crisis management over military intervention. The killing of three Palestinians in a West Bank confrontation on Monday cannot have helped continuation of the talks.

Whether this expectation is confirmed or not, it definitely shows that the U.S. still believes that a resolution of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict could impact positively on the region as a whole.

But the current peace endeavour is both a historical mission and mission impossible.

The Palestinians (supported by the U.S.) have long insisted that a two-state solution be based on the ‘Green Line’ which marks the ceasefire line with the territories occupied by Israel in the wake of the Six-Day War.

Yet until now, the demand is, at least outwardly, rejected by Netanyahu.

In the past, Israel agreed to negotiate the five core issues at the heart of the conflict – Jerusalem, settlements, borders and security, refugees and water – on the basis of the Green Line.

This time, Abbas had to reconcile with Netanyahu’s stance that nothing is agreed upon as long as nothing is agreed upon by Netanyahu himself, and thus the talks are held without preconditions, from a maximalist Israeli standpoint.

The situation on the ground is no less challenging.

About 400,000-500,000 Israelis live in settlements on territories which the Palestinians envision as part of their future state. And as the talks were under way, Israel pledged to build over 2,000 settlement homes.

Besides, a two-state solution would have to take into account not only a re-partition of historical Palestine but the fact that Israel actually negotiates with only part of the Palestinians, those who live in the West Bank under Palestinian Authority rule. Hamas, Abbas’s nemesis in control of the Gaza Strip since 2007, opposes a two-state solution.

So the chances of a peace accord between Israel and the Palestinians or, alternatively, of an interim agreement on a Palestinian state with provisional borders recognised by Israel and the U.S., are slim.

And though it appears that the old conflict pales in comparison to the bloodletting in Syria and Egypt, whether its resolution has an appeasing influence on the region and on the Iranian nuclear crisis will be determined by the substance of the agreement itself, either final or interim, especially with regard to how the Green Line factors.

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