Palestine and Israel: deep in the forest something stirs? With update 20-07-09

Perhaps at last something buried deep in the so-called middle east peace process is beginning to stir.  First the doggedly right-wing and famously obstinate Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, for the first time accepts the principle of a two-state solution — Israel and Palestine existing side by side in mutual recognition.  Then he announces his willingness to meet the chairman of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, immediately “in order to advance the political process” — and he makes this announcement “at a weekly cabinet meeting”, showing that it represents government policy and not just a passing personal whim.   And the Palestinian response?  —

Saeb Erekat, a senior Palestinian negotiator, reacted soberly to Mr Netanyahu’s comments, saying the Palestinians wanted to see practical commitments, most importantly a freeze of all settlement construction in West Bank Jewish settlements. Mr Erekat said the Palestinian Authority would reject any deal between Israel and the US for even a limited amount of building in those settlements, currently home to about 250,000 Jewish Israelis. “There are no middle-ground solutions for the settlement issue: either settlement activity stops or it doesn’t stop,” Mr Erekat told Voice of Palestine radio. This was the essence of a letter Mr Abbas sent to Barack Obama, the US president, at the weekend, Mr Erekat said.  [Dina Kraft in Tel Aviv, Financial Times, July 13 2009].

It’s surely significant that the implied bottom line for the Palestinians’ senior negotiator is a freeze of Israeli settlements on the West Bank, precisely President Obama’s demand as put to the Israelis, and not their complete dismantlement, even if dismantlement may remain the Palestinians’ ultimate objective.  It looks however as if that could be negotiable:  negotiated land swaps have long been envisaged as an element in any eventual settlement.

It’s true that a freeze of the Israeli settlements has been a feature of some earlier provisional agreements between Israel and Palestine, and that other reports appear to signal a more demanding Palestinian position.  But that was last month….

The Financial Times report quoted above occupies half a column down the side of page 5 of Monday’s paper.  Might it not be more significant than that obscure location seems to imply?

Obama really seems to be shaking up all the kaleidoscopes.  What a pity that he’s so firmly committed to the pointless slaughter in Afghanistan — politically realistic, perhaps, but surely against his own better judgement.

Update (20 July 09): A report from Jerusalem in yesterday’s New York Times (hat-tip: David Tothill, as ever) describes extensive scepticism about the genuineness of Netanyahu’s Damascene conversion to a two-state solution, and serious doubts about the negotiability of the conditions he has laid down for Israeli acceptance of a Palestinian state.  Given Netanyahu’s record, such scepticism is understandable and may well prove to be justified.  But it’s equally possible that he is setting out a maximalist initial negotiating position that includes some demands and conditions which he could concede in the course of future negotiations in return for corresponding concessions by the Palestinian side.  Such tactics are far from unknown in the run-up to a difficult negotiation.  More daunting, perhaps, is the difficulty described in the NYT report over how far the Fatah President of the Palestinian National Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, can realistically negotiate in the name of all Palestinians when he doesn’t control Gaza and when his authority even in the West Bank is to some extent in question:

The Israeli leaders note that Mr. Abbas does not control Gaza, which was taken over by his Hamas rivals two years ago. They add that it is doubtful how much he controls what they call Judea and Samaria, the biblical name for the West Bank, and say that if the Israeli Army were to leave the area it could turn into another “Hamastan.”

The hope must be that the regional Arab and other Muslim states may eventually succeed in their current efforts to put effective pressure on Hamas and Fatah to get their acts together in a joint authority sufficiently united to be able to serve as an interlocuteur valable in negotiations with Israel, with President Obama, Russia, the EU and the UN (the middle east quartet) acting as arbitrators and providers of good offices.  But it will all take precious time, and Obama needs to show tangible progress during his first term if he is going to be able to carry American public opinion with him in putting the necessary pressure on Netanyahu to show more flexibility than has been his hallmark hitherto.


1 Response

  1. john greenwell says:

    I note (20/7) that Netanyahu announced today rejection of US calls to halt Jewish Construction in Arab East Jerusalem leading to Israel’s Ambassador being summoned to the State Department. I accept that it is important the Palestinians are only seeking a “freeze” on the settlements. It is also important that the US is adopting a more even-handed policy but I fear it is too late. In the 9 years, almost exatly, since Camp David(when in Clinton’s description Arafat committed his ‘colossal, historical blunder’) and then Taba, the situation has made agreement almost impossible with the Wall and the additional settlements.
    We cannot though give up.

    Brian writes: Many thanks, John. I agree that the prospects for a durable Israeli-Palestine peace settlement are very poor, given entrenched and irreconcilable attitudes on both sides and the demographic time-bomb ticking away in Israel. But I also agree that the search for a settlement must go on, especially (I would add) now that the arrival of an evidently more even-handed US president has added a new dimension.