What’s on offer?
But scores of roughneck Jewish settlers who reside on the West Bank, the heart of a would-be Palestinian state, and their sympathisers heckled and jostled them, and called them terrorists. One bust a negotiator’s nose in protest against the flying of a Palestinian flag in the Jewish-populated west side of the city. The police broke up the proceedings before any of the trickiest issues had been resolved. “Unfortunately, because of the violence,” says an rganiser, “we failed to reach an agreement.” A precursor to the failure of the real thing?
It is too soon to say. Four months into their heralded nine months of negotiations, American mediators are being tight-lipped. The Israelis are keeping them at arm’s length. Of the 14 rounds of talks that have taken place so far, America’s envoy, Martin Indyk, has attended only five. Ahead of talks, the Americans told the Palestinians that they would be hands on, while reassuring the Israelis that they would not. As things stand, the Israelis seem likelier to get their way on various critical issues, for the simple reason that they are the stronger party.
As a conciliatory gesture, Israel on October 30th freed 26 of the several thousand Palestinian prisoners in its jails, many of them there for acts of politically-motivated violence. But while releasing a few, the Israelis arrested a new crop, including two members of the defunct Palestinian parliament. Further minimising the impact, the Israeli authorities also approved of a fresh tranche of 3,500 houses to be built for some 6,000 Jewish settlers, who, despite the negotiations, are putting them up at the fastest rate for almost a decade. Some mark the initial moves for fresh construction deep inside the West Bank, others complete the approval for expanding Ramat Shlomo settlement in East Jerusalem that Vice-President Jo Biden vigorously opposed during his visit to Israel in March 2010 and which prompted Palestinians at the time to pull out of proximity talks. The measures soured the climate for negotiations for Israelis, who condemned the release of murderers, and Palestinians alike. “The impact would have been greater if Israel had frozen settlements, not released a few prisoners,” says Yoni Figuel, an Israeli former military administrator of the central West Bank.
Can Israel get its way in the negotiations as easily as it has been doing on the ground? For months, the two sides have focussed on negotiating a framework agreement for a two-state endgame, followed by gradual implementation. Palestinian officials have reportedly proposed a three-year period of implementation. But in seven hours of recent talks with John Kerry, America’s secretary of state, Mr Netanyahu again argued for a much longer period, and insisted on continued Israeli security control in West Bank’s Jordan Valley, or as he terms it “Israel’s eastern border”.
Palestinian officials warn that Israel’s plans for long-drawn implementation would leave them—should they accept—with an interim state which they fear could become semi-permanent. They deny that their president, Mahmoud Abbas, is beginning to bend in that direction. But some around him are saying that “something is better than nothing”. A former Palestinian minister, Ali Jarbawi, says talks should “incrementally advance Palestinian objectives on the ground, like transferring control over more land and natural resources to the Palestinian Authority,” headed by Mr Abbas.
A former British prime minister, Tony Blair, who represents the peacemaking quartet of the UN, the European Union, the United States and Russia, argues for any arrangement to be sweetened with economic rewards. An injection of private investment is needed, he says, to boost the Palestinians’ flagging economy. In October the World Bank published a report predicting it would grow by 40%, if only Israel would let the Palestinians fully exploit the unpopulated parts of the West Bank.
But such measures would by no means produce a viable Palestinian state. If Israel were to allow the Palestinian Authority’s security forces to operate in another fifth of the West Bank’s land, as some suggest it may, Israel might well then consolidate its hold on the rest. It would also buy Israel more time to cement its grip on the whole of Jerusalem, which the Palestinian negotiators want to share, and to keep Palestinian refugees and their descendants outside the Jewish state. Alon Liel, a former Israeli ambassador to South Africa, says that an interim agreement would create a kind of “apartheid”, with Mr Abbas’ hoped-for acquiescence. His promised state of Palestine would be reduced to a collection of “bantustans”, non-contiguous territorial pockets inside Israel. And Mr Blair’s plan makes no mention of a formal link to reunite Palestine’s two halves, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, which is still under the control of Hamas, an Islamist movement that has yet formally to accept Israel’s existence.