U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has brought Israelis and Palestinians to the peace table. But are they any closer to peace?
Direct talks were launched in Washington under Kerry’s auspices at the end of July. The parties are now meeting on a weekly basis, alternately in Jerusalem and Jericho. Talks cover a full range of issues, including Jerusalem, borders, security arrangements, Israeli settlements and refugees.
Palestinians have long said they would not reopen negotiations until Israel froze settlement activity. While Israel still refuses to do so, it has agreed to release 104 long-serving Palestinian prisoners in compensation. In return, the Palestinians promised not to upgrade their membership in U.N. agencies.
Palestinian complaints about ongoing Israeli settlement activity, which some maintain is meant to undermine the talks, have been matched by vociferous protests in Israel over the release of the most recent 26 Palestinian prisoners. There is stark evidence of sensitivities and passions on both sides.
A two-state solution to Israeli-Palestinian differences would be welcome. For decades, the conflict has contributed to Middle East tensions and the rise of extremist groups such as Al-Qaeda. The conflict has been especially problematic for the United States, which has had to reconcile reflexive support for Israel with broader interests in the Arab and Islamic worlds.
Little news has leaked from the secret talks, but one can gauge progress through a Palestinian complaint that the U.S. special envoy, Martin Indyk – a former U.S. ambassador to Israel – has not been attending the weekly sessions. Indyk’s uncharacteristically relaxed approach suggests the two sides have yet to broach matters of substance. The pace of the meetings is not indicative of pressure to achieve results.
An axiom of American-led Middle East peace efforts has been the need for active involvement from the U.S. president. Without U.S. President Jimmy Carter’s mediation, there would have been no deal between Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and Egyptian President Anwar al-Sadat at Camp David in 1978. The backing of U.S. President George H.W. Bush gave his secretary of state, James Baker, what was needed to bring Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir to the 1991 Madrid Peace Conference. But even the active involvement of the U.S. president is no guarantee of success, as President Bill Clinton found in 2000 when he failed to broker a deal between Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.
U.S. President Barack Obama’s agenda includes sensitive international and domestic issues such as Iran’s nuclear program, Syria, the economy and immigration reform. These must be managed in the face of a hostile Republican majority in the House of Representatives. Any hint of pressure on Israel, given the influence of Israel’s supporters, would lead to an outcry not only from Republicans, but also from members of his own party. Burnt on this front during his first term, Obama, with good reason, is likely to be wary.
The outlook for a breakthrough to an Israeli-Palestinian settlement or even meaningful progress on issues such as borders, settlements and Jerusalem is dim. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has boasted of undermining the Oslo Accords, is unlikely to endorse many substantive proposals acceptable to the Palestinians. The credibility of the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, has been damaged by factors such as his inability to halt illegal Israeli settlement activity and differences between the Fatah-controlled West Bank and Hamas-ruled Gaza. The Gaza leadership, facing internal pressure from extremists, has taken a negative stance consistent with the call by the Qatar-based head of its political wing, Khaled Meshaal, to immediately end talks with Israel. Hamas’ position will also resonate with a good many West Bank Palestinians. Abbas’ negotiation parameters will be constrained by such opposition, especially on the most sensitive issue of all, Jerusalem.
In the unlikely event that negotiations survive such difficult issues as settlements, borders, and refugees, Jerusalem is the rock on which they could founder.
As the Arafat told me, Jerusalem was the issue that undermined Clinton’s peace efforts. The holy city is central to the national identity of both Israelis and Palestinians.
Neither President Abbas nor any other Palestinian leader could survive an agreement that did not make East Jerusalem, with Al-Haram al-Sharif, the capital of a Palestinian state. Images of its holy sites are fixtures in Palestinian homes. But the Al-Aqsa Mosque and Dome of the Rock are built on the Temple Mount, which is holy to Judaism and central to Jewish history – and, by extension, to the Jewish state. It would be difficult for any Israeli leader to find support in the Knesset or among the Israeli people for concessions on Jerusalem sufficient to meet Palestinian needs. Given his record, it is doubtful Netanyahu will even try.
Perhaps these negotiations will modestly narrow Israeli-Palestinian differences. More likely, they will break down in acrimony and further complicate the road to separate Israeli and Palestinian states.
Steve Hibbard headed Canada’s Representative Office in Ramallah from 2001 to 2004. He served for 37 years in the Canadian Foreign Office, the majority of his assignments related to the Middle East – in Cairo, Washington, Tel Aviv and Ramallah. This commentary originally appeared at The Mark News (www.themarknews.com).