Monday 30 January 2012

Going Through the Motions

The most recent round of peace talks held between the Israelis and the Palestinians has been declared a failure by the Palestinians,  Even though the talks were held at a low level, involving only negotiating representatives from each side, there always somehow seems a little more hope when a dialogue is taking place.  In hindsight, it seems quite clear that there was never really any prospect that this round of talks would go anywhere.  For the Palestinians, it was always a case of simply going through the motions to get safely to the next trigger point.

Following the unsuccessful attempts by the Palestinians to gain recognition from the UN Security Council and General Assembly in the summer of 2011, the Palestinians had promised the Quartet that they would give another round of talks a chance until the 26th January 2012.  Having promised this, the Palestinians had no way of escaping from the commitment.  Despite the fact that a total of 5 meetings were held in the current round between the parties in a very short period of time, all of which took place under the sponsorship of the Jordanian government in Amman, it became clear very early in the process that there was little intent on the part of the Palestinians to make this round work.  Having seemingly exhausted its alternatives by making little progress at the UN, however, the question arises as to why the Palestinians were trying to torpedo these talks?  With few alternatives to allow them to make progress towards their objective, it would appear that talks seem to be the best alternative for Mahmoud Abbas and the Fatah-controlled Palestinian Authority.

In order to better understand why the Palestinians sabotaged the latest talks, it is important to the sub-plots that are going on behind the scenes, and which are having more of an influence on the actions by President Abbas and chief negotiator Saeb Erekat.  The first issue to address concerns the PA's alternatives at the UN.  Even though the UN Security Council and General Assembly seemingly had little interest in promoting the cause of the Palestinians at their meetings last year, the UN is quite a disparate organisation with many different tentacles that are often disconnected from each other.  This was demonstrated when, soon after the failure at the General Assembly, the Palestinians did manage to win support for full membership to the UN cultural organisation UNESCO in October 2011.  Although this was a poor consolation prize for main objective, it did demonstrate to the Palestinians that they could use a slower and indirect approach in order to work their way into the UN organisation.  This includes the possibility of making use of the UN-sponsored International Court of Justice to charge Israelis with crimes against humanity arising from events in the recent Gaza War, Operation Cast Lead.  The Palestinians have repeatedly threatened to make use of this avenue in their battle against Israel.  Even if charges that they may bring through this court are ultimately dismissed, such actions could tie individual Israelis and the Israeli government up in legal proceedings for many years.  By bringing the latest round of peace talks with Israel to an end, the prospect of stepping up actions through these UN organisations is placed firmly back on the table, and exactly where the Palestinians wish it to be.

The second sub-plot concerns the evolution of the relationship between Fatah and Hamas.  The Palestinian Authority is controlled by Fatah, and with Mahmoud Abbas already serving his 8th year of a 4-year term, there is a great deal of pressure for elections to be held.  Fatah is clearly reluctant to call elections when there is a real prospect of them being routed, even in their perceived stronghold of the West Bank.  Many of these issues were taken care of, when a deal was signed between Hamas and Fatah to create a unity government for the Palestinian Authority.  This deal is a typical attempt to extend the longevity of politicians on both sides of the divide, by denying the electorate the right to express its will through the ballot box.  With Hamas being absolutely opposed to holding any negotiations with Israel at all, the establishment of the unity government was put on hold while the latest talks were held.  Now, with the talks dead and buried, the blockage has been removed.  For Fatah, entering into a closer relationship with Hamas may allow it to share in some of the popular support that Hamas continues to enjoy following recent prisoner exchange deal.  It may also extend the political lives of some of the bigger names.

A further sub-plot in play concerns the ongoing events in the Arab World, and the events which have resulted from the "Arab Spring".  Mahmoud Abbas has announced that he will be taking the issue of the failed talks with the Israelis to the Arab League, to get direction as to what should happen next.  With the Arab League occupied with events in Syria, Abbas may have a created a smokescreen under which to operate.  Interestingly, the effects of the Arab Spring also seem to have created something of a split within Hamas, which may yet have an impact on the Palestinian Authority via the inclusion of Hamas in the unity government activities.  The leadership that was formerly based in Damascus (reports suggest that Khaled Meshal and his team have fled the Syrian capital) feel that non-violent protest against Israel may be effective as a "Palestinian Spring", after having seen the impact of the popular uprising in Syria and Egypt first-hand.  The Gaza leadership is quite clear that it has no intention of adopting a new non-violent approach against Israel, and this issue may yet cause further internal conflict within the Palestinian camp.

The way in which the Palestinians went through the motions in the recent peace talks seemed a little more transparent than usual.  Despite the fact that the talks were primarily addressing the issues of borders and security, an Israeli official was prevented from fully presenting Israel's position on borders to the Amman meeting.  An Israeli document setting out 21 points of principles needed to reach a peace agreement was not considered, and was then dismissed as being "just an outline".  These attempts to dismiss Israel's honest efforts in the talks seem clearly designed to sabotage the talks.  In the press, Israel's border proposals have been labelled as "preventing a Palestinian state from being established", and have been blamed for the breakdown of the talks.

In spite of the obvious reasons for the breakdown, the stale mate somehow seems still to have produced a slight edge for the Palestinian side.  The breakdown of the talks has been presented by the international community by saying that the Palestinians have at least fulfilled their commitment to continue to try until the pre-agreed date of 26th January.  Having tried and failed, all bets are off the table, but the rewards due to the Palestinians are triggered.  European foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton even had the audacity to call upon Israel to deliver "confidence-building concessions" to encourage the talks to continue.  We have already learned that this means delivering confidence to the international community, and concessions to the Palestinians.  The Palestinian side seems not to be expected to deliver confidence nor the concessions.  The international community would be better off understanding that any such concessions on Israel's part, would amount to rewards to the Palestinians for bad behaviour.

It seems clear to me that a lasting peace will only be possible via a negotiated settlement.  This was also recognised by Fatah strongman Marwan Barghouti, who remains in an Israeli jail serving five life sentences for murder of Israeli citizens.  He made a rare court appearance during the last week, and managed to send out a message indicating that he believes in a negotiated settlement based on the 1967 borders.  The precise terms of the negotiated settlement remain a large outstanding issue, but it is interesting that the person believed to be the instigator of both the first and second intifadas is talking about a negotiated settlement at all.  The problem right now, is that there appear to be few Palestinians who believe that this is the correct route to take, and who are prepared to make the painful concessions necessary to bring this to reality.  Until this happens, the Palestinians will be going through the motions, and the cycle of violence will continue.

No comments: