Tuesday 31 May 2011

Last Opportunity For a Negotiated Peace?

The events of the last week have proved to be significant in relation to the Middle East peace process. Their significance is more, however, about what has not been achieved rather than what has been. With the sounds of the standing ovations given him by both houses of congress on Capitol Hill earlier in the week still ringing in his ears, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu may be fooling himself into believing that he his trip to the USA has been a great success.

Although Bibi was well received and he was able to very clearly state what it is that Israel needs to protect her security, dignity and survival amongst the community of nations, I cannot help feeling that he has come home empty-handed. The train, which is speeding towards the unilateral declaration of a Palestinian state at the UN in September, has not slowed or deviated one iota as a result of his US visit. There has been no renewed interest or initiative to bring the parties back to the negotiating table with a view to agreeing a way forward. The disputes over refugees, security, borders and the status of Jerusalem all remain unresolved, and there is no real prospect of even opening a new dialogue to discuss them anytime soon. The public relations battle may have been won, but the war is slipping away.

Time is really of the essence, and the UN vote in September is looking more and more ominous. The Arab League has unsurprisingly announced that it will support a vote for a Palestinian state, and numerous other countries have indicated the same. The problem for Israel is that there are countries which are regarded as friends and supporters of Israel, and which are nonetheless lining up to vote in favour of the unilateral declaration of a Palestinian state. The reason is quite simple. It is not because they are changing their support for the Jewish state. Rather, it is because the conflict has gone on too long without making any substantial progress. Countries and leaders around the world are tired of having this matter on the international agenda, and will do almost anything that is new in an attempt to get rid of the issue. The length of time that has passed has worn people down, even those who would wish to stand by Israel and support her efforts. These countries will be voting in favour of the establishment of a Palestinian state, even on a unilateral basis, to change the current status quo.

The main risk for Israel in the establishment of a Palestinian state in this way, is that the resolution is likely to cede at least two of the outstanding negotiating points to the Palestinians without Israel receiving anything in return. In its current form, the resolution for the establishment of the Palestinian state talks about the 1967 borders, and about East Jerusalem as its capital. In one fell swoop, two of Israel's major objections in the peace talks will be enacted into international law by the UN. In return for the international community ceding these rights to the Palestinians, Israel will receive a bag of problems.

Assuming the UN does vote in favour of the Palestinian request for a state based on the 1967 borders and with East Jerusalem as its capital, Israel will wake up the following morning in violation of yet another UN resolution. Israel will clearly not agree to withdraw to the 1967 borders, or relinquish its control over East Jerusalem simply because the UN General Assembly demands this. So, the Palestinians will use whatever they have, and will use every resource available to enforce the UN resolution. If things look messy for Israel now, the future prospects look even worse.

The only way for Israel to avoid this scenario is to somehow get the Palestinians back to the negotiating table. As part of their agreement to continue negotiating, the Israelis should demand that the Palestinians rescind their intention of going to the UN General Assembly. They will only agree to this if the peace talks offer the prospect of delivering more than the UN will deliver. This essentially means that Israel will be forced to concede the 1967 borders and East Jerusalem as the capital just to get Abbas back to the table. Somehow, this prospect seems extremely remote.

For all his standing ovations in the congress, and the praise that he has earned back home from his own constituency, Netanyahu seems to have achieved very little where it counts. He will certainly be remembered as a prime minister who stood his ground in the Oval Office when challenged by the world's most powerful leader, but will this be enough to secure his legacy? I somehow feel that history will remember him better if he succeeds in coming to a negotiated settlement. He has already confirmed his agreement to the establishment of a Palestinian state in the future, something that previous Israeli leaders had not necessarily conceded. Bibi's challenge is now to achieve this in a negotiated, rather than unilateral way. If he achieves this, his legacy will be difficult to surpass.

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