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Sunday, 12 December 2010

Peace talks and the settlement freeze

It has been widely reported that Israel's refusal to sign up to another freeze on settlement building has frozen not the settlements, but the latest round of US-sponsored direct talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority (PA). I support the peace talks and I would be more than happy if Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu signed Israel up to another settlement freeze. Israeli Opposition Leader Tsipi Livni is right to say that Israel "can't rally the world by constantly saying no. We need to say 'Yes' from time to time too". But here are a few observations. One is that there was a settlement freeze for several months until recently, but PA President Abbas still refused direct talks for most of that period. If an Israeli settlement freeze is the President's main pre-condition for talks, then why, when that pre-condition was in place, did he refuse talks for so long?

It's worth noting also that Mr Netanyahu, for all his faults, has offered to extend the settlement freeze and has been rebuffed by President Abbas. Also, most Israeli/Palestinian peace proposals envisage 80% of the settlers staying put in settlement blocs on or near Israel's pre-1967 border with the West Bank. In return for these settlement blocs becoming part of Israel, the Israelis would cede other territory from 'Israel proper' to the Palestinians, leaving the new Palestinian state with 97% of the West Bank. So, much of the settlement building is happening in places which, under a peace deal, would be included in Israel anyway - so is it really so terrible for new homes to be built and extended in those places? It's not as if new settlements are currently being constructed; what's being talked about is construction work in existing homes in settlements that will eventually be assigned to Israel anyway.

As to President Abbas's demand that the settlement freeze be extended to include not only the West Bank, but also East Jerusalem - well, the most recent freeze did not include East Jerusalem, but Mr Abbas did not allow that to stop him from talking to Israel. Why should that change now? Is the President really saying that another West Bank settlement freeze (excluding East Jerusalem, as the last one did) would not be enough to persuade him back to the negotiating table for direct talks?

Don't get me wrong - I think that President Abbas should talk to the Israelis without first insisting on a settlement freeze; he has, after all, undertaken such talks many times before and has come tantalisingly close to achieving a deal. One has to hope that the tone of the recent meeting of the Revolutionary Council of President Abbas' own Fatah movement is not indicative of the President's thinking with regard to the peace process, amid worrying signs regarding the current state of Palestinian public opinion.

7 comments:

  1. I did have a lengthy comment prepared but my internet connection died and I lost it. The key points were as follows:

    It's not unreasonable to demand an end to illegal activity as a precondition to negotiations. Why should the Palestinians trust Israel to keep to any settlement which might be agreed if it won't even keep to the law now?

    It's also not unreasonable for Israel to demand an end to attacks on its territory, or at least to demand that Palestinian authorities do everything they can to prevent them where they don't actually control them. This applies to Hamas and to Fatah, and ultimately both of them will need to be involved for any negotiations to reach a lasting settlement.

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  2. Thanks, I like the even-handedness of your approach. The problem is that, if either or both sides keeps setting pre-conditions, then nothing ever gets done! Both sides can reasobably say: "I won't start talking until you've done such-and-such", but that approach leads nowhere. Past successful peace processes, e.g. that which led to the Camp David Agreement between Israel and Egypt, involved both sides talking to each other without pre-conditions - indeed, it was sparked by Egyptian President Sadat's dramatically making a totally unexpected speech in which he said "let's make peace, if the Israelis invite me to Jerusalem, I'm on the next plane there."

    We need more of that sort of thing. For example, the Saudi Peace Initiative from the Arab League, which essentially offers Israel recognition in return for Israel withdrawing to its pre-1967 borders. The Arab League says that it will only discuss the Initiative with Israel if Israel accepts the terms of the Initiative in advance; Israel says that it wants to talk to the League about the Initiative before it signs up - so the result is no talks! Well, virtually no talks. Israeli and Jordanian diplomats have visited Israel under Arab League auspices, but beyond that, the League says that it won't talk to Israel unless Israel first accepts the deal that it's offering. This is so frustrating - the League has offered a deal, Israel wants to discuss the deall; is it really beyond the wit of man to bridge the gap between these negotiating positions? That's why I am against the parties setting pre-condtions for talks.

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  3. When I referred to Israeli and Jordanian diplomats having visited Israel under Arab League auspices, I obviously meant "Egyptian and Jordanian diplomats"!

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  4. Sorry for the delay in getting back to you: I'm still getting the hang of this blogging platform and it didn't send me the notification that I was expecting when you commented back.

    I agree that talks are the priority. However, at a recent talk by LD Friends of Palestine - perhaps you were there - it was quite clear from that the Palestinian representative there was saying that even the Palestinian Authority has no confidence in Israel as a negotiating partner, let alone the wider Palestinian people. I suspect that the hard-line nature of the current Israeli government is in large part a consequence of similar feeling on the Israeli side. In that context, it's hard to see how we can realistically expect progress without some concessions in advance - from both sides, most likely.

    I did try to be even handed. I suspect my instinctive sympathy with the plight of the Palestinian people was clear though: they are very clearly in the weaker position, and I do consider the blockade of Gaza to be a crime against humanity. That's not to say that Israel is the only party guilty of atrocities, but it clearly has a far greater ability to perpetrate them.

    The issue doesn't get nearly as much attention in this country as it deserves. Of course, the resolution must be found by the Israelis and the Palestinians together, but I think it's pretty clear that a significant nudge is unfortunately required. How we do that while at the same time making it clear that we are acting entirely in good faith and are not pursuing some colonialist - or, perhaps even worse, partisan - agenda?

    That is one reason that I want to see a greater degree of EU activity on the issue: where it exists, our collective approach does tend to be fairly balanced. Alas, the caveat there is fatal.

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  5. I see what you mean about the difficulty of generating talks between the two sides, which implies the need for pre-talks concessions by both sides. Perhaps it also implies that the conditions are not in place for final-status talks, meaning that we should instead focus on: continuing to improve the well-being of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza; improving the security situation for all Israelis and Palestinians; normalising relations between Israel and the Arab states - so creating conditions in which final status talks are more likely to succeed?

    The situation in Gaza is obviously very bad for the people living there, although I would not call it a crime against humanity. Even UNWRA and other bodies responsible for Palestinian welfare acknowledge that the people of Gaza are not facing starvation; what they are facing are great limitations on their economic freedom (and great limitations on their political freedom, in terms of the rule of Gaza by the Hamas regime, which came to power in Gaza not in an election but in a coup and which is a major human rights abuser, particularly when it comes to the rights of gay people, Christians, women and political opponents). It is not only Israel that has a closed border with Gaza - so too does Egypt.

    In January 2011, the capacity of the Kerem Shalom crossing from Israel into Gaza was increased by 170%, enabling 250 truckloads to enter the Gaza Strip via Kerem Shalom on a daily basis. Also in January, the export of agriculture products (flowers, strawberries and bell peppers) from Gaza to European markets was approved, while the export of strawberries, flowers and bell peppers from the Gaza Strip to the European market continued, with a 33.33% increase in volume. Indeed, since the beginning of the season (28 November 2010) 315.27 tons of strawberries, 3,064,638 carnations and 6 tons of bell peppers were exported to European markets from Gaza.

    Throughout January, Israel maintained a continuous supply of electricity and water to the Gaza Strip. The transfer of fuel from Israel into Gaza continued throughout the month, in accordance with the PA’s requests, including a 50% increase in the amount of cooking gas imported into the Gaza Strip and a 101% increase in the amount of gasoline transferred to UNRWA.

    During January, 2,995 truckloads (57,863 tons) were delivered into the Gaza Strip though Kerem Shalom crossing from Israel; 1,111 truckloads (43,570 tons) were delivered into the Gaza Strip from Israel though Karni Conveyor.

    Overall, 4,106 truckloads (101,443 tons) entered the Gaza Strip, including:

    o 54 truckloads of clothing & footwear
    o 150 truckloads of electric products
    o 1,670 truckloads of food
    o 45 truckloads of textiles
    o 414 truckloads of construction materials
    o 183 vehicles
    o 111 truckloads of inputs for agriculture

    I agree that the EU should do more to contribute towards solving lots of international problems, but, in the case of Israel/Palestine, what would a greater degree of EU activity look like in practice?

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  6. As far as your first paragraph is concerned I think you are probably right: an immediate solution seems unlikely.

    Regarding the Gaza strip, the fact of the matter is that it is one of the most densely populated places on the planet and the resources supplied are simply insufficient. Building materials very hard to obtain. Bearing in mind the extent of the damage inflicted in Israeli attacks, that is far more significant even that it would be for, say, Britain.

    Hamas are not nice people. Unfortunately, refusing to talk to nasty people doesn't automatically make them go away, and blockading their territory just makes them angrier. Given that the Israeli incursion a few years ago was a good example of how NOT to conduct a war, I worry that a settlement is moving further away.

    It will be interesting to see whether the Egyptian border remains closed, particularly if Egypt does progress to democracy. It seems unlikely to me that a democratic Egypt would continue with Mubarak's policy on the matter. But perhaps I'm wrong.

    As far as EU activity is concerned, I think the EU is in a better position to broker talks than the Americans.

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  7. Interestingly, when Hamas won elections and formed a government within the Palestinian Authority, the international community did not refuse to talk to Hamas; rather, they said: "We will talk to you if you 1) Renounce violence; 2) Recognise the State of Israel's right to exist; 3)Agree to abide by past agreements entered into by the Palestinian Authority."

    Hamas refused to do those three things; despite this, the flow of international aid into the West Bank and Gaza Strip continued, including through the EU's Temporary International Mechanism.

    The Palestinian President subsequently exercised his constitutional right to appoint a Hamas/Fatah unity government, which continues to administer the West Bank. In Gaza, that government was overthrown in a violent Hamas coup, since when Hamas has tortured and murdered its opponents and has regularly bombed the crossing points through which aid comes into Gaza from Israel (making it much harder for aid to come in), as well as having murdered Israeli civilian workers who have come into Gaza to work at power stations, etc - Hamas are utterly cynical in their disgregard for the living conditions of ordinary Palestinians living in Gaza.

    Hamas' own charter rejects peace conferences and other discussions, so I'd be surprised if they wanted to take part in talks anyway. They are to Palestinian politics what the Ku Klux Klan is to American politics.

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