Monday, September 9, 2013

Israel Palestine Talks: Joining Pieces to Attempt Peace

Col Rajeev Agarwal

The recommencement of peace talks between Palestinians and Israelis on 29 July 2013 was long overdue and marked the culmination of six rounds of shuttle diplomacy in the region over the past six months by John Kerry, US Secretary of State holding multiple meetings with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. Kerry has given the current peace process a nine month period to find a final agreement to the longest festering dispute in the region. However, given the dismal record of past talks, it would be a miracle if there is any significant peace agreement at the end of these nine months.

As the peace talk’s process gets underway, there are a number of questions seeking answers which could project a clearer picture of the emerging situation. Some of the prominent questions are:-

  • In the context of a history of failed attempts, what is so new and positive about this attempt that may raise expectations of a peace agreement?
  • Within the complexities of the issues, how willing would be the two sides to compromise on their hard stand and attempt a peace resolution?
  • How long is it possible for the current stalemate or status quo to be maintained?
In examining these issues, it is necessary to take a brief overview of the core issues of the conflict as also an insight into perspectives and positions of each of the major players in the dispute; Israel, Palestine and the US.

Contextualizing the Problem

Borne over six decades, the issues are complex; both sides have strong and opposing viewpoints backed by huge public support which often make the core issues unbridgeable. But, both the sides and even the US realize that time is fast running out on achieving the goal of two independent sovereign states existing side by side as Israel and Palestine. That is why perhaps, despite the existing stumbling blocks and the fact that there has been no forward movement since September 2010 talks, there is guarded optimism in the atmosphere. The last time peace talks generated optimism was the Camp David Summit in July 20001 hosted by US President Bill Clinton when he almost got Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Yasser Arafat to agree to a peace agreement. Unfortunately the talks failed resulting in a bloody backlash in the form of the Second Intifada killing thousands of Israelis and Palestinians. The bitter memories of the Second Intifada therefore put in a sense of caution and controlled optimism of what could happen should the present talks fail.

As the current process gets underway, a look into the core issues confronting the two sides could give an insight into the possibilities of any substantial peace agreement.

Jerusalem as the capital

Israel is unwilling to divide and share Jerusalem with Palestine and stands by the 1980 Israeli Basic Law that "Jerusalem, complete and united, is the capital of Israel2". The Palestinians want East Jerusalem as the capital of a Palestinian state, an area which was occupied by Jordan before being captured by Israel in 1967. It contains the al-Aqsa mosque, the third holiest place in Islam. The US does not recognize the Israeli annexation of East Jerusalem and maintains its embassy still in Tel Aviv.

Borders and shape of Palestine State

Israel accepts that there should be a Palestinian state and that there will have to be an Israeli withdrawal from parts of the West Bank (captured by Israel in 1967) to accommodate this. It, however, wants to keep major Jewish settlements that have grown up on the West Bank and Jerusalem. Palestinians want borders along 1967 lines but accept that some Israeli settlements will have to stay and insist that any land given to the Israelis would have to be compensated for by a balanced land swap. The US agrees that the starting point should be the 1967 lines and that a land swap will have to be the basis of any agreement.

Settlements

This has been the issue which has prevented resumption of talks for long. Despite being declared as illegal by the international community, Israel has continued to announce and build settlements in West Bank and Jerusalem. The Israeli government has insisted on keeping the major Israeli settlements in East Jerusalem and the West Bank. The Palestinians want that all settlements be abandoned as they were in Gaza. However, they appear ready to accept that some will have to stay but argue for a minimum number and a land swap for any that are left. The US does not recognize the international legitimacy of the Israeli West Bank and East Jerusalem settlements and has repeatedly urged Israel to exercise restrain in announcing and building them.

Refugees

This is once again a very sticky issue. Israel rejects the idea that Palestinian refugees should be allowed any "right of return" to their former homes fearing that it could adversely affect the demography of Israel and the identity of Israel as a Jewish State. Palestinians, while maintaining the "right of return” could be willing to accept the return of a limited numbers with the balance being given adequate compensation by Israel. They however refuse to recognize the concept of Israel as a "Jewish state", saying that it ignores the Israeli-Arab citizens of Israel. The US understands the Israeli refusal to take back refugees and hopes that this can be resolved by compensation and development aid.

Security

Israel is concerned that Palestinian territory, if completely independent could be used to launch attacks on Israel. Therefore, it is insisting that the state of Palestine be largely demilitarized and that it keeps a large measure of security control, including in the Jordan Valley. Palestinians argue that viable security will come from a stable two-state solution not the other way round. They want as many attributes of a normal state as possible and clearly state that client-status would be untenable and unacceptable. US, while comprehending apprehensions of both parties, feels that this issue could be resolved even at the cost of deploying international peace mission along the two states.

Changing Geo-political Context in the Region and its Effect

While Israel and Palestine peace talks were stalemated after September 2010, significant developments in the region in the past three years have changed the geo-political dynamics in the region and therefore the context of the current initiative. A brief current overview of each player in Middle East Peace Process (MEPP) would give a better insight into respective compulsions as well as possibilities of any forward movement in the current process.

A critical appraisal of Israel’s standing in the immediate neighborhood and the region at large clearly indicates that the country stands more isolated and alienated than ever. Even countries and areas hitherto considered neutral or friendly have turned hostile, although all of this was not of Israel’s making. This is especially the case with the ‘Arab Spring’, which has brought about changes both within individual countries as well as in the region as a whole. Islamist parties are on the rise and economic concerns have risen to the fore. In Egypt, it lost Mubarak, its time tested ally, who had ensured peace between Egypt and Israel. The 1978 peace treaty hangs in the balance although Egypt has not yet indicated its intent to abandon the treaty. Sinai Peninsula, the buffer between Egypt and Israel, has erupted post ouster of Mubarak and caused concern in Israel3. When Egypt permitted two Iranian warships to cross the Suez Canal in February 2011 (the first time such an event has happened since the 1979 Iranian Revolution), it naturally caused alarm in Israel4. Israel’s ties with other countries in the region have also become unsettled. It has fallen out with Turkey (yet another regional leader) post the Gaza Flotilla incident of May 2010 despite the patch up prompted by President Obama in March this year5. With civil war raging in Syria, Israel fears that Assad would finally be forced out, thus disturbing the fragile peace on Israel’s eastern borders. Jordan could go the way of Islamists any time, which would spell more trouble for Israel. The Palestinians have already been given the status of Non Member Observer in the United Nations in 20126. On June 30, 2013, the European Union, coming down harshly on Israel’s continued push to build settlements, adopted new guidelines, stating that future agreements between the European Union and Israel must exclude settlements in the occupied West Bank. The directive covers all areas of cooperation between the European Union and Israel, including economics, science, culture, sports, and academia. Though the material effect may be insignificant, it is a serious blow to ties with European Union. Finally, Iran continues with its civil (?) nuclear programme and despite the alarms raised by Israel, there are hardly any takers for military action against Tehran.

Domestically, Prime Minister Netanyahu leads the right-wing Likud party, which on the whole opposes the creation of a Palestinian state. Netanyahu has already faced serious criticism for the July 28 cabinet approval for release of 104 Palestinian prisoners. In a statement, Prime Minister Netanyahu recognized how difficult this decision was for many Israelis to accept, but that this was a moment “in which tough decisions must be made for the good of the country7.”

Like Israel, Palestinians too are confronted with serious issues. Firstly, Mahmoud Abbas, despite being the leader of PLO does not represent all the Palestinians as Hamas controls the Gaza Strip and does not recognize Abbas as the sole leader of all Palestinians. There have been no elections after the January 25, 2006 elections for the Palestinian Legislative Council which Hamas won comfortably. The subsequent struggle for power resulted in split of 2007 resulting in Fatah ruling the West Bank and Hamas ruling the Gaza Strip. In such a situation, any agreement that Abbas may procure may not be truly representative of all Palestinians. Also, with Abbas aging and no successor nominated, there could be a serious leadership crisis after his death. There is also a fear that failure of current talks after nine months could diminish his political standing and boost that of the rival Hamas. With regards to the contours of Palestinian state, prominent Fatah leaders, concerned by increasing Israeli settlements, have said that the two-state solution is no longer viable and have begun speaking in favor of the creation of one democratic bi-national state for Arabs and Jews in all of Israel-Palestine, something which may not be acceptable at all to Israel. There is also the debate regarding the forthcoming UN General Assembly Session in September where the PLO could stake claim for upgraded status over the “non-member observer state” it got in 2012. However, US annoyance of their continued bid in 2012 despite US asking them to back down has cost them adversely in terms of withheld US aid. Perhaps, concerned with the enormity of all the above challenges, the Palestinian Authority says it has currently only agreed to “talks about talks.” Also, it agreed to the first step only after Israel announced the release of 104 prisoners and the Arab League backed the peace plan8. Mahmoud Abbas has also indicated that any peace deal would be first put to a referendum before all Palestinians before ratification, a measure that has been indicated even by Israel in its resolutions in Knesset.

Hamas, which has refused to recognize the current peace process, itself, is not on a very firm footing. The fall of the Muslim Brotherhood-led government in Egypt has temporarily weakened Hamas. Added to it is the severe crackdown by Egyptian Army in Sinai which has virtually blocked off all illegal supply routes into Gaza Strip. Its break up with Assad regime in Syria has negatively affected its relationship with its benefactor, Iran. Post the November 2012 conflict with Israel called “Pillar of Defense” by Israel; the Hamas military capabilities also have been severely reduced. Also, an overwhelming majority of Palestinians back non-violent resistance to the Israeli occupation and reject military operations9. In such a situation, if a peace deal is reached, it would be very difficult for Hamas to remain defiant in Gaza Strip.

US has enjoyed tremendous influence in the region for the past four decades. It has been the virtual security guarantor for the Gulf nations and security of Israel has been one of its national security objectives. However, post the onset of ‘Arab Spring’, US has experienced diminishing influence in the region. The ouster of the dictators in Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya has not brought in regimes exactly favorable to US interests. Rise of Islamists in political mainstream has added to its concern. Syrian crisis and US reluctance to get directly involved militarily has drawn the ire of the region. In the midst of all this, Iran nuclear issue continues to fester along.

In such a situation, MEPP is one issue that can get US dividends and restore some of its influence in the region. It has been one of the personal priorities of President Obama and is a conflict in which the US still has considerable leverage with both parties. Failure to reach a satisfactory resolution till now inhibits its ability to achieve its goals in the region. Former U.S. Central Command, or CENTCOM, Chief Gen. James Mattis described the impact the lack of a solution has had on his work and why it underscores the importance of Kerry’s efforts; “I paid a military security price every day as a commander of CENTCOM because the Americans were seen as biased in support of Israel. … Moderate Arabs who want to be with us can’t come out publicly in support of people who don’t want to show respect for the Arab Palestinians. So [Kerry] is right on target with what he’s doing10”.

There is also the issue of significant spin-offs from the resolution of this conflict. The most significant impact is likely to be felt on the Iran nuclear issue. If MEPP succeeds, there will be tremendous pressure on Iran to deliver. Also, Israel would be emboldened to further threaten Iran with military action. There is also the issue of US announcing its rebalancing towards Asia-Pacific in recent times. While it may not result in significant dilution of US focus and presence in West Asia, resolution of major issues like MEPP would certainly contribute towards its future course in Asia-Pacific.

US, shepherding the recommencement of peace talks, is banking upon two caveats for some success; first, that the nine month period for the talks is for all unresolved issues – there will be no interim agreement or confidence building effort that can be undermined by either side as was the case with Oslo. Second, by getting the Arab League to reaffirm its commitment to recognize Israel if a deal for Palestinian statehood is reached, it has given the Israel a major incentive to see the talks move ahead.

There is no Status Quo

MEPP has been stalemated since the breakdown of talks in September 2010. However, any talks of maintaining ‘status quo’ are misplaced as the status quo is changing by the day. As discussed above, there is constant evolution in the standing of each of the important players in this conflict. Also, with two critical factors; Israeli settlements and Palestinian population constantly increasing, status quo does not remain a feasible option. There are views which express concern that any continued stalemate might run the risk of completely jeopardizing a viable two state solution, perhaps by the end of this decade. There is also a realization that time is fast running out and if unduly delayed, there may not remain a viable scope for two independent states owing to expanding Israeli settlements and Palestinian populations. In a recent op-ed, Yuval Diskin, former head of Israel’s Shin Bet security service, wrote, “This is a matter that requires national responsibility of the highest order. It requires taking advantage of what may be the last opportunity to extricate ourselves from the deadly clutches of our conflict with the Palestinians, clutches which we have tethered to ourselves11.” Thus, there is no question of a status quo in this conflict.

Conclusion

The gaps between the two sides are significant and issues are complex. Declaration by both Israel and Palestine that the peace agreements will be put through public referendums reflects the skepticism of the leaders on the future of peace talks and its acceptability with respective populations. However, the good news is that all sides have agreed for the resumption of process after a gap of three years. It would be however unreasonable to expect too much too soon. Many a times MEPP talks have come on the brink and failed. Major compromises, bold decisions and domestic public support would be needed if the talks have any chances of moving ahead.

(The author is Research Fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses)

Endnotes

  1. History of Mid-East peace talks, BBC News, 29 July 2013, available at http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-11103745, accessed on 06 August 2013
  2. Basic Law: Jerusalem, Capital of Israel, The Knesset Website, available athttp://www.knesset.gov.il/laws/special/eng/basic10_eng.htm, accessed on 07 August 2013.
  3. Rajeev Agarwal, “Sinai: The Middle East’ New Hot Spot,” IDSA Issue Brief, available at http://www.idsa.in/issuebrief/SINAITheMiddleEastsNewHotSpot_ragarwal_301112, last accessed on 07 August 2013.
  4. “Iranian warships sail through Suez Canal,” CNN News, 22 February 2011, available at http://articles.cnn.com/2011-02-22/world/egypt.iran.warships_1_suez-cana... , last accessed on 07 August 2013.
  5. “Obama Brokers Apology From Netanyahu to Erdogan,” Al Monitor, 22 March 2013, available at http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2013/03/netanyahu-apology-erdo....
  6. Report available at http://www.un.org/News/Press/docs/2012/ga11317.doc.htm, last accessed on 07 August 2013.
  7. Michael r. Gordon and Isabel Kershner, Israel and Palestinians Set to Resume Peace Talks, U.S. Announces, New York Times, 29 July 2013, available at http://www.nytimes.com/2013/07/29/world/middleeast/israel-agrees-to-pris..., accessed on 07 August 2013.
  8. Kerry wins Arab League support for efforts to restart Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, Haaretz News, 17 July 2013, available at http://www.haaretz.com/news/diplomacy-defense/1.536305, accessed on 06 August 2013.
  9. Poll: Hamas loses popularity among Palestinians , Jerusalm Post, 10n April 2013, available at http://www.jpost.com/Middle-East/Poll-Hamas-continues-to-lose-popularity..., accessed on 07 August 2013.
  10. Matthew Duss, Creating an Environment Conducive to Progress in Israeli-Palestinian Peace Talks, Centre for American Progress, August 5, 2013, available at http://www.americanprogress.org/issues/security/report/2013/08/05/71422/..., accessed on 07 August 2013.
  11. Yuval Diskin, Diskin: Israel nears point of no return on two-state solution, Jerusalem Post, 13 July 2013, available at http://www.jpost.com/Diplomacy-and-Politics/Diskin-Israel-nears-point-of..., accessed on 06 August 2013. 

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