A historic 10-year anniversary is on the horizon. It was on July 29, 2013 that negotiators on behalf of Israel and the Palestinian Authority (PA) sat down together to talk peace – the last time they did so. Hamas succeeded in scuttling the talks so effectively that for a decade the very idea of a peace process has simply faded away.
Now China is actively attempting to revive it. Following an April announcement by China’s foreign minister, Qin Gang, that China was ready to facilitate peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians, PA President Mahmoud Abbas undertook a state visit to Beijing from June 13 to 16. President Xi Jinping is known to favor resolving the Palestinian issue by way of the two-state solution, and Abbas had no sooner arrived in Beijing than a meeting with Xi was announced. And indeed Xi is quoted as supporting an “independent Palestinian state based on the 1967 borders with East Jerusalem as its capital.”
The two presidents no doubt took on board the main lesson from the last attempt to revive the peace process – that it would stand or fall on successfully emasculating or circumventing Hamas and its followers. A decade ago Abbas had been hoodwinked and out-maneuvered by the Gaza-based rulers of half the Palestinian population, wholly opposed as they are to any two-state solution, since one of the two states would be Israel which they are committed to eliminating.
At around this time ten years ago, the heightened diplomatic activity leading to the historic Israel-Palestinian peace negotiation meeting was at its most intense. On June 27, 2013, US Secretary of State John Kerry said, prior to joining Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, for a long working dinner: “I would not have returned here five times – I would not be here now – if I didn’t have a belief that this is possible.” Kerry was referring to the US objective of securing a peace agreement ending the interminable Israel-Palestinian dispute, and establishing a sovereign Palestinian state.
From the moment in January 2013 that US President Barack Obama assumed office for his second term, he made it clear that his administration would accord a high degree of priority to tackling the Israel-Palestine issue. In point of fact he had attempted to do just that back in January 2009 on first becoming president, but subsequent events had demonstrated all too clearly that his first effort went disastrously wrong. He would not make the same mistakes a second time.
It was on January 22, 2009, that newly-elected President Barack Obama named George Mitchell his “special envoy to the Middle East” charged with seeking a “comprehensive peace”. In March 2009 the Obama administration explicitly incorporated into US policy the 2002 Arab League peace plan under which the Arab world undertook formally to recognise Israel and enter into normal relations in exchange, inter alia, for Israel’s withdrawing from territories captured in the 1967 war to allow the establishment of a Palestinian state.
George Mitchell’s unremitting efforts did result, in September 2010, in the first of a few face-to-face meetings between Netanyahu and Abbas, but they soon petered out. They foundered on Obama’s condemnation of the resumption of construction in Israel’s West Bank settlements, following the 10-month building freeze that he had persuaded Netanyahu to institute. The consequence was to block the peace process for the next two-and-a half years.
Which was doubtless why, in his second attempt to grapple with the formidable Israel-Palestinian issue, Obama nominated his newly appointed Secretary of State, John Kerry, to carry it forward.
Kerry quickly made clear that he did not intend to base his new peace effort on the 2002 Arab League peace plan. Instead, the US quietly unblocked almost $500 million aid to the PA, frozen by Congress for months, and Kerry promised further economic assistance. Israeli construction in the West Bank was given no prominence in US pronouncements.
Kerry’s efforts paid off, and on July 29, 2013 peace negotiators for Israel and Palestine – Tzipi Livni and Saeb Erekat respectively – shook hands in Washington to launch “sustained, continuous and substantive” talks on a long-sought Israel-Palestinian peace treaty. A mere nine months was the period optimistically allotted to reaching agreement between the two sides. If the negotiating teams were to travel right up to the wire, they had until April 30, 2014.
Their journey shuddered to a halt on April 23. Taking the diplomatic world by surprise, that day witnessed a sudden meeting in the Gaza Strip between Fatah and Hamas, the so-far irreconcilable wings of the Palestinian body politic. The next day saw the announcement of an “historic reconciliation” that would lead to a united Palestinian government within five weeks, and presidential and parliamentary elections within six months.
Hamas had played a master stroke, blowing any hope of an Israel-Palestinian peace deal out of the water. The inevitable result was an immediate cessation of the negotiations begun with such high hopes just nine months before.
President Abbas “can have peace with Israel,” said Netanyahu in a TV interview, “or a pact with Hamas. He can’t have both…I will never negotiate with a Palestinian government that is backed by Hamas terrorists that are calling for our liquidation.”
In point of fact, Abbas has always had a straight choice – beat Hamas or join them. Since the moment in 2007, when Hamas reneged on its pledge to form a united government with Fatah and instead chased them from the Gaza Strip in a bloody fratricidal coup, the two organizations have been at daggers drawn.
How could it be otherwise, even though the ultimate aim of both is precisely the same – a Palestinian state “from the river to the sea”? For while Fatah has decided that embracing the two-state solution is the best tactic toward achieving their ultimate objective, Hamas rejects Israel’s right to exist at all and is committed to its destruction.
It seemed inconceivable that Hamas would sit round a cabinet table, with Abbas at its head, and agree to discuss how a sovereign Palestine might live side by side with an Israel finally recognized as a permanent presence in the region. Hamas would have had to turn somersaults to adhere to these requirements.
Given that the two-state solution is an article of faith for China, as for much of world opinion, the Chinese and all those holding it will have to face up to an awkward truth. Until Hamas has been disempowered, and those Palestinians within and outside Gaza who adhere to its beliefs outflanked, two states can never become practical politics.
But if two states did somehow emerge, all those supporting it would need to remember that, for a large proportion of Palestinians, Israel occupying part of what was mandate Palestine is but a way station on history’s long march.