Neither Breakthrough Nor Breakdown


Early in December it became undeniable that the impetus towards achieving a settlement between Israel and the Palestinian Authority had slowed almost to a stop. Brokered painstakingly from the beginning of 2010 by the US Middle East envoy, George Mitchell, the process had moved slowly into an initial “proximity” talks phase which, against all the odds, managed to weather the storms of the Ramat Shlomo building project in East Jerusalem; the consequential spat between President Obama and the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu; recourse by PA President Mahmoud Abbas to the Arab League for political cover; and the tragic Mavi Marmara affair.

And then, against all the odds, but certainly as the result of the most intensive diplomatic and political activity on the part of Washington – and despite a succession of spoiling actions by various extremist groups, aimed at destabilising the situation – Arab League foreign ministers proceeded to give the OK to Mahmoud Abbas to enter direct peace talks with Israel if and when he wanted to.

As a result, perhaps the most surprising event of the year occurred on 20 August when, at a press conference, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced that Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, and Palestinian President, Mahmoud Abbas, were to begin direct peace talks in Washington on 2 September. This meeting, said Clinton, was intended to “re-launch direct negotiations to resolve all final status issues, which,” she said, “we believe we can complete in one year.” Clinton said she herself would host the first direct Israel-Palestinian negotiating session on 2 September, and that President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt and King Abdullah of Jordan had also been invited to join that first discussion.

As we now know, that first session indeed took place amid many honeyed words and assurances from both sides that the framework of a final settlement would be a possibility within 12 months. But the worm lurking at the heart of the situation was that Israel’s 10-month freeze on construction in the West Bank was scheduled to end on 26 September. Clearly Mahmoud Abbas cherished the hope that, in view of the opening of direct talks and the lightening of the political atmosphere, Israel’s building freeze would be renewed – and indeed extended to cover East Jerusalem. If that was indeed his hope it was a vain one, for he reckoned without the right-wing elements within Netanyahu’s fragile coalition – the coalition he relied on to remain in power. So Abbas’s position hardened, and he finally made the return of the Palestinians to the negotiating table entirely dependent on a renewed construction moratorium covering not only the West Bank but East Jerusalem as well. Israel too adopted a harder line, and maintained that there would be no renewed building freeze without some compensation – such as recognition by the PA of Israel as a Jewish state. This proposition the Palestinians rejected out of hand. And so it was left to the US to attempt to patch together some sort of formula that would enable the peace process to continue.

That formula, which rumour has it is still a possibility, has so far failed to materialise, but US special envoy George Mitchell has meanwhile returned to the region, and has virtually reopened the earlier proximity talks method of keeping dialogue going between two sides who, for the moment, are not prepared to meet face to face.

A sad way to end a year that opened with such high hopes of a possible breakthrough in the apparently endless conflict between Israelis and Palestinians.

Meanwhile the Palestinians have opened a new front in their search for a sovereign state – moves suggesting the possibility of a unilateral declaration of statehood. They have begun to woo such bodies as the United Nations General Assembly, the UN Security Council, the European Union and as many countries as possible to grant them recognition as a state within the borders of the West Bank and Gaza as they were on 4 June 1967 – the day before the Six Day War.

And indeed on Christmas Eve 2010 Ecuador became the fifth Latin American state formally to recognise Palestine on this basis, Following his neighbours Bolivia, Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay, which took this step earlier in December, Ecuador’s President Rafael Correa signed “the Ecuadoran government’s official recognition of Palestine as a free and independent state with 1967 borders.”

The term “the 1967 borders” has been part of the Arab-Israeli peace process lexicon for over five years, but the plain fact of the matter is that in 1967 there was no recognized international border between the West Bank and Israel. What existed was the 1949 Armistice Line – basically where Israeli and Arab forces found themselves at the formal end of Israel’s first battle against the combined Arab armies that surrounded it. And all sides agree that a final agreement will have to incorporate land swaps aimed at ensuring secure borders for both Israel and the future Palestine.

In virtual acknowledgement that the”1967 borders” would be totally inadequate as a basis for establishing a sovereign Palestine, the EU, although recently reaffirming its readiness to recognise a Palestinian state at an “appropriate” time, stopped short of doing so and instead reaffirmed support for “a negotiated solution” between the two sides “within the 12 months set by the Quartet” of international mediators.

The fact that this approach is unlikely in itself to prove fruitful may not inhibit Abbas from pursuing it, on the grounds that to do so may exert such a degree of psychological pressure on Israel’s hard-line rightists that – to quote the Johnny Mercer song – “something’s gotta give.” Meanwhile PA prime minister Salam Fayyad has not abandoned his August 2011 deadline for preparing for Palestinian statehood (and by implication Israeli withdrawal) – a deadline which, by coincidence or not, exactly matches that endorsed by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and PA President Mahmoud Abbas at their first direct face-to-face discussion on 2 September for reaching agreement on a framework settlement.

And so December comes to an end. The year 2010, though it achieved a memorable climax in the opening of direct talks in September, certainly witnessed no breakthrough in the long voyage towards an accord between Israelis and Palestinians. But equally the peace process has not broken down; it has stalled, as any vessel may do in stormy weather, battered by wind and waves. The ship can, and surely will, be repaired, and the journey towards a just and durable peace between Israel and a sovereign state of Palestine finally brought to a successful conclusion.

Neville Teller

Neville Teller's latest book is ""Trump and the Holy Land: 2016-2020". He has written about the Middle East for more than 30 years, has published five books on the subject, and blogs at "A Mid-East Journal". Born in London and a graduate of Oxford University, he is also a long-time dramatist, writer and abridger for BBC radio and for the UK audiobook industry. He was made an MBE in the Queen's Birthday Honours, 2006 "for services to broadcasting and to drama."

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