July 31, 2013 2 Comments
One would consider it a very peculiar time to try to re-ignite the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, since not only is the issue so complex and there are some irreconcilable differences, but there is also turmoil in the region, which makes things even more complicated. So why is Obama pushing this now?
In the relatively short span of time the conflict in Syria, it has accumulated more deaths than the entire Israeli Palestinian conflict, compared with the tactics, duration versus body count and likelihood to continue there should be no doubt, which of the two conflicts should be dealt with first. Also, not too far from there Egypt, a country of approximately 80 million people, is facing bankruptcy and instability, there are already deaths in the streets as they struggle for some form of democracy and there is no sign of a slow down, if anything, the animosity is growing and the Islamists fighting in the Sinai peninsula is increasing. If those conflicts are not dealt with, it will continue to spill to neighbouring countries and many Muslims will die as well as suffer poverty and displacement. Yet if you try to find the official American policy on these conflicts, you would struggle, as there is very little said and even less done (at least publicly).
Many Americans welcome a president that is not keen to jump into another foreign war, which would no doubt cost billions of dollars, result in American casualties and may damage further the American reputation around the world. However, a lack of an American response leaves the space open for intervention by other players, which is why Al Qaeda, Hezbollah, Russia and even China getting involved in the Syrian conflict. The involvement of foreign powers and lack of the US’s participation, is undoubtedly damaging the American reputation, since they are seen as a weak country that has abandoned its policy of supporting democracy around the world. Another damage to the reputation was no doubt a rookie mistake of defining a red line for the intervention in Syria, i.e. use of chemical weapons, and then not following through it. It is already bad practice to publicly define a red line, since essentially you are revealing your position as well as committing yourself to an action determined by the other side, but to then falter and find excuses is a much worse outcome then keeping quiet all along
Yet with all that going on in the Middle East, Obama has decided to get his Secretary of State to concentrate his efforts on trying to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, by getting the sides to sit down at the table again.
One of the reasons for the timing could be the assumption that because of the Syrian war, which has caused a disconnect between Hamas and Iran and Syria and following the fall of Morsi, which to an extent supported Hamas, the organization is at its lowest point and this could be the best time to reach an agreement and drive Hamas out of the picture.
It is true that this is a good reason and the timing is crucial, however, the external circumstances bring with them more complications than opportunity. For example one of the burning topics, which is the right for Palestinian refugees and their offsprings to return to the land. Until the situation in Syria stabilizes, there is little chance that anyone would agree their fate. There is no guarantee that Assad’s regime wouldn’t simply commit massacres in the refugee camps (as have been reported to be done already) or for the Sunnis to fully accept them. Until their situation is resolved, the conflict cannot be truly resolved, as until they are accepted as full-fledged citizens in the different countries there would always be a yearning to return (or in most cases move) to the land.
The other issues is the security of Israel, while Islamists are taking positions in both Egypt and Syria there is no guarantee for Israel’s security. Defining the borders and letting the Palestinians guard them is not an acceptable option for Israel. Israel is already dealing with a situation in Gaza, in which, even if Hamas tries to avoid conflict, it claims it cannot control the rogue groups who continue firing rockets. Learning from that dynamics between small groups and government, means that allowing the replication of this situation on the 67 borders is not something Israel could ever accept.
The instability in the area is also a factor in the sense that whatever agreement is reached it would have to be backed by the neighbouring states. They would have to first accept the deal and then guarantee that they would not act against it. For example it shouldn’t be taken for granted that Egypt, Jordan and Syria would agree to any movement of people into or out of their territory as a result of sorting out the refugee problem. Nor should it be assumed that the resource allocation such as water and land is automatically accepted either. The question of Jerusalem is also an issue that needs to be approached carefully with the neighbours, who consider it a holy Muslim site and may worry how their consent to an agreement determining its fate, might be perceived in the Arab world.
One of the other external influences is the intervention of the EU, which was extremely unwelcome by Israel. The new EU policy was an attempt to push Israel into the negotiations, by trying to wither any attempt to grow a business outside of the 67 borders. On the face of it, it looks like a reasonable demand, however, when one looks carefully one would understand the irrelevance and damage this policy is doing. The irrelevance is because the borders have not been determined yet, so they would potentially be boycotting and therefore destroying businesses, which might sit in legitimate future Israeli land. The damaging effect is even greater, since while the owners of these places are Israeli, the workers tend to be Palestinians, so as these factories close more Palestinians would go unemployed and it was done in such a way that Israel is not obliged in any way to increase the working visas of Palestinians inside of Israel, therefore leaving Palestinians worse off. The other damage this policy is doing is destroying the only islands of cooperation between Israelis and Palestinians. There is no love between the two groups, but a shared goal and reliance on each other does contribute to stability.
One more factor which has been pushed a side for now in both initiating the talks and unfortunately by the mainstream media is the strong opposition of Hamas to any talks. Hamas is still in control in Gaza and gaining popularity in the West Bank. It is true that it is going through a difficult financial crisis, but it is not down yet and reports have already come out of Hamas is reconciling with Iran, which would mean more financial support and no agreement to any deal reached unless Iran agrees to it too (not very likely prospect under any condition). It must also be remembered that the Fatah leadership involved in the talks are mainly old men in their 70’s and do not necessarily represent the entire Palestinian people, certainly not the more religious groups.
So, while the motives to kickstart the peace talks are dubious, the timing is difficult and there is really no breakthrough in any of the core issues that have caused the failure of all other talks, it is still a positive move to get the sides talking, which would hopefully get both sides one step closer towards a future agreement. One notable difference this time though is that these talks are not taking center stage, in the news broadcasts around the Western world for example, this hardly made it into the headlines, whereas a decade ago, not a single reputable broadcasting company would have dared not start the news with such developments possibly overshadowed only by a local disaster.
It will be interesting to see what the news will bring 9 months from now, however, I don’t think that neither the Israelis nor the Palestinians believe that the conflict is really going to be resolved that quickly