Since the last preliminary peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians collapsed for lack of progress two months ago, a different issue — whether or not to strike Iran — has dominated the domestic headlines.
Given that President Barack Obama is increasingly preoccupied with his re-election campaign and sees little chance of progress with Middle East peacemaking, many pundits had expected the diplomatic stalemate to continue for at least the rest of the year. But this week surprising news emerged: Israelis and Palestinians are ready to sit down and give talks another try.
Israeli government officials confirmed that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s envoy Yitzchak Molcho had met with the Palestinians’ chief negotiator, Saeb Erekat. “This meeting was held in preparation for the upcoming meeting between Netanyahu and [Palestinian Prime Minister Salam] Fayyad,” a government official said. On Sunday it was reported that the meeting between the two leaders was scheduled for April 17, after Passover. Molcho and Erekat will reportedly attend the meeting as well.
The readiness to sit and talk is encouraging, yet it is difficult to believe anything will come of it. The Israelis and the Palestinians are both trying to have their cake and eat it too: Netanyahu wants peace talks, but at the same time vows to expand settlements. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas does not oppose peace talks in principle but he himself refuses to meet Netanyahu, saying on Thursday that the PA was losing patience with the peace process because Palestinians see “how Israeli settlements swallow up Palestinian land.” While Fayyad plans to meet Netanyahu, Abbas is simultaneously fighting Israel in the international arena and potentially making up with Hamas.
So the talks are on, sort of, but everybody seems to be working against their successful outcome.
“I want to solve the conflict with the Palestinians because I don’t want a binational state,” Netanyahu said Tuesday during a rare press conference in Jerusalem. This comment was deemed notable because, as the Associated Press put it, it “concedes a key argument made by Netanyahu’s ideological opponents on Israel’s Zionist left: A pullout from territories the Palestinian claim for a state is not just a concession that could be made in exchange for peace — but also an imperative for an Israel that wants to remain a Jewish state that is also democratic.”
At the same time, Netanyahu confidently reaffirms his commitment to the settlement enterprise – not just to maintaining the existing settlements but also to expanding them.
“The principle that has guided me is to strengthen Jewish communities in Judea and Samaria,” he announced on Wednesday, a few hours after he okayed the evacuation of settlers from the Patriarch’s House in Hebron. Having faced harsh criticism from his right-wing coalition partners, he reassured them that the law bound him but that he is in fact on their side. “We are strengthening Jewish communities in Judea and Samaria and we are strengthening the Jewish community in Hebron, the city of the Patriarchs,” he said.
Netanyahu also promised to make sure that the unauthorized West Bank settlement outposts of Sansana, Rechalim, and Bruchin, are “provided for,” meaning legalized. He also asked Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein to make sure that the similarly unauthorized Ulpana neighborhood in the settlement of Beit El will not be evacuated. Before that, he created a committee whose goal is to prevent the further dismantling of outposts. This committee is headed by former Supreme Court Justice Edmond Levy, whom many Israelis still remember as the sole Supreme Court member to oppose the 2005 Disengagement from the Gaza Strip.
Netanyahu doesn’t want a binational state. He wants the Palestinians to have their own state. That, at least, is what he professes publicly. But expanding Israel’s settlements is not going to help convince his peace partners of his seriousness. Major settlement blocs will stay in Israel. But where exactly are Bruchin, Sansana and Rechalim? Will these localities be a part of the often-mentioned “mutually agreed upon land swaps?”
On the other side of the fence, the situation is bleak too. Abbas has apparently agreed to send his prime minister to Jerusalem to restart talks. But he doesn’t seem genuinely committed to them.
If he wants to reach a final-status agreement with Israel through negotiations, why did he open up another front by applying for membership in the United Nations?
In February, his Fatah party agreed to a unity government with Hamas, a step Israel made clear would mean the end of any peace talks. “I have said several times in the past that the Palestinian Authority must choose between an alliance with Hamas and peace with Israel. Hamas and peace do not go together,” Netanyahu said at the time.
Perhaps Abbas is willing to talk again to Israel because both the UN statehood bid and the reconciliation with Hamas are going nowhere. But if he and Netanyahu do not change key policies and positions, the same will be said of the upcoming effort to resume negotiations.
Story via Times of Israel