Quartet envoy Tony Blair held talks in Jerusalem and Ramallah today to convince Israelis and Palestinians to resume negotiations, a mission given added urgency by a looming vote on Palestinian membership in the United Nations.
Amid widespread pessimism that the two sides aren't even interested in coming back to the table, the quartet of Middle East peace mediators – the US, Russia, the European Union, and the United Nations – fears that the Palestinian bid could further unravel the peace process and isolate Israel.
"The Quartet is panicked because there’s going to be a vote soon," says Diana Bhuttu, a former Palestinian negotiator. "They want to make this [membership] application go away quietly and slip it under the radar... In the current situation, it’s not going to go away."
Pressure on Abbas to drop UN bid
Mr. Blair, the former British prime minister, is trying to get the two sides to agree on a framework for peace talks. But the international community has so far failed to come up with a compelling incentive for Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to abandon his much-touted bid for UN recognition and to drop his demands for a settlement freeze.
Their task became even more difficult last week when Mr. Abbas's rivals in the Hamas party scored major popularity points by securing the release of more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners in exchange for Gilad Shalit, an Israeli soldier captured by Gaza militants in 2006. Should Abbas to back down from the statehood bid, which has won him widespread support among the Palestinian public, he could risk ceding ground to his Hamas rivals.
One potential solution would be another prisoner release, this time between the Israel and the PA – a step PA officials have demanded in the wake of the Shalit swap. If prominent militants were included in such a release, it could provide Abbas a way back to talks, says Ms. Bhuttu.
But that’s unlikely to happen because hard-liners in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s administration are loath to boost Abbas after he launched the UN statehood bid, which they see as a unilateral act that reflects bad faith in the negotiating process. Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman even went so far as to express hope that Abbas would resign.
Michael Oren, Israel’s ambassador to the US, said on Tuesday that the United Nations membership bid is a "contravention" of the territory-for-peace principle that has guided Mideast peacemaking since Israel conquered the West Bank and East Jerusalem in 1967. He said that were the bid to succeed, it would be an "immense blow" to the peace process because it would hamper Abbas's ability to sell a deal to his people in the future.
"Mahmoud Abbas is going to come back to his people and say, you’re going to have to make some painful sacrifices. But you're going to get something in return – you're going to get a Palestinian state," he said, speaking at a Monitor breakfast in Washington. "The Palestinian people are going to look at him and say, 'Well, wait a minute, we already have a Palestinian state. Why are you making all these painful sacrifices?' "
While Mr. Oren and other Israeli officials insist on direct negotiations as the only path to peace, Palestinian leaders are exasperated with nearly two decades of talks that have yet to deliver the independence they have long sought.
From the beginning of the Oslo peace process in 1993, the number of Israeli settlers in the West Bank, which Palestinians see as jeopardizing their aspirations for a state on the same land, has nearly tripled to more than 300,000. The Jewish presence in East Jerusalem has also expanded in smaller but strategic ways; in recent weeks, Israel has advanced plans for two new neighborhoods that critics say would compromise the contiguity of Palestinian areas.
As Palestinians watch the US support the democratic aspirations of fellow Arabs from Tunisia to Syria this year, they seek similar American support for their own cause. Instead, the US has threatened to veto the Palestinian statehood bid on the United Nations Security Council, which could come as soon as Nov. 11.
"This runs totally contrary to the principle upon which this country was founded," said Maen Rashid Areikat, the chief of the Palestinian mission to the US, in a Monitor interview this week. "You don’t oppose the quest of a nation for freedom and independence to satisfy domestic political objectives.’’
"[America] is much more important and larger than being handicapped or constrained by domestic politics," said Mr. Areikat, speaking at his Washington office. But it's not just American ideals such as liberty, justice, equality, and human dignity that are being called into question, he added; American interests are also at stake – a point top US officials, including former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, have made in recent years.
"If American officials ... continue to think that they can normalize their relationship with the Arab and Muslim worlds without allowing Palestinians to become free and independent, they are making a major mistake."
The Quartet, torn by divisions about how to break the deadlock, is pushing Israelis and the Palestinians to agree to a framework for talks that would enable them to hammer out an agreement within a year and make "substantial progress" regarding security and borders within six months.
In the meantime, the Quartet proposal calls on Israelis and Palestinians to submit their own detailed proposals on those two negotiation topics.
Many observers say that even if Abbas and Mr. Netanyahu are incapable of reaching a deal because their positions are too far apart, promoting negotiations still helps prevent a slide toward violence.
But former diplomats caution that pushing toward talks prematurely will do more damage than good.
Gadi Batliansky, a former Israeli diplomat who supports a two-state solution, believes that if the US and its allies can’t get Israel and the Palestinians to agree on ground rules for talks, it should challenge the sides to be more specific about their end goals.
"When Netanyahu speaks about a Palestinian state, what does he mean? When Abbas says right of return, what does he mean," he says. "If it’s impossible for them to agree, at least they should know the positions. The leaders should be taken to a crossroads where they have to make a decision.’’
Handshake on the White House lawn: Not what's needed now
Rather than focusing on diplomacy, some believe that Palestinian aspirations are better served by efforts on the ground to prepare Palestinian institutions for independence.
Elliott Abrams, a former Middle East adviser to the most recent Bush administration, argues that Arab states, European countries, the US, and Israel would all be better served to support the Palestinian state-building drive spearheaded by PA Prime Minister Salam Fayyad – which could help boost the Palestinian economy and give the PA more authority over West Bank security.
“In my opinion the situation isn’t ripe for a negotiation,” says Mr. Abrams, now at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington. "If your focus is on the great handshake on the White House lawn, your focus is not on the statebuilding project."
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