From Israel, strong signs this round of Mideast peace talks is over

Israeli concessions to extend already limping peace talks with the Palestinians beyond the end of this month seem very unlikely.

Kevin Lamarque
Which way? Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman and US Secretary of State John Kerry last month. Mr. Lieberman says he'll demand fresh Israeli elections before any peace process concessions are made to the Palestinians.

Officially, Israel-Palestinian talks don’t expire until end of this month, and the US is still mediating. But Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman signaled that political will has run dry, telling a Jerusalem Post conference in New York he’d rather call new elections than make the concessions necessary to extend negotiations.

Though many in Israel and the US worry that a third Palestinian uprising is going to erupt in the wake of talks ending – conjuring up the outbreak of the Al Aqsa Intifada just months after the breakdown of the Camp David talks in 2000 – Palestinians and Israelis on the ground believe this is unlikely.

Part of the reason is that Palestinians still remember the last uprising, and are loathe to return to the chaos and hardship it brought. At the same time, the current round of negotiations never truly inflated expectations among Palestinians that they were on the cusp of statehood.

"They already had no hope in the outcome. I walk around Nablus, Ramallah and Jerusalem, and I don’t see people walking around crying or saying it’s the end of the world," says Bashar Azzeh, a Palestinian businessman and youth activist. "There will be no more Israeli tanks in Ramallah. We’re not taking the violent approach any more. People are frustrated and tired."

A recent report by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research in Ramallah backed up that sentiment, suggesting that Palestinians are opposed to an armed uprising against Israel by a 53 percent to 43 percent margin in the case of the failure of talks.  

Khalil Shikaki, who runs the Ramallah polling center told a conference in January that the sentiment opposing a return to violence has held steady since 2005, when Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas came into office stressing non-violent negotiations and rejecting the armed uprising of the early 2000s.

In addition to the public being opposed to a return to violence, Mr. Abbas' Palestinian security services are also believed to oppose such a move. The same forces did not stand in the way of rioting back in 2000, but over the last decade the forces have been overhauled into a more professional and disciplined  outfit that cooperates closely with Israel  to root out militants in the West Bank.

"They have been doing this for a number of years," said Shlomo Brom, a former Israeli military strategic planner who is now a fellow at the Institute for Strategic Studies, a Tel Aviv University think tank. "The Palestinian security forces will not let it happen. They learned the lesson of the second intifada, and they know [armed uprising] will cause the Palestinian interests only harm."

Similar assessments have been voiced by Israeli intelligence officers about the West Bank.

In this environment, whatever slim hopes there ever were of a peace deal have receded even further. A week ago, Israel baulked at a promised release of Palestinian prisoners that were meant as a confidence building step that had been pushed by US Secretary of State John Kerry. In response, Abbas announced the Palestinians would apply for membership in 15 international conventions - seen by many as a small step closer towards seeking statehood recognition at the UN. And in response to that Mr. Netanyahu said Israel would take further unilateral actions of its own.

In recent years, such steps have included authorization for settlement expansion and the freezing of tax revenue collected by Israel on the Palestinians' behalf.

Mr. Lieberman’s remarks in New York, that Israel should not cave to "Palestinian blackmail" calling for prisoner releases in return for extended negotiations, suggested that the Israeli government is unlikely to find a way to extend the talks.

But there are costs to some unilateral steps the country might pursue. If Israel were to freeze tax transfers to the Palestinians, that could lead to a collapse of the Palesitnian Authority and remove a critical buffer against an outbreak of violence, writes Amos Harel, the military correspondent for Haaretz. "In recent weeks there (have) been signs of a possible military escalation," he wrote, adding that Palestinian control over refugee camps had been slipping.

But Mr. Azzeh contends that Palestinians just want maintain a sense of normalcy – even if that doesn’t mean statehood. Indeed, a similar sense of exhaustion was found at a West Bank cab stand when the topic of the failure of peace talks and the possibility of a new intifada came up. The cab drivers said they were primary concerned with work.

"People just want bread,’’ said Abu Abdullah, a taxi driver from Bethlehem. "They want to live in quiet and peace. The real peace is to sleep."

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