Waiting on America

Less than a month after it was revived the Israel-Palestinian peace process is dead. The challenge now is how to defer the burial until after the mid-term US Congressional elections on 2 November.

This, in effect, was the meaning of the Arab League meeting in Libya on 8 October. Foreign ministers from 13 Arab states endorsed the Palestinian position of not continuing direct negotiations with Israel without an end to new settlement building in the West Bank. But they also bowed to American pressure to allow another month of diplomacy to try to resolve the issue.

It won’t happen. At the United Nations General Assembly last month Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas told diplomats that in three rounds of talks Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin “Netanyahu had refused to hold a serious discussion on any core issue apart from [Israel’s] security.”

The Israeli leader also made it clear then that the 10-month partial moratorium on new settlement starts in the West Bank would not be renewed when it expired on 26 September.

His offer on 11 October to extend it in return for a Palestinian recognition of “Israel as the national state of the Jewish people” was therefore bluff: made only because he knew it would be refused. “I hope he will stop playing these games and start the peace process by stopping settlements,” said Palestinian negotiator Saeb Ereikat wearily.

The moratorium in any case was a sham, as Ereikat and just about every other Palestinian official pointed out for most of its duration.

According to Israel’s own statistics, in the first half of 2010 — the period of the “freeze” — the West Bank settler population grew by 8,000, almost the same rate as 2009 and triple the average population growth inside Israel. The moratorium also excluded settlement in occupied East Jerusalem and pre-existing construction.

The Palestinians had accepted the partial “freeze” as a fig-leaf for talks for one reason only: to grant Barack Obama a rare foreign policy success ahead of mid-term elections that all know will go badly and may weaken his political authority even more. The question now is does the president have an alternative policy beyond the moratorium?

One may be gleaned in the extraordinary basket of incentives Washington offered Israel for a one- off 60-day extension of the “freeze”. For former US negotiator Aaron David Miller, this suggests a new approach in which Obama offers both sides assurances on the substance of negotiations rather than following the “dead end of fighting Israel over settlements”.

Yet even by the standards of a country that grants Israel $3 billion a year in military aid, the assurances were breathtaking in their generosity.

Drafted by Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak and senior US National Security Council advisor Dennis Ross, they included: a US pledge to support an Israeli army presence in the Jordan Valley even after a peace agreement is signed; a veto on any UN Security Council resolution criticising Israel for the duration of negotiations; an upgrade of weapons — including missiles, aircraft and satellites — not covered in previous arms deals; and a promise not to ask for another moratorium beyond the extension.

“It’s an extraordinary package for essentially nothing,” said Daniel Kurtzer, former US ambassador to Israel and Egypt. “Given what’s already happened [in the negotiations], who thinks that a two-month extension will be enough?”

Israeli commentators were even more aghast. “One can only imagine what the US president would offer Israel if it were to reach a full agreement with the Palestinians, if [Obama] gave all that merely in exchange for an additional 60-day freeze. President Bush, in all his years of friendship with Israel, did not offer it so much for so little,” wrote Orly Azulai in the Israeli newspaper Yediot Aharonot.

It’s not clear what assurances Obama offered the Palestinians. It is clear what they want: an explicit statement by the president that the 1967 borders will be the baseline for any final status negotiations on a Palestinian state. If this is not given, Abbas reportedly told the Arab League, the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) will take the Palestinian cause to the UN Security Council so that “all countries of the world would recognise the state of Palestine.” If that too does not happen, it will ask the UNSC to impose “a mandate over the Palestinian people”, formally ending the Oslo process and the Palestinian Authority.

These are the “historic policy alternatives” to negotiations Arab League ministers have vowed to consider when they reconvene next month. Israel met them with a yawn.

Even if Obama were to endorse a Palestinian state on the 1967 borders, it would have no more traction than his call for settlement freeze unless Israel also recognised them as a basis for negotiations. Similarly, a UN protectorate or recognition of an independent Palestinian state would only have tangible weight if backed by a mass movement of resistance throughout the occupied territories (since most “countries of the world” have already recognised a Palestinian state in the occupied territories).

And such a movement would require not only the Gaza and West Bank wings of the Palestinian national movement to unite. It would require some consensus on strategy between those states in the region like Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia that see only US-led negotiations as the road to redemption and those like Syria, Iran and even Turkey which believe resistance and a more independent policy should be thrown into the mix.

That’s why for many Palestinians the crucial negotiations are not those that may happen between Israel and the PLO via Washington but those they hope will happen in Cairo between Hamas and Fatah.

GRAHAM USHER writes for Al-Ahram Weekly, where this column originally appeared.