Commentary

Are the Peace Talks Collapsing?

Middle East In Focus

Middle East Policy Council

The latest U.S.-sponsored peace talks between the Israelis and the Palestinians have been in trouble before, but recent events have brought them to the verge of collapse. There are reports of heated exchanges between Palestinian and Israeli negotiators over Israel’s unwillingness to release the fourth and final batch of Palestinian prisoners unless the Palestinian Authority agrees to extend negotiations between the two parties for another year. For the Palestinians, Israel’s latest move is a clear demonstration of its intention to continue negotiating but avoid coming to a final agreement, all the while building settlements. Judging from news reports, it appears that U.S. patience with the two parties might have come to an end.

In a recent account of the ongoing diplomatic wrangling, the Palestinian news site Ma’an News reports that “A long and heated meeting between Palestinian and Israeli negotiators in Jerusalem ended early Thursday without any signs of bringing both sides back to the negotiating table. Palestinian sources told Ma'an that the nine-hour meeting with U.S. Special Envoy Martin Indyk was attended by PLO negotiator Saeb Erekat, Head of Palestinian intelligence Majid Faraj, and Israeli negotiators Tzipi Livni and Yitzhak Molcho. The sources described the meeting as a ‘fierce political battle’, with Martin Indyk struggling to control heated exchanges between both sides.”

For many observers in the region, the current impasse was predictable, with the Peninsula staff suggesting in a recent editorial that the latest move by the Israeli government refusing “to release a final batch of Palestinian prisoners is a deliberate attempt to block the peace process....There are indications that the peace talks initiated by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry would hit more substantial hurdles in the coming days as the talks approach the critical issues. Pessimism was the predominant mood when Kerry first initiated the process....cooperation is now coming to a cul-de-sac....Palestinians too need to harden their position and not succumb to Israeli pressures. A final solution is nowhere in sight.”

Considering the recent turn of events, it is not surprising for some that the Palestinians have decided to take a more hard-nosed approach by deciding to begin the process of signing and ratification of various UN statutes and treaties so that it may exert more pressure on its Israeli interlocutors. For Daoud Kuttab such moves should not be interpreted as the rejection of diplomacy; rather, as he puts it: “Explaining his decision, the Palestinian president reiterated that Palestinians will only use political and nonviolent means to refuse occupation and to attempt to translate the UN recognition of the state of Palestine into a sovereign state. The current round of talks appears to be coming to an unsuccessful end. The US-sponsored peace process cannot produce the coveted peace if one side is interested only in the process and does not have the aim of achieving peace. The Palestinian action does not necessarily replace the talks. But joining UN agencies, especially the International Court of Justice, will strengthen the Palestinian negotiating hand.”

After all, leverage, argues the Saudi Gazette staff in a recent editorial, “should work both ways…. It appears that when it comes to talks on the future of Palestine, leverage does not work in quite the way that Archimedes came to understand it. Israelis can exert leverage by, for instance, refusing to stop building illegal settlements in the Occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem or by suspending the promised release of Palestinian prisoners. However, when the Palestinians seek to deploy some of their own, far more limited leverage, the Israelis cry foul. And worse, it is clear that the United States backs them in this phony gambit.  Thus, when Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas decided to press ahead with the formal signing of international treaties that would advance Palestine’s claim to statehood, US Secretary of State John Kerry cancelled a meeting with Abbas scheduled for yesterday.”

The decision taken by the Palestinian leadership makes sense if one looks at the fragile political position that the failure of the peace talks leaves Mr. Abbas and his Fatah supporters. That appears to be the suggestion that the Khaleej Times staff make where they point out that: “with no substantial progress over tricky issues such as boundary demarcation, refugee status, distribution of resources and an end to illegal settlements in West Bank and East Jerusalem, Abbas will be too cornered to offer further concessions to the state of Israel. The fact that release of Intifada veterans remains a popular issue both for the Fatah and the Hamas, Israel will be better advised to read between the lines and release the long-held detainees without much ado. An interim deal by mid-April and then a formal two-state announcement look too dismal if the talks fail to make headway.”

Arab News’ Osama Al Sharif makes a similar argument, by highlighting the challenges that Abbas may soon to have face from within Fatah, if he gives away too much: “Abbas knows that U.S. pressure will fall on him to accept an extension. His threat to go to the UN and others will cost his flailing Palestinian Authority (PA) dearly in terms of financial and political support. He risks becoming irrelevant if he challenges the U.S. and Israel. On the other hand he cannot accept unfair Israeli conditions for a peace accord. His situation has become worse as his own Fatah movement is now suffering from internal divisions. His foe, Mohammad Dahlan, has gained the support of some Gulf countries and was recently welcomed in Egypt. Relations with Hamas have not improved and there is an Israeli veto against Palestinian reconciliation.”

The unfortunate reality, Yedioth Ahronoth’s Ron Ben-Yishai writes, is that all parties involved in the current negotiations stand to benefit from extending talks. Whether they will take advantage of it or not remains to be seen: “By extending the talks, Netanyahu will have dodged a fresh breach with the US for a breakdown in the negotiations it has brokered, while also managing to keep the status quo in the territories for another year…. Israel has an interest in not rocking the boat....Should the talks between Israel and the Palestinians fail, it could further weaken the Americans' image, status and influence, mainly in our neighborhood. Therefore, the U.S. will do everything in its power to prevent a complete deterioration of the negotiations....Although pretending to do Israel and the US a favor by participating in talks on a diplomatic agreement, the Palestinians too have an essential interest in continuing the negotiations, and know very well the price they'll pay should the talks grind to a halt.”


Click here to read previous installments of Middle East In Focus

Middle East In Focus is a synopsis of commentary and news from Middle Eastern and other international media. Its purpose is to provide a succinct and balanced summary of the main developments and views that are often overlooked or not properly reflected in the U.S. media. For the most recent collection of articles on and from the Middle East, please go to: http://mepc.org/articles-commentary/articles-hub. Comments and feedback are welcome at info@mepc.org.