Talking about talking about peace

It looks as if peace talks in the Middle East are going to happen – not yet for the brutal civil war in Syria, but for the much less bloody, if longer-running, conflict between Israel and the Palestinians.

US secretary of state John Kerry has been shuffling around the region for some months trying to get the parties back to the negotiating table. On Friday in Jordan he announced that he had “reached an agreement that establishes a basis for resuming direct final status negotiations between the Palestinians and the Israelis.” Representatives of the two sides are expected to hold an initial meeting in Washington later this week.

No-one is being very forthcoming about the details, and in particular about what incentives have been offered to induce the Palestinians to resume talks. Kerry was making a virtue of his reticence, saying that “candid, private conversations are the very best way to preserve the time and the space for progress and understanding.” But it’s surely no coincidence that the Israeli government has announced that it will release some large but unspecified number of Palestinian prisoners as a goodwill gesture.

For the last few years it’s been the Israelis who have been keen to talk and the Palestinians who have been reluctant. The Palestinian view has been that Israel’s Likud government has no intention of ever conceding Palestinian independence, and that in the absence of some concrete indication of a change of heart – such as freezing the construction of Jewish settlements on occupied territory – there was no point in negotiating about anything.

While I think the premise of this argument is correct, I’m not convinced about the conclusion.

Benjamin Netanyahu, based on his public record, appears to intend that Israel should hold the West Bank in perpetuity; Larry Derfner at +972 says that “everything he has said and done throughout his career tells the Palestinians he is quite comfortable with Israel ruling them indefinitely.” Even if he has (or has had) a change of heart, his ability to convert the majority of his government must be seriously in doubt.

Juan Cole has a similarly dark view of Israeli intentions, arguing that from Likud’s point of view “negotiations are aimed at browbeating the Palestinians into accepting their statelessness forever, in return for empty Israeli pledges not to completely expropriate them.” But it does not obviously follow that negotiations are a bad idea.

Derfner says the Palestinian Authority “would be committing national suicide by agreeing to negotiate,” but an agreement to talk is fundamentally no more than that. It means the Palestinians have lost face a little by giving up on a precondition, but apart from that they haven’t actually conceded anything, and one person’s loss of face is another person’s statesmanlike gesture.

What matters is not where peace talks start but where they finish up. If these finish with a moderate Palestinian/Arab/American position being rejected by an intransigent Israeli government, then that will be a diplomatic victory for the Palestinians. If they finish with Netanyahu at war with his own colleagues and possible fresh Israeli elections, that also will open new possibilities for progress.

And of course there is always the possibility that a real agreement can be reached. Netanyahu could still surprise all of us.

The BBC’s Lyse Doucet puts it well: “everyone knows what must be done to end this age-old conflict but no-one seems able and willing to do it.” One day, an Israeli government is going to have to bite the bullet and agree to end the occupation. It’s come very close to happening before; Ehud Barak and Ehud Olmert both offered reasonable terms but could not quite clinch the deal.

Netanyahu, with greater credibility on the right, might just possibly be able to. So far, I think the problem is more that he doesn’t really want to. The argument against negotiating, as I understand it, is that if the conflict just festers for longer then international pressure might eventually bring Likud to a change of heart.

And sure, it might. But it might just breed further intransigence on both sides, and in the meantime the “facts on the ground” are making a viable two-state solution harder and harder to imagine.

So I wouldn’t blame Kerry and Mahmoud Abbas for wanting to give negotiations a try. Just don’t expect miracles.

 

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