Israel’s rerouting Sunday of a section of its contentious West Bank separation barrier constitutes not only a major victory for the village of Bilin that has come to symbolize Palestinian opposition to the enclosure, but also takes on added significance as US President Barak Obama’s efforts to kick start stalled Israeli-Palestinian peace talks gain momentum.
The rerouting of the section four years after Israel's Supreme Court ordered it torn down falls short of villagers’ demands to remove the structure from the village altogether. Villagers have vowed to continue with their weekly protests that have frequently ended in clashes between activists and Israeli troops and turned their village into a symbol of resistance.
The rerouting nevertheless constitutes an ever so miniscule gesture as Mr. Obama desperately tries to forge a deal under which Israeli and Palestinians would return to the negotiating table on the basis of the president’s statement last month that the boundaries of a future Palestinian state should be based on Israel’s borders prior to the 1967 Middle East war. That was the war in which Israel conquered the West Bank and East Jerusalem.
In a major speech on the eve of a visit by Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu to Washington last month, Mr. Obama for the first time articulated explicitly a long-standing US belief that peace between Israelis and Palestinians would have to be based on the withdrawal of Israel to its pre-1967 boundaries adjusted by mutually agreed land swaps that would allow some Israeli settlements built on Palestinian land to be located within the Jewish state.
Mr. Netanyahu responded repeatedly to the speech with tough language that warned that the 1967 boundaries were “indefensible,” and that Israel would not return to them. Nonetheless, Mr. Netanyahu never explicitly rejected Mr. Obama’s principle.
Israel has since then quietly expressed interest in publicly adopting Mr. Obama’s principle if the Palestinians drop their campaign to get the United Nations General Assembly to recognize Palestinian statehood with the 1967 boundaries as its borders. Israel fears that a UN vote in favor of the Palestinian state would further isolate it internationally and make it more vulnerable to sanctions, boycotts and legal challenges.
The Palestine Authority headed by President Mahmoud Abbas has indicated to US officials that it would consider returning to the negotiating table and dropping its bid for UN recognition if Israel were to refer publicly to the 1967 borders as the basis for renewed talks and halt the construction of Israeli settlements on Palestinian land for at least a brief period of time.
The Palestinian eagerness to revive the peace talks despite the fact that they have little confidence in Mr. Netanyahu’s sincerity or Mr. Obama’s willingness or ability to twist Israel’s arm to force it to make the concessions needed to achieve peace stems from concern that the bid for UN recognition could backfire on them.
Mr. Obama has already vowed to veto the expected recognition by the General Assembly of Palestinian statehood once it is tabled for confirmation in the UN Security Council. In addition, Canada and various European nations have turned the Palestinian UN campaign into a stick with which they are seeking to nudge the Palestinians back to the negotiating table.
The Canadians, Americans and Europeans are also using that argument to persuade others not to vote in favor of the UN resolution expected to be discussed in the General Assembly in September.
Mr. Abbas fears further that adoption of the resolution by the General Assembly would create exaggerated expectations among Palestinians who would turn their frustration at a veto in the Security Council on his administration, blaming it for its failure to achieve a solution to the Palestinian problem that would rid them of 44 years of Israeli occupation and grant them independence.
As always in Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts, the devil is in the details and nothing is a deal even if it is signed and sealed. Nonetheless, the campaign for UN recognition of statehood has given last month’s enunciation by Mr. Obama of the pre-1967 borders as the basis for peace talks a new lease on life after it initially seemed to constitute little more than a still born baby.
Mr. Netanyahu may agree in principle with Mr. Obama’s norm even if he has so far refused to adopt the president’s language. Nonetheless, he is concerned enough about the impact of UN recognition of Palestinian statehood to consider uttering the words if Mr. Abbas is willing to take the same risk of choking on his own words. Mr. Netanyahu has demanded that in return for his explicit acceptance of the 1967 borders as the basis for negotiations, Mr. Abbas should explicitly recognize Israel as a Jewish state rather than just an Israeli state.
That would amount to Palestinian recognition of Jewish rather than Israeli sovereignty of Israel’s within its pre-1967 borders. For Mr. Abbas that would effectively mean that he surrenders the right of Palestinians to return to their ancestral homes within Israel proper and could jeopardize potential claims for compensation. That is a demand that Mr. Abbas is unlikely to accept. Mr. Abbas also rejects Israeli demands backed by Mr. Obama that Israeli troops remain based on Palestinian territory once the Palestinian state is established and that the state is demilitarized.
US officials doubt that they will be able to bridge the gap any time soon and are considering drafting a set of principles that would be part of the invitation to attend renewed peace talks but would not have to be endorsed by either party as a pre-condition. The formula inspires little confidence that the talks would fare any better than failed negotiations in the past but would help both the Israelis and Palestinians get off a path that threatens to backfire on both of them.
While the contours of peace are clear to both parties neither is willing to accommodate the other to the degree needed to ensure successful negotiations. Israel’s rerouting of the section of the West Bank barrier near Bilin may be a tiny gesture but it is too little too late and has already failed to persuade even the villagers that Israel is sincere.
As a result, a return to the negotiating table could amount to little more than a stay of execution and even deeper felt frustration.
(James M. Dorsey, formerly of The Wall Street Journal, is a senior researcher at the National University of Singapore’s Middle East Institute and the author of the blog, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer. He can be reached via email at: email@example.com)