Groundhog Day: the futility of Israeli-Palestinian talks

Sharif Nashashibi
Sharif Nashashibi
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When it comes to Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, us pessimists get a lot of flak from those wearing rose-tinted glasses, as if we are being negative for the sake of it. We would like nothing more than to be wrong, but our cynicism comes from many years of disappointment, failure and deceit at the negotiating table.

The whole ‘peace process’ - all process, no peace - is a depressing version of the comedy film Groundhog Day, where one man lives the same 24 hours over and over. These latest talks, which will resume this week, will be no different than their predecessors.

The same redundant, unequal formulae are being employed, and the environment now is much less conducive to a deal, with Israel’s current government arguably the most extremist in its history (that is saying something), and a much weakened, divided and ineffectual Palestinian leadership. As usual, the talks are being mediated by the United States, Israel’s staunchest ally.

Flawed talks will inevitably lead to failure. Every failure convinces more people of the futility of diplomacy, and perhaps even of non-violent resistance.

Sharif Nashashibi

How can we expect a just outcome to a process shepherded by such a partisan party to the conflict? The leading arms-provider, diplomatic protector and financier of Israel’s occupation and colonization is no way an ‘honest broker.’ However, neither the Palestinian Authority nor other Arab governments question its central role in this farcical process - on the contrary, they plead for it!

The U.S. special envoy to the talks is Martin Indyk, a former ambassador to Israel who used to work for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the most powerful pro-Israel lobby group in the United States. His other pro-Israel credentials are too long to list.

A key part of the failed and flawed Camp David talks in 2000, Indyk is somehow expected to be a neutral go-between. On second thought, perhaps the ‘peace process’ is as comical as Groundhog Day.

Settlements

Every time talks resume, or there are attempts in that regard, Israel announces further settlement expansion on Palestinian land, illegal under international law. On cue, it has just given final approval for the construction of almost 1,200 new settlement homes, some located deep inside the occupied West Bank.

Furthermore, 20 settlements were added to a list of those prioritized for government subsidies, just days after the resumption of talks. “This is exactly what Israel wants, have a process for its own sake, and at the same time have a free hand to destroy the objective of the process,” said senior Palestinian official Hanan Ashrawi. With such repeated Israeli ‘goodwill,’ Palestinians should be begging their leaders not to negotiate!

However, not only is the PA taking part, it has dropped its perfectly reasonable demand that settlement expansion stop before talks can happen. How can one accept the sincerity and good faith of one party when it continues to colonize the territory of those they are negotiating with?

That stark contradiction has not dissuaded the PA, which seems to give more and more ground - literally and figuratively - with every round of talks. In fact, how can one accept the sincerity and good faith of the PA when it says Israel’s illegal actions are contradictory to a just and lasting peace, but signals its acceptance by negotiating regardless? This sends a message that Israel can do as it pleases.

Concessions and rejections

As usual, Israel offers a paltry ‘concession’ to enable all its other provocations. This time, it says it will release 104 Palestinian prisoners in stages. So what? Israel has made a habit of releasing those whose jail terms are almost finished anyway, or simply re-arresting them soon after, or detaining many more others.

In the broader sense, how can these talks succeed where all the others have failed, when successive Israeli governments reject the international consensus on every core issue in the conflict?

The momentous Arab League initiative accepted by all 22 member states - offering Israel full diplomatic relations and recognition in return for simply fulfilling its obligation under international law to withdraw from occupied Arab territories - continues to gather dust. The League’s revised plan goes even further, agreeing to reciprocal, equitable and mutually agreed land swaps.

Israel not only maintains its rejectionism, but its Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has complained to U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry about “incitement” by PA President Mahmoud Abbas for his recent statement that a future Palestinian state “would not see the presence of a single Israeli - civilian or soldier.” If that is too much to ask for, why is Abbas negotiating with Netanyahu - to determine the size of Israel’s presence in a Palestinian state?!

Tel Aviv has claimed for years to be yearning for recognition by its neighbours, but the goal posts shifted the moment this was accepted. Now it insists on recognition specifically as a Jewish state. This is a non-starter, as it would validate the second-class status of its Arab Muslim and Christian citizens, who make up a fifth of the population. Both Israel and Palestine must be states for all their respective citizens, regardless of religion or ethnicity.

Why negotiate?

The stances and actions of successive Israeli governments, including the present one, makes a viable Palestinian state all but impossible. The Netanyahu administration’s decision to put any peace deal to a public referendum makes it even more so.

According to a new poll by the Israeli Democracy Institute, most Israelis oppose a withdrawal to the internationally recognized borders that existed prior to 1967, even with land swaps. Most are also against the return of even a small number of refugees, or their compensation.

This begs the question once again: what are the Palestinians negotiating over? It is highly likely that Israel’s motive is two-fold. The first is to take the steam out of the growing international Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement.
The second is to dissuade the European Union, Israel’s largest trading partner, from implementing a ground-breaking recent directive that from 2014 will forbid all 28 member states from funding or dealing with Israeli settlements, and require a clear distinction in all signed agreements between Israel and the occupied territories. Both the BDS movement and the EU directive have caused fury and alarm in Israel.

Some people say even flawed talks are better than none, but I disagree. Flawed talks, even if they lead to a deal accepted by the weaker negotiating party, will inevitably lead to failure. Every failure convinces more people of the futility of diplomacy, and perhaps even of non-violent resistance. And as more time is wasted, Israel’s stranglehold over the Palestinians continues unabated.

The second uprising against the occupation started due to frustration at the failure of Camp David and the prior years of the ‘peace process,’ during which the Palestinians maintained dialogue while their lands perpetually shrank and their rights were persistently violated.

It is clear that Israel is interested only in open-ended dialogue that goes nowhere, so it can continue to establish ‘facts on the ground’ that will be increasingly difficult, if not impossible, to reverse. It is high time to stop indulging this tragedy poorly disguised as diplomacy, and for Israel’s leaders to see that neither peoples will know peace or security without justice for those denied it.

Frustration among Palestinians is brewing again, and for the same reasons - not just against Israel, but against their own inept leaders. Negotiators have set themselves a goal of nine months to achieve what has eluded them for decades. Expect an early miscarriage, or in the highly unlikely event of a deal being reached, a miscarriage of justice. For those still wearing rose-tinted glasses, read this article in nine months time.

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Sharif Nashashibi, a regular contributor to Al Arabiya English, The Middle East magazine and the Guardian, is an award-winning journalist and frequent interviewee on Arab affairs. He is co-founder of Arab Media Watch, an independent, non-profit watchdog set up in 2000 to strive for objective coverage of Arab issues in the British media. With an MA in International Journalism from London's City University, Nashashibi has worked and trained at Dow Jones Newswires, Reuters, the U.N. Development Programme in Palestine, the Middle East Broadcasting Centre, the Middle East Economic Survey in Cyprus, and the Middle East Times, among others. In 2008, he received the International Media Council's "Breakaway Award," given to promising new journalists, "for both facilitating and producing consistently balanced reporting on the highly emotive and polarized arena that is the Middle East." He can be found on Twitter: @sharifnash

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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