In the 13 days since the Arab League rescued US President Barack Obama from another embarrassing failure, reports of Israeli settlement activity seem to outnumber those detailing negotiations with the Palestinians. US envoy George Mitchell left the region before the Arab League summit without a compromise and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, still holding out hope, said that Mitchell would return next week.
That leaves nearly a month-long vacuum on the edge of collapse.
Practically speaking, Mitchell had no reason to stay in the region with neither side willing to cave. But the time gap has worked against the continuation of negotiations. The White House opted to unilaterally negotiate with Israel in return for an extension of its “freeze” on new settlement activity, offering terms that weakened the Palestinian position and further depressed the odds of a breakthrough. And at the propaganda level, Palestinians hear more chatter of settlements than anything America has to offer them.
The expanding gap between parties and relative silence from Washington outlines the immediate future of negotiations. The White House has at least several more weeks until after mid-term elections, roughly the month designated by the Arab League, and another extension remains possible. But time will pass as quickly as the preceding seven weeks of stalemate.
Hardening in both the Israeli and Palestinian positions, coupled with the White House’s preference to work behind Israel’s curtain, hints towards one of two outcomes after the November 2nd election: a furiously negotiated agreement at the deadline, or an outright collapse. Though it seems unlikely that all parties would eject now, the ground points in that direction.
An ill omen of Israel's gridlock, senior Labor minister Avishay Braverman warned that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has until the end of the year to resume talks, or else Labor will walk out of the government.
The main obstacles between Israel and the Palestinians stretch far beyond settlement units. However, Israel continues to ignore the reality that settlements have become symbolic of its commitment to a fair peace process. The entire international community, including the Quartet of America, the EU, Russia, and the UN, recognizes Israeli settlements in Palestinian-designated territory as illegal. US officials criticized Israel’s latest tenders for 238 units in East Jerusalem, and Clinton reaffirmed that US opposition to settlements “is well known and has not changed.”
Of course this isn’t true. Clinton glowingly praised Netanyahu’s 10-month freeze on “new” construction that failed to even accomplish that goal, drawing immediate rebuke from the Palestinians and Arab states. But the fact remains that Washington has been forced into a corner and Israel tore up the memo.
"We noticed that [settlement building] is getting significantly faster after the Israelis refused to renew the freeze," Ghassan Khatib, a Palestinian spokesman, told The Christian Science Monitor last week. "That's the main indicator to the Palestinian public and to the Palestinian politicians about the lack of seriousness.''
And when the Associated Press later lowballed its estimate of 500 new units in construction since September 26th, Khatib would respond, “This figure is alarming and is another indicator that Israel is not serious about the peace process, which is supposed to be about ending the occupation.”
David Haivri, a spokesman affiliated with Yesha Council, the regional body representing Israeli communities in the West Bank, confirmed: "I expect that in the few months left till the end of the year 2010, we will compensate for our downtime and begin building at least as many homes as we did in 2008.”
Netanyahu argued that new construction “has no real effect on the map of a possible (peace) agreement." His words alone are enough to scare off Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
As further evidence of a clash over compromise the Palestinians are moving as though they don’t expect US resolution, finally breaking the monopoly Washington holds on the peace process. This seems to be the best method of achieving the fairest terms possible. Targets include the UN General Assembly (to avoid a US veto in the Security Council), the International Court of Justice, which mediates legal disputes submitted by states, the UN Human Rights Council, and signatories of the Geneva Conventions. The Palestinians will start with settlements and progress towards statehood, a bargaining spectrum dictated by Israel’s actions.
“We don’t have strong cards, but we want to convince the world to take a position and gain recognition of a Palestinian state,” said Hanna Amireh, a member of the P.L.O.’s ruling circle, in an interview in his Ramallah office. “We feel we need to go beyond the United States to the world.”
Unfortunately this strategy, while accurate from the Palestinian viewpoint, may not produce the desired effects. One Senior Israeli official warned, “A lot of members of the international community believe that since the Palestinians are the weaker party, if they get more support it will help them in the direct talks with us. But it works in the opposite direction. This would kill a negotiated settlement.”
Clearly Israel will accept no mediator except for America, another sign of imbalance and one more strike against the possibility of a compromise.
Like Israel’s recent behavior, the White House has offered the Palestinians no reason to believe they’ll obtain a sovereign state. With both sides dug in the situation lies in Obama’s hands, who remains reluctant to enter the fray outside of perfectly choreographed dinners at the White House. Now is the time to personally intervene if he actually believes in a sovereign Palestinian state, complete with 1967 borders, East Jerusalem, and a military - and isn’t playing politics with the conflict.
Netanyahu’s train, powered by the US Congress, Israeli lobby, and the various Israeli players inside the White House currently shaping negotiations, leads to a dead end.