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A troubled Peace-Process going backwards – from direct to indirect talks

By dr Magnus Norell

In early May, Israeli Prime-Minister Netanyahu and Palestinian President Abbas finally agreed to start US-initiated so-called proximity talks. The talks are scheduled to begin no later than mid-May. These negotiations are supposed to be the beginning of a process that, in the end, will bring Israelis and Palestinians back to direct peace-talks.

The fact that the two parties now has agreed to start new talks has been heralded as a break-through of sorts; After a long hiatus in the peace-process, new talks are beginning and the US administration has invested a lot of time in coaxing the partners back to the negotiating table.

 However, the fact that those indirect talks (with US peace envoy George Mitchell as a go-between) are presented as ‘progress’ is a sign of the dire straits the peace process between Israelis and Palestinians is in. After years, even decades, of direct talks, the current process – should it get under way – is a clear step backwards. It is also a sign of the deep animosity and suspicion between Israelis and Palestinians, and no one is seriously entertaining any hopes of a break-through or any immediate results to emanate from the talks. Thus for example, the head of the Israeli Military Intelligence research division, Brigadier General Yossi Baidatz, said, in a brief to the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, that Palestinian President Abbas was more interested in presenting the Israeli government as an obstacle to peace, stating: "[PA President Mahmoud] Abbas' goal is to expose Israel's true face and show that we do not want peace," Baidatz told the Committee adding that "Abbas is interested in an agreement with Israel, but his leeway on the core issues is limited."


In the invitation to the talks, President Obama wrote that proximity talks with Israel would encompass all the conflict's core issues including Jerusalem, as was agreed in the Annapolis Joint Declaration in November 2007. This is important since the Annapolis declaration was intended to point to a road-map towards a final two-state solution to the conflict. But there are, as of yet, no clear signs that even the US administration is expecting anything solid to come out of the talks. The best that can be hoped for is that this process, in the end, leads up to a renewal of direct talks.

But a more sinister obstacle is built into the idea of indirect talks. And that is by making a third party – in this case the US – the key-player, both Israelis and Palestinians will be let off the hook and can avoid, or at least postpone, making the necessary and un-avoidable hard decisions needed for a clear break-through necessary for a real peace to take hold. It may still produce the desired outcome in the shape of direct peace-talks but that is looking increasingly doubtful, considering both the domestic political constraints the Israeli and Palestinian governments are facing, as well as the increased regional tension in the Middle East.

For the Israeli government, the present coalition is dependent on parties encompassing a rather wide ideological spectrum running from the religious Right to Labour. This makes for a volatile and shaky coalition that its leader, Premier Netanyahu is not keen on upsetting too much. This, in its turn, might very well lead to a situation where the government doesn’t dare to agree to necessary compromises with the Palestinians, such as a construction freeze. Thus, the coalition might collapse. Some analysts are suspecting that this is what both the US administration and the Palestinians are hoping for, making way for a new Labour and/or Kadima-led government. An administration that would be more amenable to compromise.

As for the Palestinians, their position is even worse; there is yet no agreement between the government led by Premier Fayyad and the Hamas movement who is controlling the Gaza-strip. This means that even if there were to be an agreement with the Israelis, the Palestinian government is in no position to deliver it. Furthermore, the Abbas/Fayyad government is negotiating with the Arab League looking over its shoulder, especially when it comes to issues like Jerusalem. In the midst of the present regional tension, when more and more Palestinians and other Arabs alike is loosing confidence in a two-state solution, it will be extremely difficult for the Palestinian side to sign off on anything resembling what might be construed as a long-term solution with an end-of-conflict paragraph attached.

 By pushing for indirect, or ‘proximity’ talks, the US administration has fallen into the same trap as numerous US administrations before it. The temptation to put US-made proposals on the table and (re)start a cumbersome and time-consuming process to close the gaps between the partners will be great. Pressure from outside the negotiating tent will be felt throughout and resisting those pressures will be one of the more important objectives for the Americans.

 For if anything has been proved beyond doubt over the past decades of ‘on-again-off-again’ peace-talks, it is that if an agreement is to hold, it has to have been the product of the negotiating partners themselves and have the backing of a clear majority of the populations. Without that, no agreement will survive.


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