Should the peace talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority break down at this juncture, it would signify a failure for all concerned.
Encouraged by the US Administration and the European Quartet, Israel’s cabinet had approved a 10-month moratorium on building in the occupied territories in the hope that such a gesture would encourage the Palestinians to return to the negotiating table.
At the time, Prime Minister Netanyahu declared: “It’s not an easy step.” He added: “I hope that the Palestinians and the Arab world will be wise enough to take this opportunity to move forward in the path of peace.”
Unfortunately, the time was not used wisely. The Palestinians stubbornly refused to negotiate, because Jerusalem was not included in the moratorium. Furthermore, President Obama’s public criticism of Israel for, among other things, tactlessly choosing to initiate the construction of 1,600 housing units in East Jerusalem at the very time that Vice-President Joe Biden was visiting Israel last March only served to harden the Palestinian position.
When Secretary of State Clinton was finally able to bring Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Abbas together in Washington DC on September 2 to re-launch direct negotiations, the moratorium on building was already close to an end.
While some blame will rightly be placed at the door of the US Administration for its lack of consistency in its handling of the Israel/Palestinian conflict, the primary responsibility for the current state of affairs must surely lie with Netanyahu and Abbas. Both have contributed to the present crisis by their patent unwillingness to be flexible.
Abbas frittered away ten months that could have been used in productive negotiations by insisting that he would not meet with Netanyahu until building in Eastern Jerusalem came to an absolute halt.
That having been said, serious questions must be raised about his true intentions and his ability to deliver. To date, the Palestinian Authority has refused to endorse the notion of two states for two peoples.
No less problematic is the fact that Abbas does not speak for the entire Palestinian people. Not only do the Hamas in the Gaza Strip dispute his authority. There are also significant elements on the West Bank, who do not recognize the legitimacy of his government. As if to prove the point, the northern faction of Israel’s Islamic Movement declared only last Saturday night that the Palestinian Authority was not authorized to negotiate on its behalf!
However, rather than exposing the lack of consensus within the Palestinian camp, Israel is in danger of allowing herself to be portrayed as the party spoiler. Should negotiations now be stalled, responsibility will surely be laid at Netanyahu’s door for refusing, in spite of appeals from many of the world’s leaders, to extend the moratorium on building for a period of just three months in order to give peace negotiations a chance.
Should the Palestinians now choose to withdraw from direct negotiations, Netanyahu will have played into their hands by allowing them to create the impression that the issue of housing construction is the key obstacle to peace. Had he played his cards differently and more wisely, Israel could have shown the world that the core problem is not settlements but the question of the preparedness of the Palestinians to accept the principle of two states for two peoples.
Israel’s late diplomat and politician, Abba Eban, is frequently quoted as having said following the Geneva peace talks in December 1973: “The Arabs never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity.” This time around, however, there will be many who will also lay the blame elsewhere.