Will Israeli-Palestinian dialogue succeed?

This Article was published in
The Frontier Post (September 22, 2010)

By Sahibzada Hussain Mohi-ud-Din Qadri

Finally after a 20-month hiatus, both Israeli and Palestinian leaders are back to the US-brokered face-to-face negotiations that started on the 2nd of September in Washington. The subsequent talks in the presence of US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in Egyptian Resort of Sharm el Sheik and in Jerusalem proved yet another time that the core issues—which have defied all attempts at resolution in the past---continue to block the outcome of the recent attempt at peace-making. However, Secretary Clinton expressed optimism about the positive outcome of the negotiations. In an interview with the ABC News channel, Clinton gave voice to US hopes that Israel would extend its partial construction moratorium past a Sept. 30 expiration date. She urged both Palestinian and Israeli leaders to ‘seize the moment of opportunity’ besides describing President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as ‘sincere and serious’ leaders. ‘I would say they’re in a constructive channel and that has been very reassuring to us,’ is how she described the ambiance after her meetings with both leaders.

US special envoy for Middle East, George Mitchell who is a former Senate majority leader from Maine, also echoed the same optimism of his boss when he said that “their common goal remains two states for two peoples, and they’re committed to a solution to the conflict that resolves all issues.” He hoped that peace talks had the potential of brokering a deal between the both parties within a year.

Despite demonstration of this optimism by the top US officials, situation on the ground paints a very grim picture. Israel continues to stay firm on its decision to resume the construction of houses along West Bank. The 10-month construction moratorium is due to expire on September 30 this month and there are clear indications that Tel Aviv would resume the building activity. Israeli Prime Minister said this in no uncertain terms that “The end of settlement freeze must not be allowed to foil the talks.” So far calls for extension of moratorium for another three months have failed to elicit any positive response from the Israeli side. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak told Israel’s Channel 1 TV “he had raised the idea with Netanyahu to keep the moratorium in place for another three months, hoping to buy time for negotiators to agree on the borders of a Palestinian state.” In the same way, George Mitchell also opposed the Israeli decision to resume the construction activity: “We think it makes sense to extend the moratorium, given that the talks are moving in a constructive direction.”

The traditional obduracy of Benjamin Netanyahu owes itself to the political considerations. The right-wing coalition partners of his administration have threatened to leave the government if construction is not restarted in the West Bank. There is a strong opposition to extending the settlement freeze. Likewise, Mahmoud Abbas is also equally constrained to go ahead with the peace process unless Tel Aviv betrays manifest signs of addressing the Palestinian concerns, which includes placement of ban on establishment of new settlements in the West Bank and an end to siege of Gaza strip. ‘The president (Mahmoud Abbas) reiterated to Secretary Clinton the Palestinian position regarding the requirements for the continuation of the peace process, specifically the issue of freezing settlement construction and ending the occupation,’ said the spokesman of Palestinian Authority Nabil Abu Rdainah.

While the American engagement in the Middle Eastern crisis was long awaited, it is yet to be seen as to how it would be able to ease out escalating tensions in the region. The last eight years of George W. Bush dealt a severe blow to the image of the US as honest broker. Exploiting the 9/11 catastrophe, the neoconservatives who dominated the administration of President Bush launched a so-called project of ‘remaking’ the Middle East. Israel was given a predominant role of a sheriff and a lackey ready to do Washington’s bidding at the throw of a hat.

Any attempt at resolving the decade-old conflict must take care of the factors which created the problem in the first place. It must aim at addressing the root causes of the issue. The problem with various negotiations brokered by the US is that they have tended to deal with the symptoms or outcome of the problem, not its root cause, which is to give back to Palestinians their state to live in as per the resolutions of the United Nations.

The off-and-on nature of talks between Palestinians and Israelis has failed to produce any concrete result so far. The consequent disenchantment of Palestinians with the negotiations as a way out of the costly conflict is justified. It has radicalized a whole generation of people there. It needs to be told at the cost of repetition that Palestinian question is mainly a political question, which has enjoyed mainstream support from across people of different religions including Christians and right-thinking Jews. However, protracted nature of the dispute and the silence of the world community have tended to cast the entire problem into religious colour i.e. terrorism etc., which militates against the moral and political values of the freedom movement of Palestinians.

Israeli-Palestinian dispute presents the formidable challenge for the American foreign policy under President Obama. Presidential candidate Obama blasted the foreign policy of then president Bush in his campaign speeches and debates. He said that the American foreign policy lost moral and strategic principles in the administration of George Bush who, according to Obama, played havoc with the American values and dreams. His slogan of ‘change’ epitomized of what was wrong with the policies of his predecessor.

Obama’s response to the foreign policies challenges has been slow and studied. The observers of the American scene have dubbed it as ‘internationalist/neo-realist approach’. His rhetoric and speeches have indicated the fact that he is aware of the need of ‘de-neoconizing’ the foreign policy. For those of us who wanted to see ‘structural changes in the American global strategy’, it should be clear by now that he is no revolutionary who is transforming the traditional U.S. policy in the Middle East. Instead, he is trying to turn back the radical foreign policy approach pursued by Bush and his neoconservative advisors (i.e. the policy of preemption, regime change, unilateralism, and so-called democratic agenda). He wants to recapture some of the elements of strategic status-quo that existed in the Middle East before 9/11. This is a call for return to Bill Clinton’s era in the domain of foreign policies. This also explains his disengagement from Iraq as well as increasing disenchantment with Afghan mission.

The entire world especially Europe is duty bound to right a historic injustice done to a people with unique civilization, culture and traditions. They are the ones who gave birth to the problem and it is they who should make sure that it is resolved to the satisfaction of the Palestinians. Thus when the US gets involved in the peace process, it is not a favour but constitutes fulfillment of an obligation.

The above-mentioned notwithstanding, Palestinian issue is the acid test for Obama. Reconciling the domestic political imperatives with role of honest broker in the Israel-Palestine conflict is the highest challenge on his foreign policy calculus. There is a trust deficit within the Middle Eastern community in general and Palestinians in particular. He needs to act fast to regain the lost respect and confidence. This also calls for widening the scope of talks through incorporation of global input such as European Union, Arab League, OIC and the UN.

(The writer is Australia-based PhD candidate)