September 25, 2010

Direct Talks Suffer Confidence Crisis

It wasn’t supposed to be like this. Not “Peace talks in jeopardy, Clinton and Abbas meet” again. Not this time, they told us. Launched in the face of overwhelming doubt, direct negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians (filtered through US mediation) earned their prejudices over the last month.

"It is a pretty intense set of negotiations going on right now with the Israelis and the Palestinians," said Jeffrey Feltman, assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern affairs. "We know that time is short. This is an important issue."

But while US officials may hold a compromise in their hands come Sunday morning, they must realize during the next 24 hour blur that Israeli settlements have outgrown their block.

The purpose of halting settlement activity in Palestinian territory isn’t the act in itself. Having suffered so many hardships under Israeli occupation, the Palestinians occupy the disadvantage going into direct talks. Instituting a settlement freeze was supposed to level the playing field and restore confidence in the peace process, yet neither objective seems to have been accomplished. As Israeli government spokesman Mark Regev explained, "We were very up front. We always said the freeze was about new construction, and in that case it has been full."

According to the Associated Press
, which compiled records for the deadline, “housing starts in West Bank settlements dropped to zero in the first quarter of 2010 compared with 342 in the year-earlier period, according to government data. 2,517 housing units were still listed as under construction.” But the AP also notes, “those figures do not include illegal construction or mobile homes, both of which are common.”

"The freeze is meaningful only if it is extended," said Hagit Ofran, who tracks settlements for Israeli watchdog Peace Now. "If they are going to approve new buildings, all this will have meant is that a few projects were delayed."

Peace Now claims that 450 units have actually begun construction.

Though US President Barack Obama has lavished Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s “freeze” for “improving the atmosphere for talks,” the Palestinians’ late resistance indicates that they aren’t so impressed. And the Palestinian people have their leaders’ backs. A September poll by An Najah University in the West Bank city of Nablus found 58% back direct negotiations, an unstable figure in itself that drops to 15% without an extension.

The good news is that some consensus believes an extension would “significantly” impact the ground. The bad news is that enforcement can’t be guaranteed, especially as Israeli settlers become more active in self-organization. Washington could walk away with a three or six month freeze and still impress upon the Palestinians that Israel holds the upper hand in the West Bank and in negotiations. Little confidence would be built going into refugees and Jerusalem, issues that will ultimately dwarf the melee over settlements.

The current showdown makes Obama’s speech to the UN General Assembly that much more disturbing, although it fell perfectly in line with his pro-Israeli stance. The Palestinians cheered as Obama preached for their state, enthusiasm that appears more a product of historic US neglect than hope in future mediation. President Mahmoud Abbas didn’t have much to applaud once the speech finished in Israel’s corner.

Failing to make the same promise for a Palestinian state, Obama declared, “It should be clear to all that efforts to chip away at Israel’s legitimacy will only be met by the unshakable opposition of the United States.” And when he concluded, “The slaughter of innocent Israelis is not resistance - it’s injustice,” the reverse scenario received no such attention.

Obama made no mention of Gaza, not even after the UN found that Israeli soldiers aboard the Freedom flotilla committed “disproportionate,” “willful killing.”

Though these events inspire plenty of confidence in Israel, the Palestinians can’t possibly hold the same view. The key isn’t extending the “freeze,” but building confidence that direct negotiations won’t collapse in the future. Netanyahu’s hardball has only scored points on the Israeli right, putting everyone else - Israeli moderates, Washington, and the Palestinians - in the hole. And Obama is having a hard time digging America out.

Surely this must be a factor in Fatah and Hamas holding new discussions on reconciliation.

The Palestinians have no choice but to walk without any sort of extension. Give them any rope, in this case a partial three-month extension, and they’re likely to grab on with no other option in sight. But to truly restore the Palestinians’ confidence in Netanyahu, who enjoys no trust in the Arab world, Washington should recognize the benefits of a total three or six-month extension, invigorate the wary Palestinians, resolve the border dispute, unlock the settlement issue, and conserve every ounce of momentum for the final challenges ahead.

Otherwise Obama and Clinton could find themselves trapped in a perpetual 11th hour throughout the “non-cynical,” one-year deadline Obama imposed on the conflict. Doubtful that any two-state solution can arise from these conditions, let alone a stable one.

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