The American envoy for Middle East peace is not a man to envy. Senator George Mitchell is trying to remain upbeat while shuttling between Jerusalem and the surrounding Arab capitals, but his deepening wrinkles leave no place for doubt: the Israeli-Palestinian peace process is – yet again – in dire straits.
Direct negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority were re-launched a month ago in Washington, so how come they’re derailing so quickly? The issue now in the forefront is Israeli settlements in the West Bank, after the Israeli government announced last November a 10-month moratorium on construction as a trust-building step. It took the international community nine of those months to get the Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas on board, and the Israeli prime minister is now under intense pressure to prolong the moratorium further. Abbas has threatened to leave the talks if it is not renewed.
But many people here feel that the settlements issue is just a red herring. Jonathan Dahoah-Halevi, former adviser for policy planning at the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs, says that problems are far greater, and that “chances for successful negotiations are slim, as Israel is ready for an historic and painful compromise while the Palestinians insist on implementing what they call ‘justice’, which means evacuating Israeli cities for absorbing millions of Palestinians”.
Other commentators point to the fact that more than a dozen Jewish settlements in the Gaza strip were evacuated by the Israeli army in just one day in August 2005. Moreover, Palestinians have already agreed to some kind of “territory swap”, according to which major Jewish settlements in the West Bank will remain in Israeli hands, in return for territory now in the State of Israel.
“The real problem is neither borders nor security issues,” wrote Amos Gilboa, a commentator for the daily Maariv, suggesting what most Israelis believe: that the aspirations of the Jewish and of the Palestinian national movements are currently unbridgeable – what Israel can yield seems not enough for the Palestinians, and what they consider minimal is impossible for Israel.
The core issues are the real problem, and the thorniest of these, according to Dahoah-Halevi, is the refugees issue, created after the Palestinians lost the war of 1948. A senior Palestinian negotiator recently told a group of Israeli journalists in Tel Aviv that “no Arab leader can give up the demand that Palestinian refugees resettle in Israel”. The problem for Israel, though, is that there are currently almost five million Palestinian refugees and about the same number of Jews in Israel, so resettling the refugees in Israel would end it as a Jewish state.
A collapse in talks might lead to the familiar blame game and even to a renewed wave of violence. A more optimistic view, though, sees the current crisis as yet another example of the brinksmanship nature of regional politics. This being the Middle East, expect the unexpected.