US-sponsored Mideast peace talks facing failure?

(By Deutsche Welle) US Secretary of State John Kerry has forged a tentative agreement between Israelis and Palestinians on renewed peace talks. But the two sides still face fundamental disagreements about the preconditions for negotiations.

Three years after US President Barack Obama’s failed foray into the intractable Israeli-Palestinian conflict, his secretary of state returned to Washington over the weekend with an apparent pledge by the two sides to restart negotiations aimed at a peace accord.

“I’m pleased to announce that we’ve reached an agreement that establishes a basis for resuming final status negotiations between the Palestinians and the Israelis,” Secretary of State John Kerry told reporters last Friday in Jordan’s capital, Amman.

But both the Israelis and Palestinians have remained mum over the details of the prospective talks, delegating the public relations job to Kerry. And the US secretary of state has told the press only that the two sides have agreed to sit down with each other at the negotiating table.

The chief Israeli and Palestinian negotiators – Tzipi Livni and Saeb Erekat – would begin preliminary talks in Washington “within the next week or so,” according to Kerry.

“Neither side wants to be blamed for a collapse of Kerry’s efforts, and both sides are in fact nervous that without some process the situation will deteriorate and produce a worse outcome,” Aaron Miller, a vice president of the Woodrow Wilson Center and a former advisor to Democrat and Republican secretaries of state, told DW.

“The question that remains to be seen is whether or not both Netanyahu and Abbas have made private commitments to Kerry on the parameters that guide the negotiations,” Miller said.

Dispute over borders and settlements

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said last Sunday that his Cabinet would have to first approve the talks before they could actually begin. Netanyahu has insisted that direct negotiations should have no preconditions, and that the Palestinians must make concessions.

“Throughout the process I will insist, I already insist, on Israel’s security needs and vital interests,” Netanyahu said. “Our negotiating partners will also have to make concessions that will allow us to guarantee our security and our vital national interests.”

The Palestinians, however, insist that direct talks can take place only if certain preconditions are met. Palestinian presidential spokesman Nabil Abu Rudeineh said on Sunday that Israel must accept the borders that existed before the 1967 Arab-Israeli war as the basis for talks. Israel captured the West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem during that conflict. Prime Minister Netanyahu has rejected the pre-1967 borders as “indefensible.”

And on Monday, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas once again called for a freeze on the construction of Jewish settlements, the issue over which talks collapsed in 2010. “We stress our position that settlements have been illegal since 1967,” Abbas said in a newspaper interview.

“There’s not going to be a comprehensive settlement freeze,” Miller said. “There may be a de facto one in the West Bank and the avoidance of certain high profile activities in Jerusalem, but there will never be an acknowledged comprehensive settlements’ freeze.”

According to Miller, resolving first the problem of borders could provide a framework for subsequently tackling the intractable issue of settlements in East Jerusalem and the West Bank.

“The logic is that if you can resolve borders, you can then figure out what to do about settlements, which settlements are going to be incorporated into blocs, which settlers are going to be incorporated in the state of Israel, how to deal with the ones that aren’t,” he said.

Consequences of failure

US President Barack Obama personally waded into the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in 2010, hoping to bring the two sides to the negotiating table. But he quickly butted heads with Prime Minister Netanyahu over both settlements in the West Bank and Gaza, as well as the borders of a future Palestinian state.

At the time, the administration called for a 90-day freeze on new settlement building, but eventually abandoned the proposal. Netanyahu had run into trouble getting approval from his Cabinet for the proposal. Ultimately, US officials said that a 90-day freeze wouldn’t have sustained renewed talks anyways.

According to University of Chicago professor John Mearsheimer, US-sponsored talks are unlikely to succeed this time around. He said that the Israelis have no interest in a viable Palestinian state and powerful interest groups prevent the United States from putting real pressure on its closest Mideast ally.

“[During] Barack Obama’s first term as president, he had four major confrontations with Prime Minister Netanyahu over settlements, and in all four of those cases not only did Obama lose to Netanyahu, but he was humiliated by Netanyahu,” Mearsheimer, co-author of the book “The Israel Lobby and US Foreign Policy,” told DW.

“The only reason why that happened was because of the great power of the Israel lobby in the United States,” the foreign policy expert said.

In 2010, chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat told Israeli Army radio that there was likely only one shot left to achieve a two-state solution, and the alternative would be one state for both Israelis and Palestinians. In 2007, Former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert had already articulated the consequences of a one-state scenario, saying that Israel would “face a South African-style struggle for equal voting rights, and as soon as that happens, the state of Israel is finished.”

“The lobby and the United States of America, and the Europeans for that matter, are helping Israel turn itself into an apartheid state,” Mearsheimer said. “This is a remarkable situation. In fact, it’s an incredibly depressing situation, but it’s just what we’re faced with at this point in time.”

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