It is now becoming increasingly apparent that, the efforts of Secretary Kerry notwithstanding, there is little chance of getting the two-state solution that has theoretically been the goal he has been pursuing in the Israel-Palestine talks he has brokered since July last year. Currently, as I write this, the Israelis have walked out of the talks because of the announcement by President Abbas that the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO), controlling 38 per cent of the West Bank and Hamas had reached a reconciliation agreement. Whether the PLO-Hamas agreement will be implemented remains open to question. Many such agreements have been reached in the past but have foundered because Hamas will not willingly yield the power it exercises in Gaza.
Circumstances have changed in Gaza. The change of leadership in Egypt and the persecution of the Muslim Brotherhood, with whom Hamas had a close relationship, have brought in their wake new restrictions on the use of tunnels from Gaza into Egypt and an end to the supply of subsidised fuel from Egypt. Economic conditions in Gaza have deteriorated. Unemployment in Gaza has risen according to reliable statistics from 18.7 per cent in 2000 to 38.5 per cent in the last quarter of 2013. Today, more than 57 per cent of Gaza households are deemed to be ‘food insecure’ and 70 per cent are recipients of food aid. But is this enough to drive the Hamas leadership to accepting PLO leadership and more importantly, to change the stance it has adopted on Israel?
The reaction in Israel has been to call off the talks with Netanyahu saying, “Whoever chooses Hamas does not want peace”. He described Hamas as “a murderous terrorist organisation that calls for the destruction of Israel”.
In less provocative language, the message from Washington was the same. The State Department spokesperson said, “Any Palestinian government must unambiguously and explicitly commit to nonviolence, recognition of the state of Israel, and acceptance of previous agreements and obligations between the parties…”. “It’s hard to see how Israel can be expected to negotiate with a government that does not believe in its right to exist.”
The Palestinian argument that in the past the Israelis has used the pretext of divisions in the Palestinian ranks to delay peacemaking and were now using the reconciliation of the Palestinians as an excuse for the same purpose, seemed to find little traction in Tel Aviv or Washington. Similarly, little serious attention has been given to President Abbas’s statement that “there is no contradiction at all” between reconciliation and negotiation and that Palestine “remained committed to establishing a just and comprehensive peace based on the two state principle”.
The Kerry effort to get a two-state solution started in July last year and nine months had been agreed upon as the period in which the talks would be brought to a point where a ‘final solution’ of the dispute could be announced. The current imbroglio seems to suggest that the prospects of an extension beyond April 30th are now very slim if not non-existent.
This was to be expected. From the start, Israel’s hard-line Prime Minister Netanyahu had little interest in progress on this track, choosing instead to use the enormous influence Israel enjoyed in Washington to divert attention to the threat that Iran’s possible acquisition of nuclear weapon capability posed to Israel and more generally, to peace in the Middle East.
Despite American pleas, he refused to halt settlement activity. He balked at the release of the final installment of Palestinian prisoners that had been one of the basic demands of the Palestinians for the talks. He insisted on Palestinian recognition of Israel as a ‘Jewish’ state.
With the Arab world in disarray and Israel indisputably the dominant power of the region, Netanyahu’s extremist followers seem intent on the short-sighted policy of thwarting the creation of a viable Palestinian state. The international community and the Americans, in particular, have to take account of what this can mean for the further spread of the cancer that is now eating away at moderation and tolerance in the Muslim world.
Published in The Express Tribune, April 28th, 2014.