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>> The Financial Times


The Financial Times - July 31, 2013

by David Gardner

Already-low expectations of the meeting in Washington between Israelis and Palestinians – talks about resuming talks – are probably not low enough. The wheels came off the Middle East peace caravan long ago, and the only process that has advanced is Israel’s relentless colonisation of occupied Palestinian land.

John Kerry, US secretary of state, has exerted himself mightily in bringing the two sides back to the table. But he has wasted his energy unless the US, backed by its allies, insists on a solution that ends the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Arab East Jerusalem.

It may already be impossible to roll back Israel’s presence – with more than 500,000 settlers in place – to boundaries that would make a Palestinian state viable. The contours of an eventual resolution were drawn long ago, in the (Bill) Clinton parameters of late 2000 and the Arab League peace offer first tabled in 2002. This was full recognition of Israel in exchange for its withdrawal from most of the land it captured in the 1967 Six day war – the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem, the 22 per cent residue of Mandate Palestine that would become a Palestinian state.

There are, essentially, three preconditions for any prospect of this happening. First, the US would have to state – ideally at the UN Security Council – that the starting point for negotiations is Israel’s 1967 borders and that the US cannot indefinitely wield its Security Council veto (used 42 times to shield Israel from international condemnation) if the Israeli government refuses to negotiate seriously.

Second, Israel would need a government willing to withdraw from almost all of the occupied territories with limited land swaps so some settlements can be incorporated within Israel’s final borders.

Third, the Palestinian movement would have to heal its split between the nationalists of Fatah and Islamists of Hamas, with a common prospectus of: a state on less than a quarter of Palestine; compensation rather than the right of return for the vast majority of nearly 5m refugees; full recognition of Israel.

The first possibility is vanishingly slim. President Barack Obama plainly sees it as in Israel’s long-term security interest and the US national interest to reach a fair settlement of the Palestinian conflict, but he has not been prepared to act to make that possible. When Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s prime minister, refused his demand to freeze settlement building, which Mr Obama had called illegitimate, the president not only capitulated. In February 2011 he vetoed a Security Council resolution condemning resumed colonisation, even though his own army commanders lobbied him not to.

The second precondition is no easier. East Jerusalem has been colonised and the West Bank has been cantonised; structurally, Israel’s political spectrum is too fragmented to close a deal, even if a majority of Israelis back it. This is not just about the slippery irredentism of Mr Netanyahu and his allies. All Israeli governments intended the settlements to be permanent.

Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas, documents leaked in 2011 showed, was willing to give up nearly all of East Jerusalem but was still scorned by the previous, allegedly moderate Israeli government – in which Tzipi Livni, the current chief negotiator, figured large.

The third precondition might, in theory, be the least difficult of the three. Hamas has been chastened by the fall of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and has fallen out with Iran by refusing to back Bashar al-Assad in Syria. But this is academic without real movement by the US and Israel on the first two preconditions.

Put another way, Palestinian leaders such as Mr Abbas, conscious they are by far the weaker party, have based their tactics on two assumptions: that Israel wanted a Palestinian state, since otherwise Jews would end up outnumbered by Arabs in the cramped territory between the river Jordan and the Mediterranean; and that the US would chivvy Israel into assenting to such a state, since it is manifestly in America’s interest to stabilise the Middle East and damp down Arab and Muslim hostility to its policies.

These assumptions, logical as they may be, have proved baseless. The occupation grinds on.

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