Peace Talks: Leapfrogging the Arab spring

Israel can try to ‘get ahead of the curve’ or find that other initiatives are on the way to solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

By ISRAEL KASNETT
April 9, 2011 10:27
President Peres with US President Obama

President Peres with US President Obama 311 (GPO). (photo credit: Mark Neyman / GPO)

 
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Numerous Middle East countries have been rocked by domestic turmoil, two dictators have been removed by their own citizens and a third may face the same fate. It’s a changed world, but the Israeli-Palestinian conflict looks the same.

This past Tuesday, President Shimon Peres met with US President Barack Obama.

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Peres undoubtedly traveled to the US with Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s full support and backing and after close coordination on the content of the meeting, out of which came some significant remarks.

“With the winds of change blowing through the Arab world, it’s more urgent than ever that we try to seize the opportunity to create a peaceful solution between the Palestinians and the Israelis,” Obama said.

Obama evidently believes that now is a good time to move ahead on the peace process, especially with dramatic political and social changes – the “Arab spring” – taking place in the Middle East.

Israel’s position appears similar. As reported in The Jerusalem Post Tuesday, Netanyahu is aware of Peres’s belief that the upheavals in the Middle East make it imperative to try and quickly come to an agreement with the Palestinians before a new Middle East order is set, so that when the rulers of this new order come to power, the Israeli-Palestinian issue will no longer be at the top of the regional agenda.

Clearly, both Peres and Netanyahu are in agreement that Israel would be less wise to just wait and see how things develop in the region; rather, it is smarter for it to get ahead of the curve and set facts on the ground that will then become givens when the new rulers come into power.

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HOW EXACTLY Israel can “get ahead of the curve” – and how the US can help – was one of the main topics of the Peres-Obama talks.

Other leaders share this ambition, but also believe that the Israeli-Palestinian issue rests at the core of the larger Middle Eastern problem. The EU Institute for Security Studies published a report in December 2010 quoting the 2003 European Security Strategy, which states that the “Arab-Israeli conflict is a strategic priority for Europe,” and “as long as it remains unresolved, there will be little chance of dealing with other problems in the Middle East.” The EU Foreign Affairs Council Meeting held in Brussels in December 2010 adopted the conclusion that “the EU believes that urgent progress is needed towards a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”

On Wednesday, EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs Catherine Ashton said, “I reiterate that the EU considers that settlement activities in the West Bank, including east Jerusalem, are illegal under international law, undermine trust between the parties and constitute an obstacle to peace.” And in February, Ashton told the United Nations Security Council in New York that the unfolding change in the Middle East was making progress on the Middle East peace process more vital now than ever.

But according to Prof. Mordechai Kedar, a lecturer at Bar-Ilan University’s department of Arabic and a member of the BESA Center, if the world wishes to bring stability and calm to the Middle East, there is no choice but to let the modern Arab countries – those whose boundaries were set by colonialism – collapse and break up into small states, each based on one homogeneous group.

This has major implications for the Middle East, since each of those Arab states could break up into dozens more if every ethnic, religious, denominational and tribal group were to get its way.

According to Kedar, the fundamental problem characterizing Middle Eastern states has nothing to do with Israel; rather, it is that they have “no legitimacy in the eyes of their citizenry because their borders were marked by European colonial interests.”

British Prime Minister David Cameron admitted this recently on a visit to Pakistan, when he said that Britain was responsible for many of the world’s problems. According to The Telegraph, Cameron said Britain was to blame for decades of tension and several wars over the disputed territory, as well as other global conflicts.

THE EU has invested a lot in peace talks and is working hard to ensure they rematerialize. In a press release on Tuesday, the EU announced it was contributing 20 million euros (around NIS 100m.) to the Palestinian Authority’s payment of March salaries and pensions of almost 85,000 Palestinian public service providers and pensioners, both in the West Bank and in the Gaza Strip.

Europe’s role in trying to resolve the Arab- Israeli conflict has been secondary, mostly providing financial aid to Palestinians, as the US predominantly heads peacemaking efforts. Now, European leaders would like to change that dynamic and gain a central role in mediating peace talks.

At the EU-Israel Association Council’s session held in Brussels in February, Hungarian Foreign Minister János Martonyi said the peace process was “crucial.”

“We are convinced that progress on the peace process is more imperative and more urgent than ever before,” he claimed.

Countering this, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman said the current instability in the Middle East was mainly caused by poverty and misery, but by no means by the Israeli- Palestinian conflict.

Interestingly, in the US Peace Index – a new study just released by the Institute for Economics and Peace in the US, and whose groundbreaking research includes the Global Peace Index (GPI) – researchers found that peace is significantly correlated with factors related to economic opportunity, education and health. It also found that the potential economic gains from improvements in peace are significant.

This week, the International Monetary Fund gave the Palestinian Authority a strong vote of confidence, saying it was capable of running a national economy after achieving significant economic reforms. This is notable, since a stronger economy would be conducive to creating a viable peace.

EVEN IF the PA did acquiesce to Israel’s request to return to the negotiating table, it would not happen – at least at this point – until after Israel fulfilled certain conditions. The PA on Wednesday reiterated its demand for a full cessation of settlement construction as a precondition for resuming peace talks with Israel.

PA President Mahmoud Abbas, who met in Amman on Tuesday night with David Hale, assistant to US Middle East special envoy George Mitchell, also demanded that the Quartet members, who are supposed to meet in mid-April, issue a “clear statement” that calls for a complete cessation of settlement construction and defines the terms of reference of the talks on the basis of a twostate solution on the 1967 borders.

Abbas’s spokesman, Nabil Abu Rudaineh, said that a Palestinian delegation headed by Saeb Erekat, the chief PLO negotiator, would hold talks in Jordan with representatives of the Quartet – which, in addition to the US, includes Russia, the EU and the UN – to relay the PA demand to them. Erekat said the Quartet must assume its role in the Middle East peace process by calling for a settlement freeze during the Israeli-Palestinian talks.

Erekat stressed that the PA was not setting preconditions for returning to the negotiating table, but “these are obligations that Israel is required to meet under the terms of the road map for peace.”

However, according to a senior government source, Israel was never bound by the road map because the Palestinians never kept their part of the first phase of the agreement, which includes the stipulation for a complete cessation of terror, violence and incitement. He reiterated that even when Israel did freeze building for 10 months, the PA still did not come to the table.

Netanyahu, at a press conference with German Chancellor Angela Merkel Thursday, said the issue of settlements should not hinder a final peace solution with Palestinians.

A group of prominent former members of the defense establishment, including former heads of the Mossad and the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency), presented an initiative for peace with the Arab world this week. The plan calls for a Palestinian state comprising most of the West Bank and Gaza, with east Jerusalem as its capital. The initiative also calls for an Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights.

It may be the first of a number of new initiatives going the extra mile to get ahead of the curve.

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