January 2011

Is the Palestinian Authority finished and, with it, 18 years of the Middle East peace process? That is the question increasingly being asked by Palestinians in the wake of a week of damaging revelations that Palestinian negotiators secretly made major concessions to Israel in talks on Jerusalem, refugees and borders. The question of the PA’s survival, and the future direction of Palestinian politics, has gained added urgency as the wider Middle East is rocked by unrest, from Tunisia to Yemen.

Rivals camps within Israel’s political and security echelons appear to be at loggerheads over whether Israel should keep open an option to launch a military attack on Iran. The feud has been brought to the fore by comments from Meir Dagan, the outgoing director of the Mossad spy agency, that Iran is not in a position to develop a nuclear bomb before 2015 at the earliest. His assessment conflicts with previous Israeli estimates, including one presented in 2009 by Ehud Barak, the defence minister, that Tehran might have a nuclear weapon as soon as this year.

A towering concrete wall looms over the main street of what was once a flourishing market in the northern Israeli town of Baqa al-Gharbiya, or Western Baqa. The 8-metre high barrier separates them from the West Bank and their former twin, Eastern Baqa. Western Baqa’s 22,000 Arab residents say they are opposed to living in the shadow of a wall that separates brothers from sisters and children from their parents. But they were equally unhappy to learn this week that, as part of peace negotiations with the Palestinians three years ago, Israel secretly proposed redrawing the borders to strip them and potentially tens of thousands of other Israeli Arabs of their citizenship.

For more than a decade, since the collapse of the Camp David talks in 2000, the mantra of Israeli politics has been the same: “There is no Palestinian partner for peace.” This week, the first of hundreds of leaked confidential Palestinian documents, the so-called Palestine Papers, confirmed the suspicions of a growing number of observers that the rejectionists in the peace process are to be found on the Israeli, not Palestinian, side.

Thousands of pilgrims flocked this week to Israel’s latest tourist attraction, touted as the place where Jesus was baptised in the River Jordan. Visitors to Qasr al Yahud, in the Jordan Valley, received an unusual welcome, however. They had to pass through a fenced-off corridor warning that landmines surrounded them on all sides. At the river’s edge, they were watched over by armed Israeli soldiers in watchtowers with orders to stop anyone trying to cross the short stretch of water that marks the border with Jordan.

Ehud Barak, Israel’s defence minister, appears to have driven the final nail in the coffin of the Zionist left with his decision to split from the Labor party and create a new “centrist, Zionist” faction in the Israeli parliament. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has pressing reasons for wanting Barak to stay in the most rightwing government in Israel’s history. He has provided useful diplomatic cover as Netanyahu has stymied progress in a US-sponsored peace process.

Jewish investors, led by a Jerusalem city councillor, last week foiled a bid by businessman Bashar Masri to become the first Palestinian to own a Jewish settlement in East Jerusalem. A coalition of settler groups and Israeli business leaders had branded as “treason” the initial acceptance of Masri’s offer late last month to bail out the settlement project’s owner, Digal, an Israeli investment company.

Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s prime minister, risked further straining relations with the White House, already damaged by the impasse in peace talks, by writing an open letter this week to President Barack Obama urging the release of spy Jonathan Pollard. It is the first time that an Israeli government has made a formal request for clemency for Pollard, who was sentenced to life in 1987 for passing thousands of classified documents to Israel while serving in US naval intelligence.