peace process

While Europe is tentatively finding a voice in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, silence reigns across the Atlantic. The White House appears paralysed, afraid to appear out of sync with world opinion but more afraid still of upsetting Israel and its powerful allies in the US Congress. Now there is an additional complicating factor: the Israeli public, due to elect a new government in three months’ time, increasingly regards the US role as toxic.

Haaretz warned this week that, if Netanyahu’s Jewish nation-state bill passed, it would remove Israel “from the community of democratic nations, and give it a place of honour instead beside those dark regimes in which minorities are persecuted”. But as human rights groups in Israel explain, Israel has long dwelt among such dark regimes. Netanyahu’s bill simply helps to shine a light on that fact.

The British parliamentary vote adds to the momentum initiated this month by the Swedish government’s decision to break with its established EU partners by pledging to recognise Palestine. The tide of history is turning. Israel is losing the moral argument in Europe, where the Zionist movement began. That tide will spread across Europe and ultimately lap up against the shores of Capitol Hill and the White House.

With Israel and Hamas locked in military stalemate after their 50-day confrontation in Gaza, attention had returned to reviving a peace process between Israel and Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas. That is the context for assessing Israel’s decision to antagonise all its main partners against Hamas by announcing plans this week for the biggest land grab in the West Bank in three decades.

Two investigations by the Israeli media illustrate the profoundly unhelpful role played by the US. They suggest that, whatever its public statements, the US is assisting Israel not only in what Barack Obama called its right to “self-defence” but in actively damaging Palestinian interests. And it seems not to matter whether the Palestinians in question are Hamas or the preferred negotiating partner, Mahmoud Abbas.

The biggest paradox of the two-decade peace process is that, to realise his goal of statehood, Mahmoud Abbas is using a vehicle, the Palestinian Authority, that is incapable of bringing him to his destination. The nearer he gets to real statehood, or a prosecution against Israel for war crimes, the more certain it is that Israel and the US will pull the plug on the PA. But if the PA never becomes more than a security contractor for the occupation, then it will be brought down by the wrath of the Palestinians themselves.

The US and Israel have relied on the endless theatrics of the two-decade peace process as a distraction from the main developments on the ground. UN special rapporteur Richard Falk noted that Israel has cynically exploited the peace process to expand its settlement programme. The innocuous term “settlements” conceals their true role: as Israel’s primary vehicle for ethnic cleansing.

Reports that Washington was offering to free Israel’s most notorious spy, Jonathan Pollard, as part of an unorthodox prisoner exchange has provoked feverish excitement in Israel. The move appeared to be the sweetener in a last-ditch effort by US President Barack Obama’s administration to prevent the demise of current peace talks

President Obama and his secretary of state, John Kerry, want their much-delayed “framework agreement” to provide the pretext for spinning out the talks for another year. The last thing the US president needs is for the negotiations to collapse, after Kerry has repeatedly stressed that finding a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is imperative.

Israelis rarely hear facts about the abuses faced by Palestinians under occupation, either from their politicians or the media. Israelis have grown content to live in a large bubble of denial. Netanyahu and his ministers are making every effort to reinforce that bubble, just as they have tried to shield Israelis from the fact that they live in the Middle East, not Europe, by building walls on every side – both physical and bureaucratic – to exclude Palestinians, Arab neighbours, foreign workers and asylum seekers.

Under pressure on various fronts, Netanyahu hastily convened his senior ministers to devise a strategy to counter the boycott trend. Proposals include a $28 million media campaign, legal action against boycotting institutions, and intensified surveillance of overseas activists by the Mossad. The delegitimisation of Israel is truly under way, but the party doing most of the damage is the Israeli leadership itself.

Moshe Yaalon, Israel’s defence minister, launched an unprecedented and personal attack on US Secretary of State John Kerry last week, calling him “obsessive and messianic”. Furious US officials denounced the comments as “offensive”. And yet what might have been expected – a fulsome, even grovelling apology – failed to materialise, only a limp statement of regret.

Israel and the United States now appear to regard the Palestinian refusal to recognise Israel as a Jewish state as the key obstacle to a peace agreement. Suddenly it has become the cornerstone of Israeli diplomacy. But this demand made its debut only in 2007 – 14 years after the Oslo accords originally laid down the path that was supposed to lead to Palestinian statehood. So what is at stake for both sides on the recognition issue?

A sense of urgency looms because Washington is supposed to unveil next month its so-called “framework proposal” for the creation of a Palestinian state, in a last desperate effort to break the logjam in negotiations. For this reason, the outlines of the US vision of an agreement are coming into focus. And, as many feared, the picture looks bleak for the Palestinians.

Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu made what was presumably intended to sound like a historic peace gesture towards the Palestinians last week. He invited Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, to Jerusalem to address the Israeli parliament, echoing Menachem Begin’s invitation to Egypt’s president, Anwar Sadat, in 1977. In reality, Netanyahu’s offer was as hollow as his previous utterances about Palestinian statehood.

Israel alone had the means, track record, stated intention and motive to kill Yasser Arafat. Without Israel’s fingerprints on the murder weapon, it may be impossible to secure a conviction in a court of law, but there is evidence enough to convict Israel in the court of world opinion.

Zionism was a reaction to the extreme ethnic nationalisms that dominated – and nearly destroyed – Europe last century. It is therefore hardly surprising that it mirrors their faults. In exporting to the Middle East this kind of nationalism, Zionism was always bound to play a negative role in the region

At Israel’s insistence, the peace talks have been entirely shielded from public view. Privacy, Israel argued, would ease the pressure on the two parties and give them greater room to be forthcoming and creative. The reality, however, is that the lack of scrutiny has allowed Israel to drag its feet. Secrecy, Israel hopes, will give it the cover it expects to need when – as seems certain – the talks end inconclusively, or the Palestinians storm out.

The focus of last week’s World Bank report is on the nearly two-thirds of the West Bank, known as Area C, exclusively under Israeli control and in which Israel has implanted more than 200 settlements to grab Palestinian land and resources. The report reflects mounting frustration in European capitals and elsewhere at Israeli intransigence and seeming US impotence. Europeans, in particular, are exasperated at their continuing role effectively subsidising through aid an Israeli occupation with no end in sight.

The talks, which are set to begin in earnest in mid-August, are taking place not because either Israel or the Palestinians believe a deal is in reach. The two sides are talking to avoid being blamed for embarrassing the US. The White House’s motivation, meanwhile, was suggested by an official this week: they desperately want to avoid the “train wreck” of the Palestinians returning to the UN in September.

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