After a gap of almost three years, talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority are set to resume in Washington. The talks follow six visits to the Middle East in the past five months by US Secretary of State John Kerry, and thanks to his endeavours the two parties have agreed to meet for direct face to face talks. Both sides will be led by skilled negotiators: on the Palestinian side by highly capable Saab Erekat, and on the Israeli side by Tzipni Livni, Israel’s Justice Minister.
The talks have come as a surprise to many observers. Since assuming office in 2009, Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu has seemed far more hard-line on the question of a peace settlement than his predecessor Ehud Olmert. His relationship with US President Barack Obama has been difficult if not openly antagonistic. On the ground, Israeli settlements in the West Bank have gown apace. Netanyahu has endorsed the idea of building in the so-called 'E1 bloc' on the West Bank which would effectively rupture the contiguity of Palestinian land and leave East Jerusalem, the proposed capital of a future Palestinian state, cut off from most of the West Bank.
A seemingly bleak picture of poor prospects has radically changed in the past month. Secretary Kerry can take much of the credit; he has shown an energy and commitment which was absent in the latter part of Hillary Clinton's tenure as secretary of state. At the same time, both Israel and Palestine have been deeply affected by the upheavals that have swept the Arab world in the past two years. The ouster of Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak and his subsequent trial robbed Israel of its closest Arab ally and created great uncertainty in what was the Arab world’s most powerful state. To a lesser extent Palestinian President Abbas also felt he too had lost his most important political backer. On Israel’s northern border, Syria’s raging civil war has threatened to undermine the ceasefire which has been in place in the occupied Golan Heights since the war of 1973.
Conscious of its deteriorating strategic position Israel has tentatively sought to develop ties with some Gulf States, especially the United Arab Emirates. Saudi Arabia, the most conservative of Arab states, has always been regarded as immune to Israeli approaches but Riyadh is conscious of the contacts between Israel and the UAE. Religion and politics has sharpened the divide between Sunni and Shia Muslims, and Israel has sought to take advantage of the Sunni Arab world's profound hostility towards Iran and its Lebanese ally, Hezbollah. The latter's overt involvement in the Syrian civil war on the side of the Assad regime against the mainly Sunni opposition has further polarized the Arab world. It is a small wonder that the 4 known Israeli air strikes against the Syrian regime have met at best with only ritual condemnation by Arab states. The Arab League’s prompt endorsement of the peace talks demonstrates that the Sunni Arab world now views Israel as less of a foe than Iran.
With the prospect of a military endorsed regime returning to power in Egypt, rather than a Muslim Brotherhood government, Israel is in a more secure position. Moreover, simply by accepting the opening of talks, Israel has removed itself from much of the pressure it has felt from Washington during the Obama years, while also effectively reinforcing its support in Congress. Israel is conscious that if it decided to strike against Iran, it will need the support of the United States, at least diplomatically.
For his part, President Abbas has always enjoyed close relations with the states of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and watched with considerable concern as the Muslim Brotherhood assumed political power in Egypt and openly endorsed the rule of its Palestinian counterpart Hamas in Gaza.
In this changed strategic position it is in the interest of both Israelis and Palestinians to return to the negotiating table. On 28 July the Israeli cabinet endorsed the approach of Prime Minister Netanyahu and agreed the release of 104 Palestinian prisoners. Although the number is considerably less than the 300 plus suggested two weeks ago, it is nevertheless a significant and welcome development. But the difficulty of the negotiation process was underlined at the cabinet meeting as the proposal to release the prisoners saw the cabinet divided with 13 voting for and 7 against. Furthermore, a bill was agreed that will require any peace deal to be put to a referendum.
Negotiations between the two parties are likely to continue well into next year. Each time they have returned to the negotiating table in the twenty years since the breakthrough Oslo talks it has been against a more difficult background. The rapid advance of settlements on the West Bank, for the most part composed of Israelis implacably opposed to an independent Palestinian state, has inevitably tied the hands of Israeli governments. Moreover, there is no sign yet on the Israeli side that it is willing to accept even a temporary moratorium on settlement building. On the Palestinian side, the existence of a Hamas dominated statelet in Gaza further complicates the situation.
Point of no return
No one is expecting sudden breakthroughs in Washington. There has been little mention of the role of the Quartet, which groups the US, Russia, the EU and the United Nations, in the US-sponsored talks. Major concessions are needed on both sides, especially on the Israeli side given its occupation of most of the West Bank. But for all the caveats, the latest talks are vital: this might be the last chance for a settlement of the Palestinian question.