Sep 7, 2010

Reality, not skepticism, suggest failure of peace talks

There are many doubters when it comes to the peace process just launched between Israelis and Palestinians. In fact, there are so many skeptics that the optimists may actually be fewer than the number of people in each negotiating delegation. For these talks to have any chance of success, the United States must do what it has failed to do since the inception of these talks: act as an even handed mediator.

This is not a conflict between two equal, or even relatively equal, sides in strength. While the Palestinians have the principles of human rights and international law on their side, the Israelis dominate the Palestinians in just about every category including militarily and economically with utter disregard to those principles. The Israelis have done whatever they please with the Palestinian territory they occupied, and have illegally established settlements housing hundreds of thousands of Israeli settlers and jeopardizing the contiguity of any Palestinian state on that territory. That is why someone must step in during this process and pressure the Israelis to fulfill both their obligations under international law and their previous agreements when -- not if -- they break their commitments.

Take the recent debate over the settlement freeze for example. First, it should be mentioned that, according to the settlement watchdog Americans for Peace Now, Israel violated the 10-month settlement freeze nearly 500 times. When Israel was not violating the simple rule of “thou shall not build on thy neighbor’s land,” it was violating the corollary by demolishing Palestinian homes at a dramatically high rate this summer.

This freeze, which was announced by the Israelis in November 2009 and is set to expire this month, was not, as the Israelis claim, a concession. Rather, a stop to settlement activity is a requirement under international law and is Israel’s first phase obligation under the Road Map. The Road Map, as you may recall, was an American initiative and was accepted by both parties in 2003. In the initial phase, Israel was to halt all settlement activity and expansion, including for reasons of “natural growth.”

Of course, settlements continued to expand after 2003, and the United States did nothing to compel Israel to fulfill its obligations. In the past seven years alone, the number of settlers in the Occupied Territory increased by 100,000. Since the Madrid Conference in 1991, the number of settlers has increased by over 250,000.

Since the Palestinians can’t stop Israel from taking more occupied Palestinian land for settlements, and the United States refuses to help, it is no wonder that the skeptics abound when the Israeli prime minister today reneges on what an Israeli Prime Minister agreed to, albeit on paper, seven years ago.

It is also disheartening to see the Obama administration cave into the demands of Netanyahu’s government. These peace talks were launched on Netanyahu’s terms and not anyone else’s, leaving Palestinians convinced that little if anything will be different this time.

Whenever peace process theatrics begin, with photo opportunities and “historic enemies” shaking hands seated next to each other, there is revived discussion of optimism, pessimism, hope and the prospects for peace.

Lost in the spectacle is that making peace in the Middle East is not about how hopeful the parties or spectators are. It is simply about the dynamics of power, the persistence of a decades-old, Israeli occupation of Palestinian land and the failure of an even-handed mediator to stop it.

The chances of these talks succeeding will ultimately be a function of what the United States is prepared to do. This of course is not only about the United States’ willingness to stop Israel’s expansionist settlements, but it also extends to all core issues including Jerusalem and the right of return for refugees. If, the United States is prepared to use its leverage over Israel and can display this in the immediate future, the likelihood of these talks succeeding will increase. However if instead the United States continues on the path of simply bringing the parties together, and failing to step in as Israel violates international law and previous agreements, it’s likely that Israel’s occupation will simply persist and these talks will join a long list of their many failed predecessors.

[cross-posted from TheHill.com]

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