The Obama administration is trying to breathe life into a process it launched a month ago.
George Mitchell, the US special envoy for the peace process, has been holding meetings with the Palestinian and Israeli sides. There’s no progress not even a slight breakthrough in sight.
Mitchell carries nothing new in his suitcase of crisis resolution. One must wonder what the US envoy thinks he can change if he has nothing up his sleeve, except the good wishes and determined efforts he promised to continue exerting.
Lady Catherine Ashton, the EU’s high representative for foreign affairs, is also in the region, clearly wanting to exercise a more politically visible political role on behalf of the European Union.
Ashton’s suitcase is also empty of anything new – at least nothing that could be announced. The press conference expected after her meeting with the Palestinian president did not happen. Instead, a short and very general news item on “discussions” appeared on the official Palestinian news agency, WAFA.
In the meantime, high-rolling diplomacy, Middle-East style continued. On the front pages of Israeli, then Palestinian newspapers, a headline about US guarantees offered to Israel in exchange for a 60-day settlement freeze.
According to the report, Barack Obama, the US president, went as far as offering Israel’s prime minister guarantees satisfying Binyamin Netanyahu’s demand for continued Israeli military presence in the Jordan valley, which makes up 28 per cent of the occupied West Bank.
Yet, the report claimed, Netanyahu was still inclined to reject this offer, which also included – according to the report – a guarantee to block any Arab attempts to go the Security Council on issues related to Israeli actions in the coming year.
The reported guarantees are issues Palestinians have already made very clear they would not accept, especially that on continued Israeli military presence in the future Palestinian state. Palestinians have said they would accept a third-party presence on the borders of the future state, including a multi-national force, but that they would not accept any Israeli role.
The reports created a storm of Palestinian responses just as Mitchell arrived at the presidential compound in Ramallah. The controversy then calmed – at least for now – after Palestinian negotiator Nabil Shaath said the US envoy denied the report and alleged guarantees. The White House also denied such a letter of guarantees was sent to Mr Netanyahu.
And amid all the diplomatic noise, Palestinian officials insisted there would be no negotiations while Israel continues to construct in settlements on their occupied land, in violation of international law. Yet, the Palestinians announce they will give the current US efforts more time, postponing a meeting of the Arab League’s follow-up committee from October 4 to October 6. In this meeting, thePalestinians and prominent Arab countries will decide what course of action to take regarding settlements.
A meeting described as ‘decisive’ is scheduled on Saturday night, once the international envoys depart. In it the Palestinian decision-making bodies will convene in a joint meeting to decide on what to do next. The political noise is only getting louder.
Meanwhile, journalists get access to “assessments”, generalities and promises of more clarity by Saturday. So much for information!
Many have wondered why now. Why is the Palestinian president so determined to make Israel’s settlement construction, which the world has consistently condemned as illegal, the centre of a crisis that now threatens to torpedo the peace talks launched in Washington early September?
This is not about power or influence for the Palestinians. Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, must be fully aware of the weaknesses inherent in his position as the leader of a divided and occupied people, whose regional political backing has not withstood American pressure in the past years.
I believe the answer can be found in Abbas’s address to the UN General Assembly last Saturday. That day, Abbas went back to basics, the Palestinian basics: the principles of international law, the UN Charter and accountability. He also reminded those in attendance of their repeated failure to protect the Palestinian rights they uphold every year in UN resolutions that have yet to be implemented.
“Such disrespect has rendered ineffective those resolutions, denigrating the credibility of the United Nations and deepening the predominant view that there is a policy of double standards, especially with regard to the cause of the Palestinian people, and that Israel is a State above the law, as it has been flouting all these resolutions….violating and undermining the rights of our people and presence in their homeland without consequence.”
In speaking about the principles of law and accountability, which are in theory the tenants of international diplomacy, Abbas was also sending a basic message.
There is now worldwide consensus that the creation of a Palestinian state by 2011 is in the interest of international peace and security. There is also worldwide consensus that Israeli settlements are illegal, must stop, as their continuation threatens the “credibility of negotiations [and] viability of direct talks” to use the words of the British foreign minister.
But, if with all these supposedly firm international calls and sentiments regarding the issue, international diplomacy still fails to compel Israel to comply, Palestinians must wonder how this diplomacy can really materializs the promise of their statehood by 2011.
Perhaps, going back to these basics – which all international players claim to be committed to -could at least begin debate over this question. But nothing in politics is unchangeable. This is a risk and it could well be a test of the political limits.