Just how ‘direct’ are the talks?

With key absentees, just how productive are the Palestinian and Israeli ‘direct’ talks?

us middle east peace talks barack obama mahmoud abbas binyamin netanyahu
Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah Party may be the sole Palestinian representation at the talks, but it is heavily contested whether he has sufficient levels of credibility amongst all Palestinians [Getty]

One fallacy about the US-sponsored Palestinian-Israeli direct talks scheduled for September 2 seems to escape attention: There is nothing ‘direct’ about the talks. The timing of the meeting undoubtedly favours the Israelis. The summit will be at a juncture when the Palestinian community is polarized, weak and besieged by waning Arab support and enthusiasm. The Israelis are going to Washington with a self-serving agenda and not simply turning up for a photo opportunity.

Even if involuntary participants, the ‘peace-troika’ – Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia – provide the required Arab cover in order to give the talks an added air of seriousness and weight, they don’t provide the legitimacy the talks desperately require. The first two are the only signatories of peace treaties with Israel.  The third is a key US ally and whose blessing of the talks is needed to garner morale for the Arab parties.

The talks are being packaged in international diplomatic rhetoric as the beginning of a process for a congenial forum towards a ‘taswiyah’ (as the cliché phrase goes: final, durable and peaceful settlement fulfilling Israeli and Palestinian nationalist aspirations).
At the core of the somewhat inflated optimism about the talks is the ‘crafting’ of a diplomatic solution within a 12 to 24 months time span.

The figures of the peace game – no matter how emotionally powerful and morally desirable – somehow do not add up. Neither the triumvirate nor the Arab ‘peace-troika’ seem to possess the keys to guarantee a peace breakthrough, much less ‘know’ or ‘agree’ on what ‘peace’ actually means as a mid-term or endgame.

Particularly, moral courage has thus far eluded the US, the main peace-broker (and concomitantly the key backer of Israel at all levels), to provide the leadership necessary for Israel, the occupying force, to invest good will – and inevitably painful substantive land concessions – into the peace process.

The semantics of peace remain a contested issue: direct peace talks. But to what end? Peace for peace, security for peace, or land for peace. Equally, ‘security’ or ‘land’ is no longer clear under the realities created on the ground by Israel. How much land for how much security is perennially the unknown factor in peace talks from Oslo via Bush’s ‘road map’ and Annapolis up to the upcoming talks, the Obama Administration’s first peace talks.

Indirectness is the name of the game in next week’s round of direct peace talks. Not even Obama’s political inventory of ‘can-do’ and ‘audacity of hope’ can disentangle the ins and outs of the inherent indirectness in these ‘direct’ talks.

Talks to which Egyptians and Jordanians are invited and Ismail Haniyya and his democratically elected Hamas MPs are not. Unless the Obama Administration is considering a second peace talks track to include all absentees, including Syria, and Lebanon!

Obama, democratically elected and with unparalleled executive might anywhere on the planet, cannot give concrete affirmation to an Islamic cultural centre. It is then a matter of credulity to expect even the enfeebled and embattled Mahmoud Abbas — whose legitimacy is dubious and contested — to sign away in Washington whatever left-over land considered sacred by at least half of all Palestinians. Equally, it would take Herculean mental muscle to imagine how the Israelis can themselves magically drop claims to what they view as a ‘biblical’ or sacred space.

In theory, the talks are supposedly without prior conditions. This has been an Israeli demand favoured by both the US and the Arab ‘peace-troika’. In practice, the talks pander to Israel’s conditions: no frame of reference of any kind (including all UN resolutions, especially 194 on the Palestinians’ right of return) is to guide the direct talks.

Plus, Netanyahu’s government wants to squeeze from Abbas recognition of Israel as a ‘Jewish State’. His government does not refer to the Palestinians on the fate of thousands of prisoners, the status of Jerusalem or the lifting of the inhumane Gaza blockade. It is therefore baffling why he seeks ‘permission’ from the Palestinians for his ‘Jewish state’.

Such recognition would be the last nail in the coffin of any notion of Palestinian rights. Note how Israeli occupation is not referred to as colonialism. Nor the conflict is called by its name: ‘occupied’ not ‘disputed’ territory. So instead of the Palestinians demanding rights enshrined in UN resolutions, the Israelis have turned the tables against Abbas and his Palestinian co-negotiators.

It is Israel that is demanding ‘rights’ to a ‘Jewish state’ to undisputed claim to Jerusalem, to partial freeze on settlements, to no claims on behalf of Palestinian refugees, and to no reference to a conceivable ‘map’ or ‘geography’ of what a future and viable Palestinian state would look like. Moreover, Arafat’s Fatah heirs have themselves stopped believing in their own revolutionary slogans about Palestinian rights.

Instead of ‘taswiyah’ it is perhaps ‘tasfiyah’ (liquidation of the Palestinian cause) that seem to feed Arab public opinion’s cynicism about Obama’s direct peace talks. The sham of direct and condition-less talks neither sufficiently conceals the iniquity between the Israeli and Palestinian interlocutors nor favour a breakthrough.

Israel might squeeze more concessions; Obama might gain votes needed by his party in the upcoming midterm elections; but the Palestinians might further lose grasp of the dream of viable statehood.

Dr Larbi Sadiki is a Senior Lecturer in Middle East Politics at the University of Exeter, and author of Arab Democratization: Elections without Democracy (Oxford University Press, 2009) and The Search for Arab Democracy: Discourses and Counter-Discourses (Columbia University Press, 2004).

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.

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