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Whither the Proximity Talks?

Inter Press Service

Proximity peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians, due to begin shortly after months of delay due to Israel’s continued settlement building on occupied Palestinian land, appear to have little chance of making a breakthrough.

However, there appear to have been some positive developments which have altered the equation somewhat and which could provide a stepping stone for future successful talks.

The Palestinians broke off previous talks after Israel settlement building surged ahead in the occupied Palestinian West Bank, including East Jerusalem, despite unanimous international condemnation.

After much coaxing from the Americans and several rounds of shuttle diplomacy Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ Palestinian Authority (PA) has agreed to resume negotiations.

But the million dollar question on everybody’s lips is whether the Americans have succeeded in getting Israel to agree to, albeit off the record, to freeze settlement building even on a temporary basis.

The Palestinians have hinted broadly that this is the case, the Israelis have denied it outright, and the Americans are remaining mum.

But, analysts argue, something substantial must have been promised to coax the Palestinians back to the negotiating table after they made it very clear that no future talks would take place while the illegal settlement construction continued.

The next few months should shed light on this sensitive issue. The Arab League, which has supported the PA returning to the negotiating table, has said it will give talks four months to see if any significant progress is made towards a settlement before making any further decisions.

Al Jazeera International interviewed a number of political pundits from both sides of the divide on Tuesday.

Amr Hady from the Brookings Institute in Doha in Qatar was the most optimistic. He said he believed that U.S. President Barack Obama was very serious about resolving the Palestinian-Israeli conflict during his term in office.

“I believe the Americans are very genuine in their efforts and Obama will do all he can,” said Hady.

There are several developing factors that have changed the equation somewhat and which could be interpreted as light at the end of the tunnel. Washington now believes, as outlined by U.S. Gen. David Petraeus’ (the commander of the Multi-National Force in Iraq) speech that the continuing conflict is detrimental to U.S. regional security interests, particularly the lives of the thousands of American soldiers stationed in the Mideast.

If the U.S. wants to shore up regional support and save any semblance of remaining Arab respect after the Iraq debacle, they need to rethink their unquestioning support for Israel.

Working into this new realisation is the growing alignment of international sympathy for the Palestinian perspective of the conflict as facts on the ground and human rights abuses in the occupied territory become more widely reported.

This emerging sympathy includes American Jews who are in growing numbers supporting the two-state solution.

A group of European Jewish intellectuals recently penned a letter urging the European Union (EU) to put pressure on Israel to end the occupation. They argue Israel’s right-wing government is endangering the future of the Jewish state.

Furthermore, a growing number of human rights organisations and activists, as well as respected intellectuals, are drawing comparisons between former apartheid South Africa and Israel’s settlement enterprise in the West Bank where Palestinians are third-class citizens in their own country.

Obama has also stated that if the current round of peace talks fails he will turn the issue over to a global summit.

The Palestinians have been working towards international recognition of a Palestinian state with PA foreign minister Salam Fayyad focusing on building state institutions.

“International intervention such as the United Nations recognising a Palestinian state would be a good thing,” stated Israeli analyst Yossi Alpher on Al Jazeera.

“This would move the conflict from one of bilateral negotiations between a weak Palestinian partner and a strong Israeli partner able to dictate the terms to one based on two states negotiating on a more equitable footing,” said Alpher.

International legitimacy in the form of support from the Quartet and the EU would also play into the equation as previous peace plans, such as the Road Map and the Annapolis agreement, international law and U.N. resolutions on the conflict are enforced.

But Samir Awad from Birzeit University, near Ramallah, remains pessimistic, believing that only cosmetic changes will take place.

“The Americans will not pressure Israel to seriously address the core issues. Meanwhile, the Israelis will continue playing for time as they continue to create facts on the ground,” Awad told IPS.

“The only reason the Israelis are agreeing to sit down to talks with the Palestinians is that they want to protect their relationship with the Americans from further deterioration,” he said.

Furthermore, exactly how Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will bring his extremist right-wing coalition on board, even if he is serious about negotiations, remains highly questionable.

Israeli analyst Shaul Arieli, commented acerbically in the Israeli daily ‘Haaretz’: “Israel has engaged in a great deal of foreplay in these negotiations, mostly with itself.”

Arieli argues that Netanyahu would have to also convince the Israeli electorate that a sea change in attitudes is necessary for any successful peace talks.

This will include realising that returning West Bank land to its rightful Palestinian owners is not a “concession” but according to U.N. resolutions. The Palestinians have already conceded 78 percent of historical Palestine.

Another Israeli public misconception is that former Israeli premiers Ehud Olmert and Ehud Barak “gave up everything” for the Palestinians in previous negotiations and “got nothing in return” when in fact the PA made concessions beyond U.N. resolutions.

These include allowing Israel to hold on to some West Bank settlements, as well as some illegal Jewish neighbourhoods in occupied East Jerusalem, and allowing for financial compensation for Palestinian refugees in place of the right of return.

Ultimately, the ball is in Netanyahu’s court. He will have to decide between his right-wing coalition and continuing military, economic and political support from the U.S.

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