In raging Middle East, Israel wins time with Palestinian peace talks

JERUSALEM Wed Jul 31, 2013 3:03pm EDT

Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem July 28, 2013. REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun

Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem July 28, 2013.

Credit: Reuters/Ronen Zvulun

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JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Pressured by Washington, worried about its international standing and perturbed by Middle East turmoil, Israel had many reasons to return to peace talks with the Palestinians this week after a three year hiatus.

On the surface, Israelis saw little reason to jump back into negotiations. The status quo in the occupied Palestinian territories was holding and the question of the so-called peace process had largely fallen off the domestic political agenda.

But Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu may have realized he could not take the rap for cold shouldering U.S. efforts to revive the talks, and recognized that turbulent regional dynamics made it worthwhile to engage with the Palestinians once more.

"Resuming the diplomatic process at this time is important for the state of Israel both in order to try to end the conflict and given the complex reality in our region, especially the security challenges from Syria and Iran," Netanyahu told his cabinet on Sunday before it sanctioned the resumption of talks.

The last round of U.S.-brokered negotiations collapsed barely after they began in 2010 in a row over continued Jewish settlement building in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem on land the Palestinians want for their future state.

Although Netanyahu continues to reject Palestinian demands that he halt the construction, he has agreed to release 104 Arab prisoners as a goodwill gesture, drawing heavy criticism from rightist allies who say it will encourage terrorism.

The fact he made such a politically sensitive concession suggests he was put under enormous pressure by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, who visited the region six times in just five months to try to revive the long-moribund peace process.

"No one wanted to lose the blame game, so that's why we went to Washington," said Amos Yadlin, a former Israeli military intelligence chief who now heads the Institute for National Security Studies.

The same is true for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, and that pressure could also produce progress: "Whoever botches the Americans' plans will have a price to pay," one Israeli official told Reuters on condition of anonymity.

CHAOS

However, U.S. arm-twisting alone does not fully explain Netanyahu's decision to head back to the negotiating table. Turmoil in the region also played an important role.

In the three years since the last failed effort, the Arab world has been turned upside down by uprisings that have transformed the Middle East.

With the outcome of the rebellion still unclear, notably in neighboring Syria and Egypt, many Israeli politicians have urged Netanyahu to do nothing and wait for the storm to pass, which appeared to be his preferred strategy until now.

But Itamar Rabinovich, a former Israeli ambassador to Washington, said the prime minister could not pretend that Israel was not a part of the Middle East and had to try to bring some calm and order to the chaos.

"Middle East instability has a complex, contradictory role. It is more difficult to make territorial concessions, but on the other hand, in a region that is undergoing such significant changes, Israel wants to be a player," he said.

"To do that it has to negotiate with the Palestinians."

Since the onset of the Arab world's popular revolts in late 2010, uncertainty has become almost the only thing Israel can rely on, bringing it short-term gains and long-term concerns.

Israel signed a peace treaty with Egypt three decades ago and had maintained a stable cold war with Syria for even longer, but the turmoil has hit both those big Arab nations hard.

Although Israeli officials have kept quiet about the latest upheavals in Egypt, there is no doubt they are relieved to see the return to prominence of the army in Cairo and the downfall of Islamist President Mohamed Mursi - which in turn undermines Israel's enemy Hamas, the militant group that rules Gaza.

Likewise the civil war in Syria means Israel has been able to sit back and watch the erosion of a once powerful foe.

However, the chaos has also allowed jihadi gunmen to build a presence along two previously dormant fronts and has sowed seeds of potential trouble in Jordan, the only Arab state to have signed a peace accord with Israel besides Egypt.

Against this backdrop, Yossi Beilin, an Israeli architect of the 1993 Oslo Accords with the Palestinians, said the time was right to try to end the decades-old Palestinian conflict.

"When around us you see all these crises, we might create with the Palestinians and the Jordanians and hopefully in the future with the Egyptians a group of peaceful countries which understand the importance of peace and cooperation and have an impact on the whole region," Beilin said.

IRAN

European Union diplomats have echoed this sentiment, and the 28-nation-bloc added to the pressure on Netanyahu to return to talks by announcing this month that it would bar financial aid to Israeli groups operating in the occupied territories - putting Israel on guard that its patience was running out.

"In the past few months the price of continuing the status quo has become much clearer to Netanyahu and in his third term he may be thinking of his legacy," said the former ambassador and peace negotiator Rabinovich.

When it comes to establishing a legacy, Netanyahu's allies say his primary focus has always been tackling Iran's atomic program. As he himself told his cabinet on Sunday, worries over Iran played directly into his Palestinian decision-making.

The Israeli leader has said for years that Iran is planning to build a nuclear bomb and warned that this represents an existential threat to the Jewish state.

Despite Tehran's denials, Netanyahu believes time is running out to deal with the issue. Israeli leaders have repeatedly said Washington must take the lead in halting Iran - either through military means, economic sanctions or diplomacy.

In this context, analysts said Israel could not risk rousing Washington's ire by spurning Kerry's extraordinary efforts.

"Netanyahu has Iran on his horizon and has made a very calculated move in order to guarantee some American support on more concrete, assertive steps in the Iranian matter," said Uzi Rabi, head of the Moshe Dayan Centre for Middle East Studies.

(Additional reporting by Dan Williams and Nidal al-Mughrabi in Gaza; Editing by Crispian Balmer; Editing by Peter Graff)

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Comments (23)
Reuters1945 wrote:
“In raging Middle East, Israel wins time with Palestinian peace talks”

What an obscene joke this whole business of so-called “Peace talks” is fast becoming.

If poor Mr. Kerry is so serious about people being and acting reasonable why does he lack the simple objectivity and courage to state straight out that it is hardly realistic to expect Israel to take these talks seriously and with very good reason that even a child can readily comprehend.

Whilst the leaders of the Palestinians in the West Bank head to Washington, at least professing, to be prepared to enter negotiations, Hamas, whose leaders totally control Gaza with an iron fist, proclaim that the Palestinians in Gaza, as represented by Hamas, will never accept the right of Israel to exist and furthermore are absolutely “Sworn” to the destruction of the State of Israel- regardless of how long it takes to achieve that clearly delusional goal.

Thus, this is all just “dejas vu” all over again.

There might be one chance in a million of success if all the Palestinians were on board and finally prepared to wake up and accept the reality that they will never succeed in destroying the State of Israel.

But, the reality of the situation is that, as suggested in the news, repeatedly, a vast number of Palestinians have made it crystal clear they will never accept the idea of making any type of peace with Israel and will continue to express that view through the business end of a rifle.

Thus, even if every last issue and Herculean challenge involving the West Bank could be resolved to the mutual satisfaction of the two sides in Washington, there would still remain the gargantuan issue of dealing with Hamas and its fanatical supporters in Gaza.

Half a Peace is essentially the same as no peace at all.
So who is kidding who?

Nevertheless, Israel is caught between a rock and a hard place. Most objective observers of this never ending and tragic conflict understand that no matter what Israel ever does, they are seen as the “bad guys” and get all the blame and from every direction.

Indeed, every single last problem in the Middle East is always claimed to be the fault of Israel and every form of guilt one can shake a stick at is always placed at Israel’s doorstep.

As just one example of the reality check that Mr. Kerry should be willing to point out, somewhere, at some point, is the fact that from 1948 until the eruption of the Six Day War in 1967, (when Israel was attacked from every possible direction by eight Arab armies), it was Egypt, not Israel, which had 100 % total control over Gaza and the lives of the Palestinians.

But no one in the entire world ever at any point, even once, claimed that Egypt was “occupying” Gaza. Indeed the word “occupy” did not exist regarding the Middle East until the Arabs lost the Six Day War in 1967.

Nor did any one in the world ever claim that the State of Jordon was “occupying” the area that includes the “West Bank”, for decades.
The term “occupied land” only came into existence when eight Arab armies attempted to annihilate Israel during the 1967 Six Day War and Israel had no choice but to fight back and push back the aggressors in a fashion that would hopefully make further aggression against Israel more difficult in the future.

Alas, of course, only a few years later the Arabs attacked Israel again- and to no one’s surprise, were defeated again.

I must give Netanyahu credit for realizing that despite all the above mentioned realities representing and forever guaranteeing a perpetual no-win, eternal Catch-22 scenario for Israel, he must appear open and receptive to this latest exercise in futility lest Israel suffer even more accusations of being, that most dirty of all dirty words: “intransigent”.

Just like those last surviving Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto during WW II, were being “intransigent” for rising up in one final, desperate, heroic expression of defiance against their Nazi persecutors.

As others have correctly observed, when one side insists that large numbers of convicted murderers, bombers etc. be released as the price for any so-called “Peace negotiations” to commence, it is quite clear exactly what type of so-called “Peace partners” Israel is expected to deal with in Washington.

I believe Netanyahu has demonstrated great political courage in being willing to go along with a situation that he knows is not only a fool’s errand but makes him look like he has no sensitivity to the feelings of the families of all those who were murdered by the very prisoners he has agreed to release in order to get all parties to the table.

This follows on the heels of the painful decision that Israel was forced to make when it agreed to release more than a thousand convicted killers to end the horrific five year captivity of Gilad Schalit, the kidnapped Israeli soldier who was held, incommunicado in Gaza, for five long years under circumstances that violated every single protocol of the Geneva Conventions including the refusal by Hamas to allow the International Red Cross access.

In short, Netanyahu has made the incredible choice to go along and take all the heat in Israel for allegedly “caving in” to international pressure/s, for the sake of preventing even worse pressures and obscene eventualities being foisted on his nation.

The unrealistic expectations harbored by those Netanyahu is expected to talk to in Washington, which include all the delusional talk of turning back the clock and the map in the Middle East, to pre-1967 days, guarantees that nothing will result from the talks except that another 100 convicted murderers will have returned home to their supporters as great “Heroes” along the long road to push the Jews into the sea and “reclaim” the “homeland” of the Palestinians.

If any upside is to be seen in all this insanity and absurdity of the US again making ludicrous demands upon the State of Israel it would be that with Schalit it was 1,000 murderers with the blood of children on their hands, that were released and now it is 100 murderers.

And the next time, if there ever is a next time, there will be no murderers released.

For decades, as far back as I can remember, politicians and the media have loved to use those tired, old, dramatic sounding phrases, such as: “This may well be the last real chance for a lasting Peace between the Palestinians and the Jews”. You know the kinds of phrases I mean. We have heard them all before, ad nausea.

But in a rather strange way that phrase just quoted may well be accurate this time around.

Netanyahu, for the sake of saving Kerry, Obama and the US in general, some major embarrassment from that tired old accusation that their ally, Israel, is being “intransigent”, has made the choice to go along with cooperating with Kerry’s “grand and heroic” efforts for the sake of Peace in the Middle East.

But after taking all the “slings and arrows” of the Israeli people for saving Kerry and the US any embarrassment, Netanyahu will not be willing, nor should he be, to get up on that “Cross” a second time.

This time, expressions such as “Last best chance for Peace in the Middle East”, may just be totally accurate.

The Palestinians, both in the West Bank, as well as in Gaza, would be well advised to wake up before it is too late.

As the great Israeli Statesman, Aba Ebam, once so correctly observed:
“The Arabs have never missed an opportunity to miss an opportunity”.

Frankly, I personally, strictly based on the well known track record of the Palestinians, do not give the coming talks in Washington, a snowball’s chance in Hell.

But who knows, there is always a first time for everything. Perhaps even pigs will one day learn how to fly.

And fast on the heels of that epic event, perhaps the Arabs will finally realize and come to understand that the State of Israel exists, has a Right to exist, and shall continue to exist, till the end of time, whether all the surrounding Arab nations, whose total populations outnumber Israel, 300 to 1, accept that fact or not.

Jul 31, 2013 4:12pm EDT  --  Report as abuse
MikeyLikesIt wrote:
@Reuters1945

Very well put.

Everyone with a shred of honesty knows that these talks are a sham. Even IF they manage to hammer out some sort of peace deal, you know that Hamas and the other radicals will not allow it to stay that way.

In a year or less there will once again be rockets flying into Israel from the “peaceful” Palestinians. And once again Israel will have to take unjustified anger from the world when they are forced to defend themselves.

It’s a cycle that keep repeating over and over again. The only difference now is that the rest of the Arab world is in the process of great conflict that could end up with a number of states being radicalized. This could inevitably lead to another Six Day War type of attack.

As the saying goes,”The more things change, the more they stay the same.”

Jul 31, 2013 4:47pm EDT  --  Report as abuse
bbsnews wrote:
Reuters1945, an objective person would read your lengthy screed and conclude that you know nothing about the actual conflict, nor the laws that govern it.

For those who truly want to know the facts and not the Hasbara, read works by the New Historians perhaps starting with Tom Segev’s “1967″, work your way through the other texts saving Benny Morris for last because he even contradicts his own works.

For an even shorter and quicker version that the Arab world knows by heart, one need only this sentence from US resolution 242:

‘territory acquired by war is inadmissible’

In short, Israel is the entity committing the crimes by stealing the land and resources from the Palestinians. This is the whole source of the problem. There is no Israeli “partner for peace” and more than 500,000 illegal colonists prove it regardless of what some anonymous idjit such as Reuters1945 falsely claims…

Jul 31, 2013 5:06pm EDT  --  Report as abuse
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