Israel Rafalovich
Israel Rafalovich

Time to talk substance

Two decades have passed and the peace process in the Middle East is still used by the Israelis as a cover to consolidate their presence in the West Bank and Gaza.

The peace process came to life after the 1991 Gulf War, but the Israelis developed the strategy to draw out the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations in order to avoid a substantive conclusion and laid out the basis for a consistent expansion of settlements culminating in avoiding the establishment of a Palestinian state.

The Obama administration is trying to reinvigorate former president Bush’s framework for addressing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict but it seems Palestinian public opinion swings against, at this time, any revival of the peace process that from their point of view exists for Israel’s sake rather than for the end of Israel’s occupation and against the establishment of a Palestinian state.

Those who were hoping for a 360-degree change in the US approach to the Middle East peace process have been disappointed. The new administration is exerting pressure on Arab countries to ease sanctions on Israel should the Israelis freeze settlements in the hope that it will restart the peace negotiations.

Arab governments, so far, show themselves cool to the American idea as they want to see a comprehensive approach that will define the final-status issues.

By “final-status issues” Arab governments mean matters such as resolving the question of borders as well as the future of a Palestinian state, the refugees’ future, water disputes and future of Jerusalem.

After past experiences in negotiating with the Israelis, the Arab position is of “what we don’t see we don’t believe”. From the point of view of Arab countries any gesture towards Israel would open their governments to criticism at home for giving something for nothing. Many Arab countries are looking for a tougher American approach towards Israel.

The Palestinians doubt the right-wing Israeli government will do what is needed to reach a permanent peace in the Middle East as they attached so many conditions to the acceptance of a Palestinian state that the Israeli offer looks meaningless to a big part of the Palestinian population.

It is doubtful the Palestinians will agree to restart the peace negotiations with Israel as long as Israel refuses to freeze settlement expansion.

The US and EU carry the responsibility for escalating violence and the current political stalemate in the Middle East. They contributed to the polarisation of the Palestinians and radicalisation of Hamas by isolating them.

Now it’s time to start talking to Hamas.

The policy of isolating Hamas proved to be a failure. To the contrary, it demonstrated that this policy increased Hamas’s popularity among Palestinians and entrenched control of the Gaza Strip. There have been no fundamental changes in the constellation of power in the Middle East or in the occupied territories.

The current talks between Fatah and Hamas on the formation of a unity government are the outcome of events that brought the two to face reality and are not the result of a policy by Israel or any other government.

The question of how to deal with Hamas as a government party is gaining importance.

For Hamas, a unity government and power sharing would raise the chances of borders being opened. Should Hamas decide to join a unity government, they will do so with the hope of gaining more international legitimacy and enhancing their capacity to act.

A Palestinian unity government deserves to be supported by the US and EU in order to prove they are capable of transformation.

The US and EU, especially, should be reminded that this can be the unity government they failed to bring to life in 2007. Failure to form a unity government will make it difficult for the Palestinians to formulate and implement a strategy towards Israel.

Furthermore it will lead to the radicalisation among Palestinians and propel the Islamists to power in the West Bank too. Any progress in finding a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will require fundamental changes in the strategies of the US and EU.

President Obama believes that establishing a Palestinian state is something he can make happen. It remains to be seen whether there will be any substantial changes in the American as well as European policies towards the Middle East peace process as the political constellation in Israel and Palestinian territories is reason to doubt the possibility of a long-term substantial peace.