Secretary of State John Kerry meet with PM Benjamin Netanyahu, at the David Citadel Hotel Jerusalem April 9, 2013
c Matty Ster/U.S. Embassy Tel Aviv

USA: A naïve push for Israeli-Palestinian peace?

The recent attempt to restart the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations by the United States has been met with significant scepticism and criticism.

There have been a number of obstacles that have hindered renewed efforts by the United States to restart the Israeli and Palestinian negotiations which have stalled since 2009. The June 7th deadline suggested by the Palestinian negotiating team has passed and the Obama administration has shown indications that they want to abandon the peace process and turn their attention elsewhere.

The eight week push by Kerry has yielded no significant progress in the negotiations. The number of obstacles and the lack of progress have caused critics within the Israeli media to label the plans to restart the negotiations as naïve. So why are both the Israelis and Palestinians sceptical of the efforts of the Obama administration? And why is there little optimism for a successful outcome?

The Palestinian Authority has stated that the plan by the US Secretary of State is critical for their survival. The Palestinian Chief Negotiator Saeb Erekat argued that the situation in the West Bank is critical and there could be significant consequences if peace negotiations fail. The Palestinian negotiating team also stated that it will take part in direct talks if the Israeli government stops building settlements. A recent report published by the Central Bureau of Statistics shows that the number of settlements has increased, causing tension to rise between the two negotiating teams.

Erekat stated at a United Nations Committee meeting in New York that the building of settlements is still a major obstacle to peace negotiations. The Palestinian chief negotiator said that the settlement building is illegal under international law and they needed to be stopped. On the other hand, the Israeli government says that it has the right to build settlements. From January to March this year construction on over 800 houses began, more than double the amount in 2012.

The issue of Israeli settlement building has led to increased tensions within the international community. In recent years, the Israeli government has lost international support because of the settlement building according to British Foreign Secretary William Hague. The issue of settlement building is just one issue that has hindered the chance for negotiations to start. The United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon has said that 2013 is a critical year for the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. At the American Jewish Committee Global Forum meeting on the 4th June, Ban said that the conflict was “approaching a point of no return”.

In May 2013, US Secretary John Kerry stated at the World Economic Forum that the peace process had reached a critical point. The main concern is that the window to negotiate a two-state solution was closing.

Opposition within the Israeli Government has highlighted critical factors that the peace process would need to overcome for there to be prospects of a genuine peace agreement. Recently, the Israeli Deputy Prime Minister Danny Danon stated that he and other cabinet ministers would oppose a two-state solution.

Erekat stated that these comments reflected the true Israeli government position. However, the comment made by the deputy prime minister has provoked outrage from coalition members who support the peace process. These members, including the leader of the Labour party, have also called for the sacking of the deputy prime minister. Former Labour Welfare Minister MK Isaac Herzog stated “The Prime Minister must immediately relieve Danny Danon of his duties because of the grave damage his words inflicted on US Secretary of State John Kerry’s efforts to revive peace negotiations”. The prime minister of Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu, stated that Danny Danon’s views did not reflect those of the coalition. The Israeli President Shimon Peres has also stated that he was for a two state solution and said there was a broad consensus of support.

The state of Netanyahu’s coalition is a major cause for concern for any effort by the United States to make progress. With a majority of ministers in Netanyahu’s coalition being members of the more hawkish Likud party, it is highly likely that the Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu will face considerable opposition in his own party. This opposition has raised doubts over the viability of the plans put forward by the US Secretary of State John Kerry. If there is opposition from within the Israeli cabinet there is little flexibility for the Israeli Prime Minister to make any possible compromise that will be seen in the Palestinian eyes as a positive move towards restarting the negotiations.

If the Israeli Prime Minister is to pursue the negotiations then he risks significant internal division not just from his own cabinet but from Israeli society. Netanyahu has stated that a compromise will have to be made by the Palestinians in order to reach a deal and genuine peace. He also asked the Palestinians to commit to negotiations without any preconditions. This is unlikely to happen, as the building of settlements and the issue of the right of return are key conditions for the Palestinian negotiating team. This adds further evidence to those who have reached the conclusion that there is little optimism for significant progress to be made.

These reasons are perhaps why recent efforts by the United States to restart negotiations have been described as naïve. The potential risks are perhaps too great for progress to be made. Only time will tell whether this is perhaps another opportunity missed by all parties involved to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

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