Saturday, November 03, 2007

Will Middle East Conference Bring Peace?

Originally I was going to write an article about how Israel had no intention of returning the Palestinian land, and how Israel's chief negotiator Tzipi Livni had publicly admitted as much. I refer to an article in Thursday 01 October's International Herald Tribune, quoting Livni's response to Palestinian chief negotiator Ahmed Qureia's demand for a deadline on Israel to return the land, and for the creation of a Palestinian state encompassed by a lasting peace agreement, Livni's response was:

"Creating timetables, which are often not carried out, as it happened every time in the past, creates expectations that are then not carried out, and create violence and terror," In a joint news conference in Tel Aviv with visiting German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier.

That was the point of asking for a deadline -- for Israel to agree to a deadline would be to confirm their definite intent to actually grant the Palestinians a state of their own. Livni not even entertaining the possibility of Israel meeting a deadline says that they have no intention of meeting their side of any necessary bargain.

That is why Israel will never agree a deadline; it is too definite. Israel wants to keep their options open, and not give back the land unless they really have to -- I have always thought the threat of the removal of U.S. support was most likely to make them do so.

An article today however, made me think about the current climate in a way I hadn't previously, and for the first time gave me hope that, just maybe, this year's big November peace conference might succeed where all those before it have failed. I read that Israel's Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is determined to find peace with the Palestinians before Bush leaves office.

An official quoted Olmert as telling German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, "There are big advantages to reaching an agreement before the end of Bush's term. This is the right thing to do. It is the best thing to do for both sides." The official said Olmert was keen to seize the opportunity because it was impossible to know how committed the next U.S. administration would be to solving the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. In reality he means it is impossible to tell how committed the next administration will be to Israel -- in other words if it will be pro-Israel.

Bush and his administration has undoubtedly been one of, if not the most pro-Israel administrations for decades, and has agreed that Olmert and Israel would get to keep control of the large settlement blocs in the West Bank. This is a sizeable incentive for Israel. Israel has kept building new settlement blocs despite it being forbidden under the terms of the last U.S. led peace process: the road-map for peace. And while, in their Presidential campaigns it seems that all candidates and administrations Democrat and Republican, are pro-Israel, Olmert knows this could just be to ensure the Jewish vote, and what they do once they get in cannot be foretold.

There is a widely held train of thought, in academic circles and even in the U.N. that the settlement blocs are illegal and should all be torn down. And the Palestinians, even the moderate Abbas outright oppose any form of land-swap agreement that would let Israel keep the settlement blocs. Olmert will be weighing up the likelihood that a big priority for the next U.S. President will be to repair America's image in and relations with the rest of the world, including the U.N. Therefore: Olmert can't guarantee the offer to keep the settlement blocs will remain on the table after Bush leaves office, nor just how strongly the next U.S. President will attempt to push Israel into peace with or without the settlement blocs.

I still think Israel will try and hold out, like Olmert saying he hopes to reach agreement on borders, refugees and the fate of Jerusalem, but stopping short of saying an agreement was possible. In other words he wants to get Bush's offer of the settlement blocs becoming Israel's territory when the borders are drawn up, but doesn't want to get forced into actually giving back any of the land, and having to institute a Palestinian state -- therein losing the precious East Jerusalem for the new state's capital.

Israel has recently threatened to abandon the peace process, if Abbas attempts to bring Hamas back into the fold -- after Abbas met with Hamas members in the West Bank at his Ramallah office. Hamas are Israel's get out of jail free card, because it is likely that Hamas will launch a wave of terror to try and wreck any accord they are not part of -- as they have done in the past. This may allow Israel to get Bush's offer down on paper, while Hamas' terror will be used as justification for their not implementing it.

So, on the whole, I am not hopeful that an agreement will be reached at the conference. Israel doesn't even seem to be going into it with that in mind -- and Israel gets what it wants with Bush at the helm. Meanwhile the bloodshed continues.

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