Middle East peace process: High-level talks but with low expectations

On the ground, there is little agreement over the way forward

The two old friends were both middle-aged, both barbers, and both sons of Palestinian refugee parents who were forced to flee the same village outside Jaffa in the war of 1948. Each had an entirely different take yesterday on this week's high-profile start to the new round of direct Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.

Saad Sholi, 45, the owner of the barber's shop, is a self-confessed political junkie who avidly watched the proceedings in Washington, switching between the al-Arabiya and al-Jazeera satellite TV channels. He was not wildly optimistic about the outcome.

"We hope," he said laconically.

But he was prepared – for now – to give the parties the benefit of the doubt. "Abu Mazen [aka the Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas] is the right man for this stage," he said. "He is trying to save what is left to be saved." Clearly knowledgeable about the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's insistence on securing the Jordan Valley in any deal, he was even prepared to grant an Israeli military presence on what would be the eastern border of the putative Palestinian state – provided it was deployed "jointly" with an Arab or international force.

Ruefully pragmatic in accepting that Israel would not allow refugees to return in any quantity to Israel, he declared: "They would like to get rid of the 1948 Palestinians [Arabs living in Israel] as it is; they are not going to bring in more people. But Jerusalem is what is important for me. If they agree to a state without the [Jewish West Bank] settlements and East Jerusalem as the capital, then I will accept it."

But his employee Walid Habash, 56, was scornful of any hopes for the talks. "Netanyahu will not give something serious to the Palestinians," he said. "He just wants to quieten things down because of Iran. Iran is their priority. They are preoccupied by the threat from outside. This is morphine."

We were in Balata, the densely populated West Bank refugee camp which was the most scarred during the second intifada. It was a stronghold of Fatah's military wing that suffered daily and nightly raids by the Israeli military and regular, and frequently deadly, gun battles during the worst of the fighting. Today it is a neighbourhood where expectations of the fresh negotiating effort– made only possible by the irresistible pressure applied to Mr Abbas by the US to take part in the direct talks which he had long rejected – remain as low as they do among Palestinians and Israelis in general.

One reason for that is a widespread awareness that for all the impressive staging by the Obama administration of the two days of largely ceremonial diplomacy, any real work in closing the daunting gaps between the two sides, still lies in the future.

"As far as I can see the prospects are the same as they were before the conference in Washington," said one of Israel's leading analysts, Yossi Alpher. "The only substance we know is that the parties have agreed to meet again [on 14 and 15 September, probably in the Egyptian resort of Sharm el-Sheikh]."

While Mr Netanyahu "said the right things", he had not yet "been put to the test", Mr Abbas was still presiding over a split Palestinian polity, and the US was increasingly "preoccupied with the economy and the coming elections". The only "actor" to make its presence truly felt so far was Hamas—with its drive-by shooting of four settlers on Tuesday in what some believe could be the first move in a concerted effort to undermine a political process in which it has no part.

The next meeting is likely to be dominated by an obstacle still standing in the way of the talks continuing at all. Though he is bound to come under US pressure to modify his stance, Mr Abbas has threatened to pull out if the partial freeze on settlement construction ends – as Mr Netanyhau has so far indicated it will – on 26 September. Beyond that looms the much larger question of whether the Israeli Prime Minister has made the break with his ideological past necessary to make the agreement he insists he wants.

"I just don't know the answer," said Alpher. "I'm not sure he knows himself." The analyst, a former senior Mossad figure who runs a joint Israeli-Palestinian website, bitterlemons.org, says he believes the talks would be greatly assisted if they took more actively into account the two-year reform programme devised by the Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad to prepare a Palestinian state by 2011.

Some Palestinians believe this could lead to endorsement of an independent state by the UN Security Council, even if complete agreement had not been reached with Israel on every issue. Such a move, believes Alpher, could allow two of the most radioactive topics, refugees and sovereignty over the holy sites of Jerusalem to be left to a later day.

Curiously there is a faint echo of this view from a very different quarter. One of Balata's most famous residents is Hussam Khader, a leading Fatah activist who was freed last years after serving seven years in Israeli gaols. He has been a frequently outspoken critic of both Yasser Arafat and what he sees as the present weak and disunited leadership, and was one of the few Palestinian politicians to argue with Abu Mazen that he should enter direct talks.

Mr Khader said yesterday that Saeb Erekat, the PLO's chief negotiator, should be dropped in favour of bringing Mr Fayyad –who is not in Fatah--directly into the negotiating team. "Saeb Erekat has achieved nothing in 18 years but Salam Fayyad is the one Palestinian leader who has produced a plan and then implemented it."

Moreover Mr Khader would also like to see the negotiations produce an outcome in stages, beginning with giving the Palestinian Authority true "self determination" and real control over both the West Bank Area A – the Palestinian cities, over which it has some jurisdiction – and the more rural Areas B, where its writ is even more severely limited, and C, the large swathe of the West Bank where it has none at all. Then the settlements would be removed. Only after this would a full agreement on all the other issues be reached.

If these goals sound modest, there is a more militant corollary. For Mr Khader believes that if the talks fail, a real return to "armed uprising" will be necessary – not by suicide bombings and attacks inside Israel, which he has always opposed, but on settlers and soldiers in occupied territory, which he regards as legitimate. He was strongly opposed to Hamas's lethal attack last week – but on the grounds that it was simply an attempt to undermine the political process. "The Palestinians will accept whatever gives them their rights," he insists, "whether it is negotiations or armed resistance."

Among younger Palestinians, the signals on this were mixed in Nablus yesterday. "I agree with Abu Mazen negotiating," said Omar Odeh, 24, who lost an arm as a four-year-old after picking up an Israeli grenade during the first intifada in 1991. "But if it fails we should have a peaceful uprising, with stones and not with guns." His friend Bashir Abu Antar, 20, added "We don't want another intifada."

But for another victim of armed conflict, Abdel Ab Eishe, 22, who says he cannot work because of the two Israeli gunshot wounds he suffered at the age of 12, there was no alternative to violence. "We should not be negotiating while the settlements are being built," he said. "The talks will get nowhere. We need a third intifada."

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
News
ebooksNow available in paperback
News
people Ex-wife of John Lennon has died at her home in Spain
News
Nick Clegg on the campaign trail in Glasgow on Wednesday; he says education is his top priority
peopleNick Clegg remains optimistic despite dismal Lib Dem poll ratings
Life and Style
2 Karl Lagerfeld and Choupette
fashion
Arts and Entertainment
Buttoned up: Ryan Reynolds with Helen Mirren in ‘Woman in Gold’
filmFor every box-office smash in his Hollywood career, there's always been a misconceived let-down. Now he says it's time for a reboot
News
people
News
Actress Julianne Moore wins the Best Actress in a Leading Role Award for 'Still Alice' during the 87th Annual Academy Awards in Hollywood, California
people
  • Get to the point
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Telemarketing / Sales Co-ordinator - OTE £25,000+

£10000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This provider of staffing and r...

Recruitment Genius: Kitchen Porter

£19000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: One of the four inns of Court is seeking...

Recruitment Genius: Chef De Partie

£20000 - £24000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: One of the four inns of Court i...

Ashdown Group: Graduate IT Support - Surrey - £24,000

£20000 - £24000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Graduate IT Support Helpdesk / 1st L...

Day In a Page

War with Isis: Iraq declares victory in the battle for Tikrit - but militants make make ominous advances in neighbouring Syria's capital

War with Isis

Iraq declares victory in the battle for Tikrit - but militants make make ominous advances in neighbouring Syria
Scientists develop mechanical spring-loaded leg brace to improve walking

A spring in your step?

Scientists develop mechanical leg brace to help take a load off
Peter Ackroyd on Alfred Hitchcock: How London shaped the director's art and obsessions

Peter Ackroyd on Alfred Hitchcock

Ackroyd has devoted his literary career to chronicling the capital and its characters. He tells John Walsh why he chose the master of suspense as his latest subject
Ryan Reynolds interview: The actor is branching out with Nazi art-theft drama Woman in Gold

Ryan Reynolds branches out in Woman in Gold

For every box-office smash in Ryan Reynolds' Hollywood career, there's always been a misconceived let-down. It's time for a rethink and a reboot, the actor tells James Mottram
Why Robin Williams safeguarded himself against a morbid trend in advertising

Stars safeguard against morbid advertising

As film-makers and advertisers make increasing posthumous use of celebrities' images, some stars are finding new ways of ensuring that they rest in peace
The UK horticulture industry is facing a skills crisis - but Great Dixter aims to change all that

UK horticulture industry facing skills crisis

Great Dixter manor house in East Sussex is encouraging people to work in the industry by offering three scholarships a year to students, as well as generous placements
Hack Circus aims to turn the rule-abiding approach of TED talks on its head

Hack Circus: Technology, art and learning

Hack Circus aims to turn the rule-abiding approach of TED talks on its head. Rhodri Marsden meets mistress of ceremonies Leila Johnston
Sevenoaks is split over much-delayed decision on controversial grammar school annexe

Sevenoaks split over grammar school annexe

If Weald of Kent Grammar School is given the go-ahead for an annexe in leafy Sevenoaks, it will be the first selective state school to open in 50 years
10 best compact cameras

A look through the lens: 10 best compact cameras

If your smartphone won’t quite cut it, it’s time to invest in a new portable gadget
Paul Scholes column: Ross Barkley played well against Italy but he must build on that. His time to step up and seize that England No 10 shirt is now

Paul Scholes column

Ross Barkley played well against Italy but he must build on that. His time to step up and seize that England No 10 shirt is now
Why Michael Carrick is still proving an enigma for England

Why Carrick is still proving an enigma for England

Manchester United's talented midfielder has played international football for almost 14 years yet, frustratingly, has won only 32 caps, says Sam Wallace
Tracey Neville: The netball coach who is just as busy as her brothers, Gary and Phil

Tracey Neville is just as busy as her brothers, Gary and Phil

The former player on how she is finding time to coach both Manchester Thunder in the Superleague and England in this year's World Cup
General Election 2015: The masterminds behind the scenes

The masterminds behind the election

How do you get your party leader to embrace a message and then stick to it? By employing these people
Machine Gun America: The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons

Machine Gun America

The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons
The ethics of pet food: Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?

The ethics of pet food

Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?