Ramping up a campaign to paint the Palestinians as the rejectionists in the troubled US-brokered Middle-East peace efforts, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu used a speech before the main Israel lobby group in Washington to urge Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to recognise Israel as the nation state of the Jewish people, a decidedly loaded proposition for Arabs.
“It’s time the Palestinians will stop denying history and recognise a Jewish state. President Abbas, in recognising the Jewish state you will make clear you are ready to end the conflict,’’ the Israeli hardliner told delegates to the annual conference of the America Israel Public Affairs Committee (Aipac).
“No excuses,” Mr Netanyahu added. “It is time.”
Palestine Liberation Organisation spokeswoman Hanan Ashrawi dismissed the call and said that Mr Netanyahu was “very disingenuous” to make it. She said accepting it would condone discrimination against members of Israel’s Arab minority, undermine refugee rights and encourage the misuse of religion.
“He wants Abbas and the Palestinians to adopt the Zionist narrative but we aren’t going to become Zionists. Israel was built on Palestinian land. We’ve been there for centuries. We are the victims of Zionism who were expelled and placed under occupation. Are we supposed to legitimise that? Netanyahu has made this into an impossible precondition,” Ms Ashrawi said.
Despite trying to ratchet up the pressure on Mr Abbas, who is due to meet President Barack Obama in two weeks, Mr Netanyahu is seen as anxious to keep going through the motions of negotiating with him and to see the peace talks extended at the end of April for another nine months as US Secretary of State John Kerry is trying to do. “Netanyahu is happy to continue talking and to continue for as long as possible without getting anywhere,” says Yossi Alpher, former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies.
Keeping up a process, albeit a hollow one, shields Israel from an escalation of international, particularly European, criticism and boycotting and prevents Mr Abbas from turning to the United Nations and other international organisations to combat the occupation and embarrass Israel.
At the same time, by keeping the talks stagnant he avoids a rupture with powerful pro-settler elements in his Likud party and coalition over the territorial concessions that would be required in a real process; at the same time, stalling accords with Mr Netanyahu’s own belief system that considers Judea and Samaria, the biblical names of the West Bank, part of the Jewish patrimony.
Indeed, barring a change that is more than rhetorical from the Obama administration, Mr Netanyahu may go on using the talks as cover for continuing a binge of settlement building on the very territory that is supposed to be the heartland of a future Palestinian state.
Figures released on Monday by Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics showed settlement building increased by 123 per cent during 2013 compared with the previous year. It is an open question as to whether the Obama administration will insist on a settlement freeze as a condition to continue the talks.
But the problem is not only on the Israeli side. Mr Abbas is also anxious to keep talking without reaching an agreement, in the view of Palestinian analyst Ghassan Khatib. Being blamed for a collapse of the talks could mean a cut in European and American aid and throw into question the viability and even existence of the Palestinian Authority.
At the same time, Mr Abbas is seen by some as too weak to undertake the concessions an agreement with Israel would entail. His authority does not extend to Hamas-ruled Gaza and he has been unable to heal the rift with the Islamic movement. At the same time, there have been no presidential elections in the Palestinian self-rule areas for close to a decade, creating a serious legitimacy problem. “It would be difficult for him to undertake the major strategic compromises,” says Mr Khatib.
Into this troubled diplomatic landscape, Britain will have an opportunity to inject its input. David Cameron is due to visit Jerusalem and the West Bank next week, according to reports in the Israeli and Palestinian press.
The Obama administration, meanwhile, appears to have lost some of its will to make history, scaling down the original goal of negotiations from a fully-fledged peace agreement by the end of April, to a framework of principles just to enable the talks to keep going.
The framework is expected to be vague and the sides will likely be allowed to lodge reservations. The coming weeks will centre on negotiations to narrow or paper over the vast differences between the sides. Mr Netanyahu will object to the stipulation that the peace talks be conducted on the basis of the 1967 borders; while Mr Abbas rejects the Jewish state demand, is irate that Washington has not clearly recognised a Palestinian capital in what was Jordanian Jerusalem before 1967, and dismisses Israeli demands, reiterated in Mr Netanyahu’s Aipac speech, to retain a troop presence in the Jordan Valley area of the West Bank.
Yossi Alpher has a bleak prognosis for the peace talks if they are extended: “The talks may become an empty ritual of endless negotiations based on a framework agreement that no one believes in.”