Of all the lands there are for dismal scenery, I think Palestine must be the prince. The hills are barren, they are dull of colour, they are unpicturesque in shape. The valleys are unsightly deserts fringed with feeble vegetation that has an expression about it of being sorrowful and despondent…It is a hopeless, dreary, heartbroken land.
– Mark Twain describing his visit to the Middle East in 1867.
While Twain’s quote may appear prophetic in describing the misery and pain that would be inflicted upon this region of the world, he would clearly have been at a loss to understand why so many people have been willing to devote their lives, and too often also their deaths, to claiming ownership rights for this piece of land.
The latest stage of the Middle East peace process, which has taken on biblical proportions in more than one sense, has seen the reintroduction of direct talks between Israeli and Palestinian representatives. Yet despite a month of apparently productive discussion, there seems little optimism that these talks will achieve anything more than previous incarnations, and still less belief that it will lead to Obama’s stated intention of a comprehensive settlement within one year.
Why such little faith in the process? Well the issues of Palestinian refugees, the status of Jerusalem, and the viability of a Palestinian state, that is divided both literally and metaphorically, are all salient and not easily resolved. More than anything though, the long shadow currently hanging over discussions is that of the Jewish settlements located on disputed territory.
Whilst fundamentally a less profound issue and certainly a less historically embedded one, settlements hold tremendous symbolic and emotional value to the two respective sides. Some Israelis, view their construction as a God-given right to inhabit the lands that make up their historic home. Conversely, Palestinians view the settlements as further encroachment on officially occupied territory, and an example of the rapidly moving goalposts that have come to define final status negotiations.
The Israeli ten-month freeze on settlement building, which allowed the direct discussions to take place at all, has now come to an end, and fresh ground is being broken in the West Bank. Thus far, the Palestinian leadership has shown admirable restraint in considering its position before acting rashly, but if no new moratorium on construction is agreed, the latest discussions will surely be placed in jeopardy, even before they are fully up and running.
Moreover, the failure to extend the freeze must be seen as a major challenge to the plans and authority of President Obama, who has repeatedly pressed his Israeli counterpart Benjamin Netanyahu on the issue. After previous tensions between the two camps, some will now be wondering just how much weight Obama’s word carries in the upper echelons of Israeli politics, and in international diplomacy more generally. The US State Department’s expressed ‘disappointment’ at Israel’s move to recommence building work pours doubt over whether Obama’s already damaged presidency has the muscle to push both sides into making difficult and painful concessions.
Before running away with the naysayers and gloom-merchants though, we should at least make an effort to search out the positives in a process that has turned hiding silver linings into a speciality. Obama, to his credit, has thrown himself into the insolvable conundrum of the Middle East, both earlier and deeper than any of his recent predecessors. What is more, both Netanyahu and Abbas know that their own time is running out to achieve a personal, political legacy that would live long in the history books. If these latest talks fail, we may well find ourselves back here again in a couple of years, albeit with new leaders and promises, but the same old problems and heartbreak.
A guest post by Michael Jewkes