Going through the motions
By Linda S. Heard
Online Journal Contributing Writer

Sep 23, 2010, 00:18

Face-to-face peace talks between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian National Authority President Mahmoud Abbas took place last week in the Egyptian resort of Sharm Al Shaikh with US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton as intermediary. That should have been an historic moment meriting mega airtime and front page headlines, like the negotiations leading up to the Camp David and Oslo Accords received.

So why is there so little hullabaloo surrounding these talks? Why are the people of this region, including most Palestinians, displaying an uncharacteristic lack of interest in the Netanyahu/Abbas� t�te-�-t�tes? Whenever I mention the topic to my Egyptian neighbours and friends, they tend to soulfully shake their heads, change the subject or stifle a yawn. Who can blame them?

For one thing, they�ve heard it all before. They�ve had their hopes raised only to be cruelly dashed on numerous occasions. A two-state solution brokered by Bill Clinton loomed so large in 2000 at the Camp David Summit that then Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat, and his Israeli counterpart, Ehud Barak, could almost taste it.

Follow-up final status talks in January 2001, held at Taba, were, by some reports, on the point of sealing the deal when regime changes in the US and Israel ushered in right-wing hardliners George W. Bush and Ariel Sharon to spoil it all. Sharon stomped around Haram Al Sharif in the company of hundreds of armed men triggering the Second Palestinian Intifada, while Bush attempted to steal Arafat�s legitimacy by treating him as a pariah.

For the Palestinian people, life has gone downhill ever since. An Israeli-built apartheid wall has robbed land from West Bank residents and restricted their movement. Illegal Jewish West Bank colonies have been greatly expanded; Palestinian homes in occupied East Jerusalem have been demolished.

Israel did withdraw from Gaza in August 2005 with much fanfare only to impose a blockade on the Strip�s 1.5 million residents in June 2007, prior to launching a military assault a year later, when 1,400 Palestinians were killed. Most crucially, the Palestinian people are now divided between Fatah and Hamas, which hold to very different philosophies.

Ten years on from Camp David, it�s a whole different ballgame. Then both Barak and Arafat enjoyed their respective peoples� grassroots support, while Bill Clinton�s commitment was clear; there was tangible excitement in the air, which is entirely absent today. A memory of those times which stands out for me was a dinner I had at a simple Bangkok restaurant in the company of Egyptians and a Tunisian during the summer of 1999.

Even before we had ordered, a group of around six Israelis sat down at our long wooden table. It was a little awkward at first, but within no time the impromptu gathering became a virtual Israeli-Arab love fest with strangers exchanging phone numbers and planning to visit one another in their home countries as soon as the peace deal was done.

By contrast, it seems to me that today�s so-called peacemakers are just going through the motions. Netanyahu has never shown any interest in working towards a Palestinian state, other than a demilitarised, toothless entity sans occupied East Jerusalem. And, unfortunately, Abbas is not a viable peace partner; he doesn�t speak for the majority of Palestinians and, secondly, his presidential tenure expired last year. There is also a question as to whether Clinton can be an objective broker when she is so inherently biased in favour of the Jewish state.

Moreover, these talks are unbalanced when Israel and its joined-at-the-hip US buddy are holding most of the cards. Together they have all the money, the weapons, the political clout and the power. The danger is that they will persuade Abbas to accept the crumbs off Israel�s table in exchange for a settlement which, for him, will amount to political suicide.

Unless Washington is prepared to wield a carrot and stick -- with the accent on stick -- approach towards Tel Aviv, Netanyahu has little incentive to relinquish land for peace. Israel is a nuclear state that is currently benefiting from a booming economy, which is unconditionally protected by the superpower. Its leaders know that they can flout international law time and again without any serious repercussions. So why should they shower Abbas with meaningful concessions?

Let�s face it: the status quo is working for them, even if they are irritated by the occasional homemade rocket fired by fighters in Gaza, most of which land on sand. If they can feign interest in a two-state solution for another decade or so to keep the international community happy as they continue with their illegal construction, there will be little land left to constitute a sovereign Palestinian homeland.

When talks once again fail -- as they will -- the entire Arab world needs to rally behind the Palestinians financially, diplomatically and, if needs be, militarily. As long as Abbas remains like a featherweight boxer thrown into a ring with two heavyweights, he can�t come away with anything resembling a prize. It�s time for Arab leaders to throw down the gauntlet before the dream becomes a mirage.

Linda S. Heard is a British specialist writer on Middle East affairs. She welcomes feedback and can be contacted by email at

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