Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Too Early to be Optimistic?

Israeli President Shimon Peres has predicted that peace talks will resume in a US-Israeli-Palestinian summit at the end of September. This optimistic announcement was followed by reports that such meetings are actually quite unlikely and by statements from the Palestinian Authority that peace talks would not resume in the absence of a total freeze on all settlement activity.

This is interesting for a few reasons. Peres' statement has the effect of making Palestinians appear to be the rejectionists in the face of an offer to talk peace. By publicly announcing that the talks would take place--or at least could easily take place--Palestinians choosing not to jump at the opportunity, despite one of their demands not being met, makes them look like the opponents of peace. It's hard to know if this move was intentional, but if so, it was quite clever.

A second interesting point is the impact the Palestinian position has on settlements. Many have argued that settlements are not the problem in the Israeli Palestinian conflict and that violence against Israel existed before 1967 and before the existence of any settlements. Suppose it were true that the settlements are not an obstacle in any way to peace, the PA's unwillingness to talk peace in the absence of a settlement freeze turns settlements into an obstacle. It's a way of saying that no matter whether settlements were a problem or not, they are perceived to be a problem and so absent a freeze in their growth, peace efforts will not move forward. The response to which becomes "freeze them and get on with it already," and less "forget the settlements and get on with it already."

One problem with the former approach is that the PA is insisting that not only West Bank settlements be frozen, but also building in the Eastern (formerly Jordanian) part of Jerusalem. This would be a very difficult proposition for Israel to accept given that Jerusalem was annexed by Israel (officially) in 1980 and that many Israelis would consider a building freeze in Eastern Jerusalem no different than a building freeze in Tel-Aviv. Inconceivable. The latter approach, however, denies Abbas anything tangible in terms of concessions from Israel and some may see him to be negotiating from weakness. A fair response to this is "concessions come from negotiations, not prior to them."

Late September will be an interesting time, when the three key players will be present in the same place at the same time. Will they really miss out on this opportunity to talk and try to get talks going again? Hard to say.

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