Quartet Statement on "indirect" Israeli-Palestinian talks + East Jerusalem

Russia has wanted to host an international conference on Middle East Peace since the start of the Annapolis process of direct negotiations in late November 2007.

It wasn’t exactly a full international multilateral conference, but today the Quartet of Middle East negotiators (US, Russia, European Union + UN) met in Moscow — with their Special Representative Tony Blair — and issued a statement on proposed U.S.-brokered “indirect” talks which is being billed as “strong”:

[In the statement’s last line, it says that “The Quartet reaffirms its previous statements and supports in consultation with the parties on international conference in Moscow at the appropriate time, concurrent with direct negotiations”.]

Most of the specifics in this Quartet statement were addressed to Israel – in particular, to the position expressed by Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu and others in his government about East Jerusalem.

But, there is not much in it that would encourage the Palestinians – many of whom remain unconvinced that the proposed U.S.-mediated “indirect talks” between Israeli and Palestinian negotiators will do anything good.

The Quartet statement called for an Israeli freeze on settlement expansion — and for Israel “to refrain from demolitions and evictions in East Jerusalem”.

And, the Quartet said, “Recalling that the annexation of East Jerusalem is not recognized by the international community, the Quartet underscores that the status of Jerusalem is a permanent status issue that must be resolved through negotiations between the parties and condemns the decision by the Government of Israel to advance planning for new housing units in East Jerusalem. The Quartet reaffirms its intention to closely monitor developments in Jerusalem, and to keep under consideration additional steps that may be required to address the situation on the ground. The Quartet recognizes that Jerusalem is a deeply important issue for Israelis and Palestinians, and for Jews, Muslims, and Christians, and believes that through good faith and negotiations, the parties can mutually agree on an outcome that realizes the aspirations of both parties for Jerusalem, and safeguards this status for people around the world”.

What is it like in East Jerusalem these days? Here are two instructive videos:

(1) Filmed on 15 March – Hagit Ofran, who documents settlements for Peace Now, has posted this encounter at the entrance to the Old City of East Jerusalem on her new Eyes on the Ground in East Jerusalem Blog, here:

(2) Filmed one month earlier, on 14 February – this video taken by International Solidarity Movement volunteers was posted showing participants in a bus tour for Jewish groups visiting the homes built by the UN in the mid-1950s in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood of East Jerusalem to house Palestinian refugees. Four of these homes have been evacuated by Israeli court orders over the past 18 months, and handed over to Jewish settlers. This video was made in the entryway to the home of Rivka Kurd — the front wing of her house, built apparently without proper permit, was the most recent property turned over to Jewish settlers. The family property was tossed out on to the front lawn that these visiters mill around it. The family, who sits in a tent from where this video was made, say that it is ironic that the part of their house built without a proper permit was declared illegal for them to live in, but legal for the Jewish settlers:

Is it really enough for the Quartet to express the intention to “closely monitor” developments — and maybe even to “keep under consideration additional steps that may be required to address the situation on the ground”?

Continue reading Quartet Statement on "indirect" Israeli-Palestinian talks + East Jerusalem

Timetable for U.S.-led "indirect" talks brings us right up to Palestinian municipal elections

Is that the whole point?

Are these proposed U.S.-led “indirect” talks between Israelis and Palestinians intended only to keep a holding pattern until the Palestinian local and municipal elections scheduled for 17 July?

Voter registration for these Palestinian elections began on Saturday 6 March, and will continue until 16 March.

UPDATE: The P.L.O. Executive Committee has agreed in a meeting in the Muqata’a in Ramallah on Sunday to the proposal to enter a four-month period of “indirect” negotiations with Israel with U.S. mediation …U.S. Special Envoy George Mitchell met with Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu for four hours on Sunday, and the two will meet again on Monday before Mitchell heads to Ramallah for meetings with Palestinian officials. The U.S.-sponsored “Annapolis process” of direct Israeli-Palestinian negotiations which began in late November 2007 were broken off by Palestinian leaders at the end of December 2008 when the Israeli Defense Forces began an unprecedented + massive military operation (that lasted three weeks) against Hamas in Gaza. The Annapolis process began with great fanfare and the declared intention to arrive at the creation of a Palestinian state by the end of 2008

The BBC is reporting that Fatah Central Committee member Azzam al-Ahmad said: “We think it’s unlikely that these indirect negotiations with the [Benjamin] Netanyahu government will succeed … But we want to give an opportunity to the US administration to continue its efforts’.”The BBC report is posted here

Ma’an News Agency reported that the P.L.O. Executive Committee had what it calls a “controversial” vote on the proposal for “indirect” talks, and that some members objected. Ma’an said that “Senior PLO official Yasser Abed Rabbo [he is also Secretary of the Executive Committee] told reporters following the four-hour meeting … [that] ‘This decision of the Palestinian leadership was taken with the objection or disagreement of a number factions and members of the Executive Committee’, he said, without divulging names”. According to Ma’an, Abed Rabbo told journalists that “In light of the Arab stance and on the basis on its national responsibility, the Palestinian leadership decided to give the US proposal a chance, holding indirect talks between the Palestinian and Israeli sides, which will initially focus on the issues of borders and security.” The Ma’an report also indicated that “The communist Palestinian People’s Party said in a statement following the meeting that it had voted against a return to negotiations. The group said the PLO was ’embarrassed’ by Abbas’ decision to ask the Arab League to support a return to negotiations. ‘The decision to resume talks should be only up to the organizations of the PLO with all of our appreciation and respect for the support of the Arabs to the Palestinians and their cause’, the statement said”. This report is published here.

Everybody knows, as Leonard Cohen has sung, that the chances of a breakthrough as a result of these “indirect” talks is minimal. Everybody knows, as well, that failure will lead to a worsening of The Situation …

This is the drama of the present moment.

Back to the timing: local Palestinian elections are moving ahead although Palestinian Presidential and Legislative Council elections, proclaimed last 24 October, and scheduled for 24 January, but were postponed “indefinitely” in early November by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who explained that he was endorsing the position of the Palestinian Independent Elections Commission that it would be impossible to hold elections on 24 January under the “current conditions” – taken to mean the continuing split between a West Bank ruled by the Ramallah-based Palestinian Authority (in which Fatah is the dominant political movement), and a Gaza Strip controlled by Hamas.

Presumably, the idea must be that if Fatah can win big in the local elections, Hamas will be … less head-strong. Hamas won many posts in the last Palestinian local and municipal elections (2004-2005). Hamas is not banned from participation in the proposed forthcoming balloting, but it has declared the announced July local elections as “illegal”. This is probably an indication that Hamas will probably not participate … They will be self-excluded. There will be a Hamas-free Palestinian political and administrative structure. Then what?

Hamas was urged by everybody to transform itself into a political party and contest elections — which it did, as the “Change and Reform Party” in January 2006. Then, the major powers backed Israel is boycotting the results — because Hamas has what is regarded as a difficult, hard-line position regarding Israel.

In addition, Fatah was humiliated and furious at the Hamas victory, and the movement has proved to be not very good at losing.

Not-so-secret hopes of ousting Hamas by force ended with a rout of Palestinian/Fatah Preventive Security forces in Gaza in mid-June 2007. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas called this a “military” coup, and responded with a “political” coup, disbanding a three-month-old “National Unity” government and creating a new Hamas-free “Emergency” government that has been changed twice since.

Talks on Fatah-Hamas reconciliation have not yet come to an end, or to any fruition. Hamas, which won a surprise victory of some 60 to 70 percent of the seats in the 2006 elections for the Palestinian Authority (PA) Legislative Council (PLC) elections, is still not yet integrated into the overarching Palestinian Liberation Organization (P.L.O.) despite a 2005 Cairo agreement — Hamas wants a share of seats in the P.L.O.’s National Council in the same proportion to the seats it won in the 2006 Legislative Council elections, and Fatah is adamantly, bitterly opposed to that. Fatah officials have said privately that they would not concede any more than 25 percent of the seats in the Palestine National Council (PNC).

Hamas has maintained its insistence on recognition of its 2006 electoral victory — but by now the terms of office-holders elected in 2006 should have come to a natural end. Since Hamas has not agreed, yet, to reconciliation terms that are, it has to be said, highly favorable to the international-donor-backed Palestinian Authority (though not necessarily to Fatah, unless they are willing to play the game the “right” way), it appears that efforts are being made to simply push Hamas aside in a wave of confusing and contradictory claims of legitimacy that few Palestinians have much patience for any more.

It is, for most Palestinians, a painful and embarrassing mess. It is also, potentially, a tragedy in the making.

One Israeli media report today makes an interesting direct link between the impending local and municipal elections, and the proposed “indirect” Israeli-Palestinian talks. In today’s SUMMARY OF OP-EDS FROM THE HEBREW PRESS, translated into English + sent out to journalists by email from the Israeli Government Press Office (part of the Israeli Prime Minister’s office, is one item saying that a Yediot Ahronot op ed article written by Alex Fishman “asserts that ‘Local [Palestinian] authority elections are a real test of strength of legitimacy for the Abu Mazen-Fayad duo.  The Palestinian Authority cannot stand for elections with a record of concessions on the national issue.  Therefore, until after the elections, nothing will come of the contacts with Israel.

However, if not much is expected out of these U.S.-led “indirect” negotiations — even at the end of the four-month set period — how do both these political leaderships think they’re going to be able keep a lid on this explosive situation?

And, at the end of the four-month period that is expected to start this week, the Israeli-announced unilateral ten-month settlement freeze (which even the Israeli Ministry of Defense, who rules the West Bank, says is being violated in a significant number of places) will be nearly over.

Haaretz journalist Zvi Bar’el wrote in an article published today that “The fact is that this result [the expected start of “indirect” talks] could have been achieved in November, when the building freeze, but the issue was allowed to drag on until March.  It can be assumed that things will stall once again, at the same point, in July, when the time comes for direct negotiations. But then it will only be two months before the scheduled end of the settlement freeze, when will be able to breathe comfortably once more, to build and settle en masse … Indirect talks are a good trick when the other side is an enemy with which there is no dialogue and agreement must be reached on the initial conditions for negotiating, or for entities that do not recognize each other.  This was the case for the indirect talks between Israel and Syria that were meant to formulate preconditions and to summarize what had been agreed to that point, or for the indirect negotiations between Israel and Hamas.  With the Palestinians, however, the situation is fundamentally different. For many years now both parties have recognized one another.  They have cooperated on security issues and have recognized each other’s needs.  They have signed agreements, and above all they both recognize the right of the existence of two states, side by side … Israel and the Palestinians do not need any more confidence-building measures, the lifting of roadblocks or the razing of outposts.  Each knows the other all too well, and knows that these are hollow steps that even if they are carried out will only contribute to the occupation’s extension … The Palestinian price tag for direct talks will not change in the indirect talks.  A settlement freeze was and has remained a fundamental condition of the Palestinians.  The view that East Jerusalem is the Palestinian capital does not match Jewish construction there. The territory of Palestine, which theoretically is the easy part of the negotiations, is also known, as is the territorial contiguity that is necessary in order to have a viable state. The settlements are contrary to these principles and removing a large portion of them is a necessary requirement.  But the right-wing government, even when it is decorated with some symbols of Labor, is contrary to freezing settlements, and certainly opposed to their dismantling.  The Palestinians’ basic conditions are antithetical to the conditions for the existence of a Netanyahu government. Therefore, it does not matter what the format of the talks will be.  Because in the balance between the government’s survival and the conditions for the state’s existence, the government is of course more important.  The only encouraging sign we can draw from these talks is in the fact that the American mediator has become part of the actual price tag.  Because he is the one who in the end will have to rule on who is to blame for the failure. This is the only element that can threaten Israel and the Palestinians. But if we are to judge by the degree by which the Americans have shown they are committed to a resolution of the conflict, we should not hold our breath. They softened their tough stance on the settlement freeze pretty fast”… This analysis is published here.

And, let’s not forget the American elections: another report in Haaretz today, by Barak Raviv, says that “The U.S. administration will not put a lot of effort into the upcoming indirect negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians, opting instead to focus on the November Congressional elections, according to an internal Foreign Ministry report that was distributed to Israeli diplomatic missions abroad … ‘The recent American statements point to the adoption of wording in line, even if partially and cautiously, with Palestinian demands in regard to the framework and structure of negotiations’, the report stated. ‘Still, the [U.S.] administration is making sure to avoid commenting on its position on core issues’ … The report released recently by the Foreign Ministry’s center for political research, which focuses on strategic foreign policy, is less optimistic about the chances for progress in the next round of peace talks. The document was delivered to Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman and to Israeli diplomatic missions abroad several days ago. According to the report Washington is aware of the domestic political problems faced separately by both Netanyahu and Abbas and has decided to concentrate on achieving the limited goal of restarting the negotiations. The peace talks will not be at the top of the Obama administration’s agenda, the report claims. ‘In our assessment the administration will focus in the coming year on domestic issues that are expected to determine the results of the Congressional elections’, the report’s authors wrote. ‘As such, and due to the difficulties to date in achieving significant gains in the peace process we can assume that the administration’s focus on this issue will be limited and will predominantly remain in the hands of Mitchell’s teams’ … The authors of the report also predict that the administration will avoid taking any position that suggests disagreement with Israel, because of the support that Israel enjoys among both parties in Congress … A senior American official told Haaretz Saturday that the talks are expected to resume within days. ‘We told the parties that our goal is to achieve two states for two peoples through negotiations’, the U.S. official said. ‘If there are obstacles we will try to help to overcome them and to propose our own ideas, and if we think one of the parties is not meeting its obligations we will say so’.” This report can be read in full in Haaretz, here.