The first session of the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks began Wednesday evening in Jerusalem’s King David Hotel.
Israeli Justice Minister Tzipi Livni and Palestinian chief negotiator Saeb Erekat are representing their respective sides.
U.S. envoy Martin Indyk, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel, is chairing the meeting. A second working session is planned for “later this month” in the West Bank city of Jericho.
In the hours leading up to Wednesday’s opening session, signs were not good for a successful conclusion to the talks.
Possibly with encouragement from the U.S., Israel agreed to release a proposed 104 Palestinian prisoners currently held in its military prison. This action made it difficult for the Palestinian Authority to stay away from the talks.
The release of prisoners was resisted within the Israeli public, which is still chafing over the release of 1027 Palestinian prisoners in 2011 in exchange for Gilad Shalit, an Israeli soldier held for five years by Hamas.
To demonstrate that Israel was in no danger of giving away the store, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced on the eve of the talks that the Israeli goverment would issue 2000 housing permits for construction in existing Israeli settlements on Palestinian land.
The first 26 Palestinian prisoners who were released Tuesday night were all arrested, charged and imprisoned by military courts at some point between 1985 and 2001
Palestinian released prisoners are well aware they will not be entirely free. They remain in constant danger of being returned to prison at the slightest provocation.
Mairav Zonszein, a Jewish journalist who moved from New York to Israel, is blunt in her assessment of the prisoner release:
Releasing Palestinian prisoners is primarily symbolic – considering that Israel remains the controlling power, choosing who and when it releases and re-arresting as it pleases, whenever it pleases.
At the same time it announced the names of the first prisoners to be released, Israel displayed a disdain for the talks by announcing new construction in a wide range of settlements.
Zonszein, who writes for the Israeli liberal 972 website, provides the sordid details:
Something like 2,000 new units in the West Bank and East Jerusalem – some in final approval stages before building begins and others at the start of the tender process – have been announced in the last few weeks. The construction published today enumerates 400 new units in Gilo, 210 in Har Homa and 183 Pisgat Ze’ev — all settlements beyond the Green Line in East Jerusalem. In the West Bank, it was made up of 117 units in Ariel, 149 in Efrat, 92 in Ma’aleh Adumim and 36 in Beitar Ilit.
With details like these, it should be obvious that plans for this new settlement building were developed over a long period of time. The government’s formal announcement was timed to assuage the right-wing politicians who strongly oppose the release of Palestinian prisoners, an old political tactic of releasing good and bad news on the same day.
It is also important to note that the Gilo’s 400 new units and Har Homa’s 210 units increase the populations in settlements on each side of the highway that connects Jerusalem and Bethlehem. Ma’aleh Adumim, a much older settlement, is on the highway between Jerusalem and Jericho. (Additional earlier Gilo constuction is shown in the photo above.)
Instead of delaying or postponing the talks, Secretary of State John Kerry gave Israel the usual diplomatic pass in spite of Israel’s arrogant and self-defeating behavior.
Traveling in Colombia, according to the Reuters news service, Kerry “told reporters that while some movement on the settlement front had been expected, the wave of announcements may have been ‘outside of that level of expectation'”.
Palestinian chief negotiator Saeb Erekat was less sanguine. Stunned by the size of the new construction, he warned:
“If the Israeli government believes that every week they’re going to cross a red line by settlement activity … what they’re advertising is the unsustainability of the negotiations.”
The New York Times editorial page deplored the Israeli tactic of pairing the prisoner release with the housing expansion announcement:
This balancing act may have made sense in the narrow world of the Knesset. But, in the broader world beyond Israeli domestic politics, giving the green light to more settlement construction in contested territory is not just untimely but a fresh cause for pessimism about the prospects for successful peace negotiations.
One of the main reasons Prime Minister Netanyahu agreed to the “peace talks” was to demonstrate to an increasing number of outside critics that he was willing to reach out to the Palestinians.
Announcing the housing settlement “tenders” (permission to construct) did not play well on the world stage that Netanyahu hoped to cultivate. The Omar Tribune reports:
Palestinians, Russia and the European Union (EU) on Monday slammed the Israeli approval of new settlement construction as a move aimed at “preventing” peace talks to be resumed on Wednesday.
“It is clear that the Israeli government is deliberately attempting to sabotage US and international efforts to resume negotiations by approving more settlement units three days before the … Palestinian-Israeli meeting,” Palestinian negotiator Mohammed Shtayeh said.
“Israel is attempting to prevent negotiations from taking place on Wednesday.”
“Israeli settlements in the West Bank are illegal under international law and threaten to make a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict impossible,” EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton’s spokesman Michael Mann said.
Stephen Walt, veteran foreign policy analyst, is not optimistic about the talks. He does, however, hope for the best. In a recent piece for Foreign Policy, Walt offers words of encouragement to Secretary of State Kerry. Here are excerpts of Walt’s analysis:
What does U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry think he’s doing? Kerry may not be Mr. Charisma, but he’s not stupid. So why has he chosen to put himself on this well-worn path to failure? No doubt it is partly because he knows unconditional U.S. support for Israel and the continued colonization of Palestinian land is deeply damaging to broader U.S. interests. No doubt he understands that current trends threaten Israel’s long-term future. . . . . .
Here’s what I think may — repeat, may — be going on and why it is still misguided.
First off, even hawkish Israelis are worried about the “demographic problem,” and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s recent warnings about the “one-state solution” reflect that concern. Serious Israelis are also worried about their eroding image worldwide, and the European Union’s largely symbolic decision to ban grants to Israeli entities on the West Bank is an important bellwether in this regard. Even a passionate advocate of “Greater Israel” — which Netanyahu surely is — might see some value in cutting a deal now, especially if he thinks he can get one that is heavily skewed in Israel’s favor. . . . . .
My fear: Even if a deal is somehow reached and the doves fly across the White House lawn nine months from now, it won’t be a true end to the conflict. If the terms are blatantly one-sided and if Israel continues to seek concessions from its far weaker Palestinian neighbors, the deal will not produce a lasting peace. Instead, it will be but a temporary respite, and conflict is likely to resume at whatever point in the future the balance of power shifts.
In his The Second World War, Winston Churchill summarized the “Moral of the Work” in four Churchillian phrases: “In War: Resolution. In Defeat: Defiance. In Victory: Magnanimity. In Peace: Goodwill.”
The victors in the long conflict between Zionist Israelis and Palestinian Arabs would be wise to heed those maxims, and if I were John Kerry, I’d spend a lot of time over the next nine months reminding them about the last two.
As the peace talks begin, it is important, I believe, to give John Kerry as much room to maneuver as he needs to reach his goal of a successful peace agreement in nine months.
He is on a difficult assignment. He must persuade Palestinians to settle for less than they fairly deserve. And he must deal with a recalcitrant Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu who knows he has the U.S. Congress in his hip pocket.
That control of the U.S. legislative body by the leader of a foreign nation was confirmed with all of its dark implications when on May 26, 2011, Netanyahu spoke to a joint session of the U.S. Congress.
Gideon Levy, a courageous Israeli columnist for Ha’aretz, wrote a column in which he told his Israeli readers, and those American readers who ought to be paying attention, just what he felt about his prime minister’s performance in his address to the U.S. Congress.
Here is the opening section of what Levy had to say about that May 26, 2011 Netanyahu speech:
It was an address with no destination, filled with lies on top of lies and illusions heaped on illusions. Only rarely is a foreign head of state invited to speak before Congress. It’s unlikely that any other has attempted to sell them such a pile of propaganda and prevarication, such hypocrisy and sanctimony as Benjamin Netanyahu did yesterday.
The fact that the Congress rose to its feet multiple times to applaud him says more about the ignorance of its members than the quality of their guest’s speech. An Israeli presence on the Jordan River – cheering. Jerusalem must remain the united capital of Israel – applause. Did American’s elected representatives know that they were cheering for the death of possibility? If America loved it, we’re in big trouble.
The fact that the only truth spoken in the Capitol was that of a former Israeli shouting “equal rights for Palestinians” is a badge of honor for us and a mark of shame for America. Netanyahu’s “speech of his life” was the speech of the death of peace.
This is the Israeli leader about whom Levy writes, the leader with whom John Kerry must relate as he works toward an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement. Kerry needs our prayers and our support. The way forward is dark. Godspeed, Mr. Secretary.
The picture at top is from the Gilo Settlement. It appeared in Jewish journal.com. It was taken by Baz Ratner for Reuters. The posting above was updated at 1 p.m., CST, August 14.