Impasse in Middle East suggests US optimism was ill-founded


The Israeli government’s decision to suspend peace talks following agreement between the Palestinian Fatah and Hamas wings to form a unity government brings the latest round of peace negotiations to an ignominious close. They had already reached a virtually complete impasse despite the strenuous efforts of the US secretary of state John Kerry. This depressing outcome will allow both sides to reflect on the reasons for failure and whether the existing objective of a two-state settlement negotiated in this manner remains at all feasible or realistic.

Mr Kerry’s optimism that an agreement could be reached is difficult to justify in retrospect. The Israeli government led by Binyamin Netanyahu includes parties opposed in principle to a Palestinian state. It has persistently defended and expanded illegal settlements on the West Bank and in Jerusalem, the cessation of which a weakened Palestinian side could not make into an absolute precondition for talks. US pressure concentrated on finding a narrower basis on other elements of an overall settlement. While some progress was made in clarifying these issues over the last nine months, there is little to show for the effort as a whole.

Several recent signals from both sides indicated the process was exhausted. The Israeli decision to go ahead with illegal buildings was matched by a Palestinian one to secure greater recognition of their legitimate statehood from international organisations. If the Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas hoped to put pressure for a concession from Mr Netanyahu by reaching this agreement with Hamas, he has miscalculated. Instead the Israeli leader suspended the talks altogether just days ahead of Mr Kerry’s declared deadline tomorrow.

Fatah and Hamas have agreed to form an interim government of technocrats pending the calling of presidential elections in six months. Mr Abbas says the government he leads will recognise Israel and renounce violence though the Hamas constitution does neither. This is rightly seen as an indirect gesture by Hamas that they are prepared to reach a pragmatic settlement with Israel, which neither Palestinian faction accepts as a Jewish state, a wrecking condition put in by Mr Netanyahu which would mean the Palestinian side accepting second-class status for Israel’s Arab minority.

The two-state formula only makes sense if it applies to Israel’s internationally agreed 1967 borders, if West Bank settlements are discontinued and if agreement is reached on refugees and Jerusalem. The more impossible these elements are to realise, the more the conviction will grow among Palestinians that the alternative is one state containing the two peoples. Many believe they will make progress only by returning to Intifada-type protests and by supporting a much more determined international effort to put pressure on Israel.