Israel-Palestine: Peace this time?

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The news that Israeli-Palestinian talks are to resume should not lead to over-expectations as to their outcome, warns Shlomo Avineri, director-general of Israel's Foreign Ministry under Yitzhak Rabin's first cabinet and professor of political science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

The following contribution was authored by Shlomo Avineri, director-general of Israel's Foreign Ministry under Yitzhak Rabin's first cabinet and professor of political science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

"The imminent resumption in Washington of direct Israeli-Palestinian peace talks is good news. But whether these talks will lead to an agreement, let alone within one year as US President Barack Obama hopes, is another matter.

When Obama, two days into his presidency, appointed former Senator George Mitchell as his special envoy to the Middle East, many hoped that within two years his efforts would lead to an agreement between Israel and the Palestinians – and to a comprehensive peace between Israel and all its Arab neighbours.

Whether these exaggerated hopes should be traced to Obama's inexperience or to hubris – or both – is a moot point: what is clear is that, after 18 months and numerous visits to the region, Mitchell was able to achieve only an agreement in principle by Israel and the Palestinians to start talking to each other.

The problem is that they have been talking to each other now for 17 years, under different Israeli and Palestinian leaders, and under two US presidents. To bring them to the negotiating table again is not a breakthrough, but rather an attempt at damage control.

And, while Mitchell's successful track record in achieving reconciliation in Northern Ireland seemed like an excellent credential for his current job, it may have hindered him in the Middle East.

The conflict in Northern Ireland was always territorial: not even the most radical Irish Republican group ever denied the legitimacy of Great Britain – only its rule over the six northern provinces of what they consider United Ireland. 

The crux of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, by contrast, only partly concerns Israel's borders. The Palestinians contest not just the post-1967 occupation of the West Bank; since the United Nations partition plan of 1947 – which called for the establishment of two states, one Jewish and one Arab – Palestinians have refused to recognise Israel's right to exist, and most Israelis are not convinced that they have totally abandoned that stance.

Being tone-deaf to these fundamental issues, Mitchell started on the wrong foot by initially acceding, with Obama's encouragement, to the Palestinians' demand for a freeze on further construction in Israeli settlements on the West Bank prior to the start of negotiations.

A stop to settlement activities in Palestinian territories is a reasonable demand, and the Palestinians could naturally insist on it in the negotiations. But making a settlement freeze a precondition for negotiations was obviously unacceptable to the Israeli government, which maintained that no preconditions for negotiations should be set."

To read the op-ed in full, please click here.

(Published in partnership with Project Syndicate.)

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