So Mr Kerry has levered an agreement from Israel and the Palestinians to talk about talks about discussing final status issues – and everyone’s got nine months to spend doing it! There have been claims that both sides have made “goodwill gestures” to enable this to happen, but somehow goodwill from the Palestinian side doesn’t seem as evident as from the Israelis. Much play has been made of Israel’s agreement to release 103 (or is it 104?) long-term terrorist prisoners (a highly unpopular and historically unfruitful measure). Less is said, however, of their insistence that they will not all be released at once, but piecemeal in line with progress in the talks. (Err, that’s piece-meal as in a few prisoners at a time, not as in pieces of them at a time)!
So what makes anyone think these talks will lead anywhere except where they’ve always led before (that’s nowhere, by the way)? Secretary of State John Kerry has promised to throw bucket-loads of money at the Palestinian Authority just to get them to think about coming to the table. But money doesn’t solve the major issues still outstanding between the two sides.
Mr Obama needs to realise that he won’t carve his niche in history by solving the unsolvable. The Israelis and Palestinians remain as far apart as ever on the core final status issues. Borders, refugees, Jerusalem and security are the four eternal and unresolvable agenda items and the distance between today’s negotiators is as wide as it has ever been. The Palestinians (and the EU!) are insisting that a Palestinian state’s border follows a non-existent and irrelevant cease-fire line from 64 years ago; no-one realistically expects Israel to receive the several million Palestinian “refugees” in to a Jewish state; East Jerusalem, never the capital of anyone other than Israel and logistically impossible to separate from the rest of the city, will never be given up by Israel; and who really wants to see a second Palestinian enclave taken over by Hamas so they can threaten my aircraft the next time I fly into Tel Aviv?
If this next nine months goes anywhere, it is most likely to be to a realisation that a two-state solution is just not going to happen. Unfortunately, however, this outcome has the potential for an even bigger disaster. Sky News’ Tim Marshall, in my view the most balanced TV journalist around when it comes to Israel and the Middle East, commented this morning that the failure of these talks could lead to two highly negative outcomes. The first is a possible third intifada as Mr Abbas follows Yassir Arafat’s strategy to divert attention from his failure. The second is the possibility of Israel reclaiming the whole of the West Bank and placing it under Israeli control. With such a large number of recalcitrant Palestinians inside her borders she could truly become an “apartheid state” – something that Marshall emphasises she emphatically is NOT at the moment – whatever the rest of the world says!
It is a measure of how fragile these talks are that the first discussions are only lasting about long enough for a couple of cups of coffee (Arabic, of course) before everyone heads home. That could be long enough for the Palestinians to do their normal trick of getting the hump and walking. Or it could be long enough for the two sides to agree to meet again for coffee next month. If they do the former, no-one will be surprised. If they manage the latter, it will shuffle forward by a tiny degree a process that history may well record as being a non-starter since, Oh, since the signing of the Oslo Accords?
P.S. I am very happy to be wrong – ask me again in nine months when we’ll know if the baby is still-born or not.