It was almost surreal to witness how the recent announcement of the resumption of peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians, which otherwise should be regarded as a positive development, has been met with so much negativity and cynicism.
Of course, it is easy to see why many observers are not excited about the prospects of such talks: Long years of disappointment and failed negotiations, the ongoing division between the two Palestinian factions of Hamas and Fatah, let alone the fact that Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party’s charter still rejects a Palestinian state.
Whilst one may agree with all the fair points presented by the peace-talks critics, it should be remembered that cynicism is the lazy option. It is far too easy to sit back and dismiss the peace talks before they have even begun. The real question is: Do these critics have an alternative?
With unresolved internal political divisions, a tarnished economy, traditional allies being engaged with their own issues and Israel continuing to dictate the situation on the ground, the situation can hardly get any worse for Palestinians.
In fact, one could say that these peace talks are already too late — but does that not mean that any more time wasted will imperil any possibility of conflict resolution?
Wasting time is certainly not in the interest of the Palestinian side. Critics of the peace talks should realise a very simple fact: Negotiations may succeed or fail to achieve peace; but the alternative (not having these negotiations) is guaranteed to fail.
As for US involvement in this matter, many critics say that it is driven by self-interest, given the American administration’s tarnished credibility since the 2011 Arab Spring.
The US approach in Syria is seen by many as hamfisted. In Egypt, it is seen as part of a conspiracy by both the supporters and detractors of deposed president Mohammad Mursi.
Also, with the increasing influence of Russia, the EU and even China, the Middle East is no longer America’s stomping ground. The $1.5 billion (Dh5.50 billion) in aid which President Barack Obama was so careful to protect by refusing to label Egypt’s military ouster a “coup”, pales in comparison to the $12 billion donated to the interim government by Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Kuwait together.
There is a theory that the possibility of a peace deal in the Middle East will restore the US’s image. However, even if this was true and Washington did want to use the peace talks as a way to regain some credibility, what is the big deal? At the end of the day, what really matters is getting the Palestinians and the Israelis to finally sign on that dotted line and put years of hatred, occupation and injustice behind them.
Furthermore, just because the American position on Syria and Egypt is unclear and unpopular, it doesn’t mean that they should not engage in an area where they can actually make progress.
If anything, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the one Middle Eastern area that the US has a long experience in dealing with. The Americans were the first to extend diplomatic recognition to Israel in 1948 after pushing for a solution to the conflict. Since then, they have been involved in many iterations of the peace process and although they were never successful, they sure came close to sealing a deal several times. Detractors have suggested that Israel may be in the talks to waste time. Certainly, comments like the recent statement by Amos Yadlin, former head of Israeli military intelligence, are not encouraging.
“We have to submit a proposal to the Palestinians, a decent proposal, a fair proposal,” Yadlin told a group of foreign reporters in February. “If the Palestinians will accept it, it’s a win for peace. If they refuse — as we think they will — then at least we win the blame game and we can continue to shape our borders by ourselves without the need to wait for the Palestinians to agree.”
However, there are those in the political establishment and in the Israeli public, who want to achieve peace. It makes sense to do it now because of instability elsewhere in the Arab world. Of course, the Palestinians’ usual allies are distracted. But for Israel, it is also a time of uncertainty given its rapidly changing surroundings since 2011; it must have realised that the Palestinians are at least an ‘enemy they know’.
It also makes sense for Israel to sign a peace pact with the Palestinians given that its alliances in the region are changing.
However, there is also the idea that being more conservative and right-leaning might be a good idea for Netanyahu domestically. Allying with the hardline Jewish Home party was done out of political necessity, and the Israeli public largely no longer cares about a permanent solution because military occupation now appears sustainable. However, status quo is a disaster for Netanyahu’s international image. The timing of the peace talks and the EU sanctions against products from Israeli colonies in the West Bank may be a coincidence, but the sanctions are a reminder of the turning tides of international public opinion against Israel. They may be going in with the intention of marking time, but the international community is getting impatient and will no longer let this behaviour slide.
Furthermore, many things in the region hang on the Palestinian issue, and this makes it a good time for everyone. The Palestinian issue is often exploited by other Arab leaders like Bashar Al Assad to talk about a greater US Israel conspiracy and to distract from their own failings. It is possible that sorting out Palestine/Israel, as well as the US reasserting itself through the talks, will have a knock-on stabilising effect in the region.
Of course, we shouldn’t jump to any conclusions. Certainly, it makes sense for all three parties to have the talks right now, but such talks have happened before. The Middle East peace process has frequently been more process than peace.
Yet, prior dismissal will get us nowhere, and if the slim possibility of success becomes a reality, there will be people pretending that they knew what was going to happen all along. However, as George Mitchell, who brokered the peace deal in Northern Ireland, knows, the path to peace is by its very nature unpredictable.
“Until it happens, you can’t predict with certainty …You can’t take ‘no’ for an answer…You just have to keep at it until peace is achieved,” he said.
Faisal J. Abbas is the editor-in-chief of Al Arabiya News Channel’s English service. You can follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/FaisalJAbbas