Last week, the Israeli press reported that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told a Cabinet meeting, following his talks with US Middle East envoy George Mitchell, that Israel and the United States want to "begin a peace process immediately", and without any preconditions.
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said on Friday that Israel and the Palestinians were to begin indirect peace talks this week, with the expectation that these proximity talks would lead to direct negotiations in due course.
For the new peace process to have any chance of producing to a peaceful settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict the parties must come to it with good faith, be prepared to accept objective criteria, and commit themselves to a negotiation outcome that reflects mutual interests — not a zero-sum game in which one party's gain corresponds to the other party's loss.
For this to happen, the negotiations must be based on the principle of equality. Netanyahu did quite the opposite when he formulated his vision for Israel's future and based it on, among other things, a peaceful settlement with the Palestinians negotiated from a position of overwhelming power. But such an outcome would not be the result of negotiations but rather the imposition of the will of the stronger party and the surrender of the weaker party. This is a recipe not for ending the conflict but rather for perpetuating it.
We know what Netanyahu brings to the negotiations, and it is not encouraging. First, on the issue of good faith, it is hard to believe that Netanyahu is genuinely interested in an objectively defined fair settlement that puts an end to the conflict and allows the establishment of a viable Palestinian state living in peace side-by-side with Israel. That is because while he keeps proclaiming his desire for peace, he has been doing everything to make its realisation a distant possibility.
Consider the continued siege of Gaza (which the UN Report by Richard Goldstone described as possibly a crime against humanity), and the intensification of Jewish colonies in the Occupied Territories — not only illegal under international law and condemned by the international community, but also politically destructive of the foundations of a lasting peace settlement.
Netanyahu claims that Israel is committed to international agreements; but his intensification of colony construction in the Occupied Territories violates the strict ban on all colony activities contained in the very agreement on which the new peace process will be based: the road map sponsored by the Quartet — the US, Russia, the European Union and the United Nations.
In this regard, the Israeli newspaper The Jerusalem Post confirmed last week Israel's intention to flagrantly breach its commitment to dismantle some 23 illegal colonies "despite a 2002 road map commitment and years of pledges by successive prime ministers including Binyamin Netanyahu".
Consider further Netanyahu's claim that he is ready for negotiations with the Palestinians without any preconditions, when in fact he is prejudging the outcome of negotiations by listing his own conditions: The Palestinian state must be demilitarised and will have no control over its airspace; the Palestinians will have to recognise the Jewish character of Israel; Jerusalem must stay undivided and under Israeli control; and the Palestinian refugees must not be allowed to return to Israel.
In his speech at Bar-Ilan University last June, Netanyahu pledged not to build new colonies or expropriate Palestinian land in order to expand existing ones. But his commitments proved unreliable as was widely reported in the Israeli and American media after the Israeli government announced the construction of 1,600 units in occupied east Jerusalem and continued to evict Palestinians from their homes. Consider the logic Netanyahu puts forward to justify his continued violation of the road map's ban on all colony construction and his defiance of Obama's demand to stop all colony construction activities.
He said he excluded the so-called natural growth of colonies from the undertaking not to build new colonies (itself broken) because Israel must allow the colonists to lead normal lives and raise their children like "all families around the world". But Netanyahu ignored the fact that "all families around the world" are not living on stolen properties.
The absence of good faith on the part of Israeli leaders is not a matter of speculation; it is evident from the Israeli strategy of publicly endorsing the peace process while actively creating facts on the ground and erecting obstacles that vitiate the peace process of any meaningful substance. It is also openly discussed in the Israeli press, where Netanyahu's commitment to peace is openly questioned. Recently, The New York Times uncharacteristically expressed serious doubt about Netanyahu's proclaimed commitment to peace.
Most remarkably, the absence of a good-faith approach to the peace process has not only been admitted by influential Israelis but has also been boasted about as a strategic achievement that would prevent the peace process from ever leading to a political settlement.
If Netanyahu brings to the proximity talks the same approach and the same positions he publicly articulates, it will not be very long before the proximity talks collapse. Israelis and Palestinians stand to benefit from a more direct American involvement. Both Israelis and Palestinians have called on Mitchell to "bring a peace plan or stay home".
- Adel Safty is distinguished professor adjunct at the Siberian Academy of Public Administration, Russia. His new book, Might Over Right, is endorsed by Noam Chomsky.