Too late for dialogue with Palestinians

By Emanuele Ottolenghi, October 14, 2010

For nine months out of the ten-month settlement freeze, Palestinian leaders refused to directly engage their Israeli counterparts, because it did not include Jerusalem. Having belatedly joined the talks, they quickly abandoned them lest the freeze they previously considered insufficient be reinstated.

Suppose that, at Washington's behest, Israel extends the freeze for two more months. Given the track record, there is little chance anything will be achieved - except, maybe, stemming the tidal wave about to drown US President Barack Obama's Democrats in the mid-term elections.

Then what? The Palestinians will walk out again and ask for another extension.

Clearly, there is little wisdom in continuing settlement building in the West Bank - especially in those areas that may fall under future Palestinian sovereignty. But wisdom needs to take into account coalition needs - and the little political dividends Israel's Prime Minister, Benyamin Netanyahu, reaped from both Washington and Ramallah in exchange for endangering his right-wing constituency's sacred cow. Netanyahu did what none of his predecessors contemplated doing - or was forced to do. What benefits did he get?

In truth, Palestinians are asking Netanyahu to renounce settlements - Israel's strongest negotiating chip - before a clear outcome is determined. Meanwhile, they condemn Israel's Jewish character as racist, as if fulfilling the UN 1947 vision of two nations living side by side in peace was tantamount to betraying their cause.

Israel's hawks argue that Palestinians will never fully accept Israel. It is hard to disagree when such tactical pettiness is matched by a refusal to recognize Israel's symbolic concerns.

After ten years of fruitless negotiations with bloody interludes, there is little surprise then in the latest halt to the peace process. The two sides were never close enough to bridge the gap.

What is different this time is US incompetence - matched by the usual European double standard. Obama's demand that a settlement freeze be Israel's goodwill gesture to give peace a chance has forced Palestinians to demand nothing less as a precondition. Now, with Israel loath to concede, the US has fumbled again. With the Palestinians, by rewarding their intransigence with more pressure on Israel; and with Israel, by seeking to buy two months of freeze in exchange for an extravagant gift list.

Even assuming that Israel agrees, what will happen if after two months there are no results? The Palestinians will storm out and demand more time; Israel will refuse to budge - and America will have to offer more.

If there ever was a chance for peace, it is long past us.

Emanuele Ottolenghi is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defence of Democracies in Washington, DC

Last updated: 2:26pm, November 8 2010