Last chance for peace in Middle East

Experts from all sides unite in the belief that no deal with Abbas spells disaster

January 14, 2011

Time is running out for Israel to make a deal with the Palestinians, according to three of the most influential figures in recent peace negotiations.

Former Jordanian ambassador to Israel Omar Rifa'i, Dr. Ron Pundak, an initiator of the Oslo peace talks, and former Palestinian Authority minister Dr Sufian Abu Zaydeh were in London to launch a Bicom research paper on Britain's role in the peace process.

And in an exclusive briefing at the JC offices, they were united in the belief that Israel faces potentially disastrous consequences if Benjamin Netanyahu's government fails to make progress in negotiations with the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank under Mahmoud Abbas.

Dr Pundak said that the shape of an eventual settlement is, in his view, obvious but that the political will for a solution does not seem to exist within Mr Netanyahu's government. This is potentially very dangerous for Israel: "Time is running against both sides. We know the threats against Israel, which comes from the strengthening of Hamas and Islamic Jihad. If this process fails, we could end up with Hamas in the West Bank and al-Qaeda in Gaza. Then we will dream about the chance we had in 2011."

The point was echoed by Dr Rifa'i, who was Jordanian ambassador to Tel Aviv between 1996 and 2000, and played a major role in negotiations between the two countries.

He said: "There are many people in the Arab world asking why we should negotiate with Israel. At the moment there are six million Palestinians in Israel and about six million Jews. In 20 years there will be 12 to 13 million Palestinians. People are saying that we should allow Bibi to be obstinate and intransigent - we can wait 10 years, even 100 years. One day Israel will realise it has blown the chance to have peace."

They are also in broad agreement as to the reason for the blockage in negotiations.

Dr Abu Zaydeh: "We have the most pragmatic Palestinian leadership there could be. The main players of the Palestinian Authority are against violence or fighting of any kind.

"In return, they get a very stupid Israeli policy. Hamas and the extremist organisations will be very happy when we fail to achieve anything for our people through peaceful means."

He added that his colleagues had found negotiating with Mr Netanyahu
a frustrating process.

"Netanyahu refused to discuss the issue of borders and insisted on talking about the issue of security. That is the problem. After a year of attempts, if you ask Netanyahu about borders he will tell you nothing. He has an extremist government. With Avigdor Lieberman in his government and Shas in the coalition, he cannot take a decision to return the West Bank to the Palestinians. He could not even take the decision to give 60 per cent of the West Bank to the Palestinians. The feeling is that Netanyahu is not serious. When Senator George Mitchell met Abbas, he received all the answers he needed. When he met Netanyahu, he got nothing because Netanyahu has nothing to offer."

Dr Rafa'i, however, is equally scathing of the Palestinians . "At the moment we have a peace process which is just an excuse for doing nothing. We have people who are working for a peace process merely to buy time.

"One gets the impression that the Israeli and Palestinian leadership are not serious about peace. The Israelis are very comfortable. They can sit in the cafes of Tel Aviv and not worry if the peace process moves or not.

"When I was in Tel Aviv, if the peace process did not move there were 150,000 on the streets saying 'Peace Now'. Today the Israeli peace activists are not there, perhaps they are human rights activists now. In the Arab world we don't have peace activists anymore."

While Dr Abu Zaydeh is inclined to believe that Mr Netanyahu is unable to offer concessions largely because of the constraints forced on him by the make up of his coalition, both Dr Pundak and Dr Rifa'i believe that the Israeli prime minister has never had any intention of making substantial concessions to the Palestinians.

For Dr Pundak, "Bibi won't come to an agreement because his conditions are too far away from something that would gain Palestinian acceptance."

Dr Rifa'i reiterates the point: "Netanyahu wants to
go down in history as the man who secured Israel rather than the man who oversaw the creation of a Palestinian state on what is, for him, Palestinian land."

The three men agree that the greatest opportunity for an overall settlement could come with a Kadima victory at the next election, resulting in the more pragmatic Tzipi Livni being returned to office.

Dr Abu Zaydeh confirms that the 2008 negotiations, conducted while Ehud Olmert and Ms Livni were still in office, came tantalisingly close to a deal. "Olmert conducted very serious negotiations. I was there and I know we came very close to making a deal.

"It was a practical negotiation. Olmert presented a peace map and Abbas came back to the meeting after two weeks and presented a Palestinian map. Olmert made changes to his map bringing the gap in our positions down to between two and six per cent. But then came the elections in Israel and everything finished."

Dr Pundak added: "The negotiations between Olmert and Abbas were the most far-reaching talks yet and showed a lot of courage by both leaders."

He feels optimistic, however, that a future Tzipi Livni-led government would be able to carry on where Mr Olmert left off: "It is true that we are lacking leaders in Israel under the
current situation.

"What we are left with is Livni. She has not yet shown courage and leadership but maybe when she is tested she will. She showed in 2008 that her principles were close to those of the Olmert plan. We must give her a chance. She is an impressive woman and her views are close to those of most Israelis."

They differ over whether international pressure on Israel from the Americans and others might be able to kick-start the process.

Dr Pundak is clear that the era of bilateral negotiations is at an end: "The Palestinians have adopted a sophisticated approach in persuading countries around the world, particularly in Latin America, to put pressure on Israel.

"It is also an effective approach. Under Rabin we showed that Israel was able to sit down and reach a comprehensive agreement with Jordan and also make a deal with the Palestinians in Oslo. But now bilateralism has no place. Maybe Obama could intervene. Perhaps the imposition of a settlement could be conducive. Maybe external pressure can send a strong message to the Israeli government and the Israeli constituency."

However, Dr Rifa'i feels there could be no agreement except one freely entered into by the two parties. "There isn't a need for the imposition of a settlement. Everyone knows what a settlement would entail - withdrawal to the 1967 border and the creation of a Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital.

"I personally don't think Obama can do much to help. He has been a little slow in the past couple of years and that has to do with his internal problem. But there can be no agreement which is not accepted by both sides."

Dr Abu Zaydeh is scathing at the thought of British involvement in the peace process. "There should be no role for the UK. Whenever the European Union tries to do something effective, the UK tends to intervene to block it."

But both Dr Pundak and Dr Rifa'i are more positive at the thought of UK involvement - although both accept that the political will in the coalition to play a role in the peace process might be lacking.

Dr Pundak: "Britain can help to promote dialogue between the two communities. Britain was relatively involved in economic issues under the last Labour government and I think this should be extended. These initiatives can create the preconditions for peace.

Dr Rifa'i also feels that Britain, with its history in the area, should play an active part in efforts towards peace.

"Britain is the most closely involved with the parties in the area, historically, morally and politically. Britain has close relationships with many countries in the Middle East as well as a close relationship with the US.

"There is always the accusation that British policy is an extension of American policy but the UK could lead American policy. And as a member of the EU, Britain could do
a lot there too.

"This country could provide funding and expertise for joint projects and can also play a part as member of the UN Security Council. Britain has a vested interest in security throughout the world. So the solution of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict will automatically benefit Britain's national interest. Britain can do a lot if Britain wants to."

Last updated: 9:52am, January 14 2011