How are we to account for the complete lack of progress in peace negotiations between the Palestinian Authority and Israel during 2009?
To give a comprehensive answer to this question would require many more column inches than the JC permits me. So let me focus on just one of the components. But first I must dismiss two excuses repeated ad nauseam in the media.
The first relates to Gaza and to Israel’s military action there a year ago. Don’t be fooled by the crocodile tears shed by the PA and its sympathisers over that action. Of course the deaths of many Gazan civilians are to be regretted. But the brutal Hamas regime that controls Gaza, apart from being illegitimate in the sense that it has abused whatever lawful authority it originally possessed, has little support in the Arab world, where its complete inability to repulse the Israeli onslaught has been noted.
Besides, if Hamas had its way, the PA president, Mahmoud Abbas, living the good life in Ramallah, would be dead by now. And he knows it.
The second relates to Jewish settlements on the West Bank. The American President Barak Obama, would have us believe that these constitute an obstacle to peace. Even if that were true, they certainly do not constitute an obstacle to peace negotiations.
In common with a number of other issues in contention, the continued existence of these settlements could be put on the negotiating table. Mr Abbas could insist upon it. Nobody could deny his right to do so.
The settlements could only be put on the negotiating table if there was a negotiating table to put them on — and if the parties to the dispute could agree, or be pressed into agreeing, to sit at that table. The fact of the matter is that President Obama’s administration shows no inclination to apply pressure on the Palestinian side. A very recent action in an American federal court has exposed this disinclination for all to see.
On December 28, Judge Gladys Kessler, sitting in Washington DC, delivered an unprecedented and withering rebuke to the Obama administration in relation to a civil action brought against the PA by the relatives of the late Mr. Esh Gilmore. On October 30 2000, Mr Gilmore, an American citizen, was shot dead in Jerusalem. He was 25 years of age, married with a young daughter.
His relatives — the plaintiffs — allege that his murder was carried out by a faction controlled by the PA, from which they seek damages. The PA has sought to delay the determination of the case and, on November 28 2006, Mahmoud Abbas himself wrote to the then Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, asking her to intervene. She refused to do so but replied, on January 12 2007: “I encourage you to respond to US legal proceedings in good faith and in a timely manner.”
The PA decided not to defend the suit. Judgment was therefore entered against it in absentia. Thinking better of its inaction, the PA then appealed to Judge Kessler. The learned judge, knowing that any order she might make could affect the peace process, turned (as she was entitled to do) to the Obama administration for guidance. The curt response she received was (in her own words) “particularly unhelpful”. Indeed, she accused Hillary Clinton’s state department of being “mealy-mouthed” in declining to furnish the court with any authoritative pronouncement. But the state department’s brusque response did contain one comment of note. It warned Judge Kessler that the USA “remains concerned about the potentially significant impact that these default cases may have on the defendants’ financial and political viability.”
Liability for damages and ability to pay them are two different, though obviously not unrelated matters. However, it seems to be the policy of the Obama government to shield the PA from the consequences of its action, or rather inaction — whether it be a petulant refusal to defend itself in an American court or a calculated unwillingness to sit opposite Israel at a negotiating table.
Let us be clear. During 2009, Mr Abbas negotiated eagerly with the USA, the UK and the EU. But not with Israel. He must be made to realise that the international community — but above all the USA — will not do his negotiating for him.
Until he is disabused of his evident belief that peace lies in this direction there will be no meaningful negotiations. And no peace.