JERUSALEM – With large parts of the Arab world engulfed in internecine violence, Israeli and Palestinian negotiators began a new round of peace talks in Washington this week aimed at nailing down a final peace agreement within the next nine months.
The two sides completed the initial round of talks on Tuesday, and Secretary of State John Kerry said the negotiators would meet again sometime in the next two weeks in either Israel or the Palestinian territories.
The negotiations, a byproduct of Kerry’s shuttle diplomacy between Jerusalem, Ramallah and Amman, are viewed with subdued expectations in both Israel and the Arab world. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has indicated he will offer the Palestinians no more than 86 percent of Judea and Samaria, not including East Jerusalem. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, meanwhile, has demanded all of Judea, Samaria and East Jerusalem as a starting point for “serious negotiations.”
Abbas reiterated his position during a meeting in Cairo with Egypt’s interim president, Adly Mansour, earlier this week, declaring that not a single Israeli settler could remain in a future Palestinian state and maintaining that all Jewish settlements were illegal and should be dismantled. (More than 300,000 Israelis live in Judea and Samaria.) According to sources, Kerry cajoled Abbas back to the negotiating table by telling him the PA was now in a stronger political and diplomatic position than archrival Gaza-based Hamas, which has lost its economic, military and political lifelines in the aftermath of the Egyptian military’s overthrow of Muslim Brotherhood president Mohamed Morsi.
But with the talks in Washington taking place against the backdrop of Arab-on-Arab unrest across the Middle East, a growing number of Israeli, Arab and American foreign policy experts question the value of an Israeli-Palestinian settlement at this point in time. More than a few observers have noted that Kerry has yet to elucidate just what a final Israeli-Palestinian agreement might look like with Hamas still in control of Gaza or how Arab League representatives could buttress any agreement given the civil and religious strife in many of their own countries.
In Egypt, the military has been engaged in vicious street battles with Muslim Brotherhood supporters of the ousted Morsi government and with Bedouin jihadists in the Sinai Peninsula. The Muslim Brotherhood’s militias were waging hit and run attacks against Egypt’s Coptic Christians and secular liberals, who played a key role in the massive street protests that eventually brought down the Morsi regime. The Muslim Brotherhood has called for a million-man protest march later this week.
The violence in Egypt has spurred a domino effect in neighboring North African nations. In Tunisia, secular liberal Arab parties vowed to form a shadow government to topple the Islamist Ennahda leadership, which they hold held responsible for the assassination of two of the country’s opposition leaders during the past year. Sporadic violence has broken out between secular liberals and members of Ennahda.
Anarchy continues to reign in Libya, with various Islamist jihadist militias battling pro-government forces in cities across the country. Persian Gulf Arab newspapers reported Monday that the decade-long war waged by American forces to bring stability to the democratically elected regime in Iraq was on the verge of unraveling as Sunni al Qaeda forces were gaining ground in their battles against the Iraqi army.
According to Free Syrian Army spokesmen, various al Qaeda militias outside the country are sending hundreds of recruits to battle anti-government rebels while pro-Iranian Shiite Hizbullah units defend the regime of President Bashar Assad.
The chaos and violence has spilled over into Lebanon where Sunnis and Christians are looking to oust Hizbullah from Beirut and South Lebanon, where Hizbullah has stored most of its missile arsenal.
In the past few days several Gulf Arab countries outmaneuvered the European Union by issuing a total ban on Hizbullah’s activities, refusing to differentiate between its military and political wings and deeming it a terrorist organization. And Dubai has accused Iran of utilizing Shiite Hizbullah agents to sow a reign of terror across the pro-Western, predominately Sunni Gulf oil emirates.
And the escalating violence along Israel’s borders with Egypt, Syria and Lebanon has prompted the Israel Defense Forces to create several new elite combat and intelligence units, which are now spread out along the aforementioned areas. The air force has also dramatically increased its UAV (drone) patrols in the skies above Lebanon and the southern Negev desert, parallel to the Egyptian frontier.
In the midst of all this, it was difficult for observers in Israel and the Arab world to invest much hope or optimism in the resuscitated Israeli-Palestinian peace process.
For many Israelis, it wasn’t just the volatile regional situation that fostered a spirit of skepticism but the PA’s pre-negotiation stance as well.
In an opinion piece in Monday’s Israel Hayom newspaper, Likud MK and Deputy Transportation Minister Tzipi Hotovely, echoing the feelings of many Israelis, wrote:
“The Palestinians have offered no earnest fees ahead of these negotiations. They have not declared any willingness to recognize Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state, which was the condition Netanyahu set in his 2009 Bar-Ilan speech. Netanyahu will not offer the Palestinians more than his predecessors, Ehud Olmert and Ehud Barak, so it is just a matter of time before these peace talks deadlock as well.”
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