The Wild West is back in Palestine
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The Wild West is back in Palestine

Any joint activity in which all involved are aware that the stated goals won’t be achieved is a planned failure. Unless, that is, the true goals are different to those being openly stated. In this sense, the “renewed Palestinian-Israeli peace process” seems already a success for Israel’s illegal settlement enterprise and US imperialism.


The negotiations process that began in 1991 with the Madrid Conference and led to the Oslo Accords was supposed to ensure the creation of a Palestinian state within the 1967 borders and an agreement on other “final status issues”, including the right of return, before the year 2000. Talks got underway under US leadership as its global standing with regards to the Middle East had reached dizzy heights, boosted significantly by a generally applauded military victory over Saddam Hussein. Washington had won multilateral support for its leadership role in Palestinian-Israeli negotiations and the regime of Bush senior had even found the courage to block ten billion dollars of loan guarantees for Israel over concerns that previous guarantees had been used to finance the expansion of illegal Israeli settlements in occupied Palestinian territory.


Twenty years on from the signing of the Oslo Accords, the process is widely regarded by Palestinians and international observers as a failure. Palestinian statehood and self-determination seem to have succumbed to Israel’s construction of its illegal Wall and settlements and the implementation of its apartheid policies. Oslo failed to prevent Israeli massacres such as that wrecked on Gaza in 2008-09, let alone help to achieve justice for Palestinians.


The White House has started this round of negotiations under completely different preconditions. The US is weaker in the Middle East than ever. Lost wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, instability all across the Arab world and an overall sense of military overstretch and economic crisis are shaping the image of the US. Secretary of State John Kerry has kept the UN and even the EU out of the new negotiations process. The Arab states are only marginally consulted. Worse still, the Obama administration has appointed as an intermediary in the negotiations Martin Indyk, a long-standing agent of the powerful pro-Israel lobby group AIPAC, and a man that had been accused by the FBI of involvement in the theft of US business secrets for Israel which some estimate has caused up to a hundred billion dollars of damage.


Another major difference this time around is that Israeli prime minister Netanyahu appears far more concerned about keeping his government coalition happy than he is concerned about pressure from either the US or the Arab world.


Among Palestinians, trust and hope in US-mediated negotiations has long since evaporated. While the street is divided between anger, cynicism and indifference towards the negotiations, the PLO has adopted Abu Mazen’s proposal to renounce its demand for a settlement freeze as a preconditions of talks even though only a minority supports it. Very few within the PLO appear willing to speak openly in support of the talks. Even al Fatah is divided. Journalists complain that Palestinian officials respond to their questions on why they have decided to return to negotiations evasively or aggressively.


No one should be surprised that the new round of negotiations is unlikely to achieve a lasting settlement, let alone a just peace in which the rights of all Palestinians, including Palestinian refugees, are respected. It seems almost impossible to take at face value Washington’s claims that it realistically hopes to create a final status solution within nine months. So, what are the real aims and objectives of the US and Israel?


The resumption of talks has already achieved one key objective: the undermining of the fundamental gains of the Palestinian initiative for statehood recognition at the UN. While UN recognition will not lead to any change on the ground for Palestinians if it is not accompanied with direly needed international pressure on Israel to end its regime of occupation, apartheid and colonialism, the statehood bid did advance Palestinian politics on a strategic level. It won the support of an international alliance driven by the global south, and it took the issue of Palestine out of the hands of the US and the Security Council and brought it back to the UN General Assembly, a terrain on which Palestine can count on overwhelming support.


Faced with a growing realization that it was losing its role as the key power broker, the White House was forced to present a counter-initiative in the Middle East. In Syria, Russia is blocking a solution dominated by the US and regarding Egypt, Iran and the Middle East in general the Obama administration has shown a general lack of vision or capacity to go beyond erratic reaction to the events unfolding. Therefore, the US foreign policy chiefs probably chose the fall-back option: Palestine as the way to reestablish their dominance in the Middle East.


For Israel, the new negotiations constitute a huge victory for its settlement enterprise. Not only has the US successfully pressured the Palestinian negotiators to drop the precondition of a settlement freeze, they take place despite an almost unprecedented Israeli drive of colonization: since August 1, Israel has announced plans to build almost 3,000 new settlement units and has made clear its intention to continue with its ethnic cleansing of up to 50,000 Palestinians from the Naqab desert and the forced displacement of 1,300 Palestinians in the West Bank to make space for a firing range. On top of this, Israel has outright refused to discuss a two-state solution based on 1967 borders, and cabinet members such as Naftali Bennett, the minister of economy, have clearly stated that the possibility for a Palestinian state are at a “dead end”.


The irony that Israel has begun negotiations for a two state solution by publicly announcing the end of the possibility of Palestinian statehood seems to be lost on US diplomacy. Instead of action to stop its illegal settlement enterprise in the West Bank and its ethnic cleansing policies, Israel has been rewarded by the US with the establishment of a special committee made up of US and Israeli military to discuss Israeli “security needs”. This is shorthand for undermining Palestinian demands for effective sovereignty within the 1967 borders and includes discussions on land swaps, border control, control over airspace, territorial non-interference and more.


While the US and Israel may consider these outcomes a victory today, once talks collapse again there are likely to be several long-term consequences that may make these short-term gains seem costly.


First of all, the US necessity to lead the initiative on its own is likely to mean that it will be unable to escape blame for the predictable collapse of talks. In turn, this opens up the space for questions regarding the underlying paradigm that reduces the Palestinian struggle for liberation to a border dispute and calls for action by different actors, including not least international civil society and the rapidly growing boycotts, divestment and sanctions (BDS) campaign.


Secondly, Israel may be able to fool the US into ignoring continued settlement expansion, but the European Union has shown that it is now prepared to match condemnation of settlements with concrete action, introducing new rules barring EU public funds reaching settlements. The eventual failure of the talks is likely to lead many EU governments ready to go further, perhaps even by banning trade with illegal Israeli settlements altogether.


Finally, this round of negotiations has already severely deepened the crisis of legitimacy faced by the Palestinian Authority. Widening division and increasing instability is likely to be (even) more damaging for Israeli and US interests than for the Palestinian people. It is certainly hard to imagine that any post-Palestinian Authority structure would be as malleable as the current Palestinian political institutions.


So the American Wild West may be back in Palestine for the time being, but it seems unlikely to create any lasting change. What is really required is a framework that builds on the global support for Palestinian self-determination, principles of international law and human rights and readies effective means to pressure Israel to implement them. Perhaps the only discussions that Palestinians really need are on how to build this kind of political reality.