On September 2, direct talks began between the Israeli government and the Palestinian Authority with the US government acting as mediator.
US President Barack Obama has declared the success of these “peace talks” to be a main foreign policy goal of the last two years of his term.
But whatever their outcome, the talks cannot end the conflict because both sides are not evenly represented. The mediator, the US, is the major financial, political and military sponsor of one of the parties to the conflict, Israel.
The Palestinian representatives are being held more accountable to Israel and its allies than to the Palestinian people they are supposed to represent.
The talks are part of a decades-old “peace process” with the stated aim of a Palestinian “state”.
However, the “state” on offer is one that will not control its own borders, not be allowed its own armed forces, have limited, divided territory and whose representatives must be pledged to recognise the eternal “right to exist” of an exclusively Jewish state that covers at least 90% of historic Palestine and exercises control over the rest.
The talks are not aimed at ending conflict but at legitimising an apartheid system.
In Amman, Jordan, on September 16, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton gave journalists the same upbeat assessment that US leaders have made of every round of Israel-Palestine talks since the 1993 Oslo Accords: “With the commitment of an Israeli prime minister and a Palestinian president who both embrace the goal of a two-state solution, peace is once again within reach.”
The otherworldly nature of this statement was illustrated by the main unresolved point of contention: whether Israel would extend a “settlement building freeze” that has been in place since November.
The innocuous phrase “settlement building” describes the dispossession of Palestinians from, and settlement of Israeli Jews in, the Palestinian territories occupied by Israel in 1967 — the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.
When Israel was created in 1948, it covered 78% of Palestine. The Zionist militias that became the armed forces of the new state violently drove out 80% of the Palestinian population from the areas they controlled. The remaining 22% of Palestine, now crowded with refugees, was administered by Jordan (the West Bank) and Egypt (the Gaza Strip).
Israel occupied these territories in 1967.
The basis of the Oslo Accords was that the territory Israel occupied in 1967 would become an independent Palestinian state. Such a division of historic Palestine would have been an unequal peace.
In the whole of historic Palestine, there is roughly an equal number of Israeli Jews and Palestinians, about 5 million of each. But more than 5.5 million Palestinian refugees live outside the country, 4.5 million in neighbouring countries.
Given the unequal political and military strength of US-backed, nuclear-armed Israel and the stateless Palestinians, most Palestinians were willing to accept this compromise.
However, unconditional US and European support (based on shared strategic interests) has meant Israel has had little incentive to concede even 22% of Palestine to the Palestinians.
Since 1967, 500,000 Jewish settlers have moved into the West Bank. The rate of settlement increased after the Oslo Accords.
With the actual settlements come Jewish-only highways and access roads, military control of surrounding land “for security” and what Palestinians call “the Apartheid Wall” — an eight-metre high concrete and razor-wire barrier.
The wall is not on the boundary between the West Bank and pre-1967 Israel. It runs deep inside the West Bank, often carving up towns and separating villages from their farmland.
Settlement building has so far annexed more than half the West Bank. Most settlers are not the well-armed fanatics in outposts deep within Palestinian communities. Most live in what are essentially dormitory suburbs to the main Israeli cities — often unaware that when they commute to work they are crossing what was once an international border.
The problem for Palestinians is that recognition of Israel’s right to exist on 78% of Palestine became the starting point for talks without any reciprocal recognition.
A Palestinian state covering only 22% of Palestine was a compromise on the Palestinians’ part, but during the course of the endless rounds of US and European-sponsored talks it became a maximum demand to be negotiated down from.
Before the current talks began, the US government made tough statements pressuring Israel to extend its “settlement building freeze”.
Far from showing even-handedness, this “demand” reflects US support for the existing settlements to remain. The “settlement building freeze” only slowed down, rather than stopped, building in most settlements.
Also, it never applied to East Jerusalem where the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians has sped-up.
The settlements already restrict a future Palestinian state to less than 10% of Palestine (in geographically separated cantons), but it has become clear the US doesn’t think Israeli insistence on more settlements should be a barrier to the talks progressing.
The September 13 New York Times reported: “Clinton said that she believed … fledgling peace talks could go forward even without a full extension of Israel’s moratorium on settlement construction.”
On September 17, AFP said the Israeli government had confirmed the “freeze” would end on September 26. An opinion poll published in the September 14 Yedioth Ahronoth said this was supported by most Israelis.
On September 2 Time Magazine ran an article with the headline “Why Israel doesn't care about peace”. It was accompanied by pictures of Israelis relaxing at the beach and suggested that people in Israel were more concerned with getting on with their lives than what was happening with the “peace process”.
The article provoked outrage from Israel’s supporters in the media. In the September 15 Age, Dvir Abramovich said such pictures depicted “normal activities that would not rate a mention anywhere else in the world”.
But these are not normal activities for Palestinians. On May 7, Israeli journalist Ilana Hammerman wrote in Ha’aretz about how she had smuggled three young Palestinian women in their late teens from the West Bank into Tel Aviv so they could eat ice cream, hang out at a shopping mall and go to the beach.
These were all new experiences for the teenagers.
The June 18 Jerusalem Post reported that Hammerman was being investigated by police for this breach of Israel’s security.
Palestinians in the West Bank live in ghettos, with highly restricted freedom of movement. The poverty and desperation caused by the Israeli siege of Gaza is becoming more known in the West, but a report released by British NGO Save the Children on June 30 revealed that Palestinians in the West Bank suffered as bad, or worse, siege conditions as those in Gaza.
A “peace process” that offers Palestinians nothing more than Israeli-controlled Palestinian ghettos recognised by the international community as a “state” is not a step towards peace. It is a step towards further institutionalising the apartheid system Palestinians live under.