As a new MP with a keen interest in the Middle East, I closely followed coverage of the renewed peace talks between the Israelis and Palestinians. In light of the British Government’s pledge to amend the flaws in existing Universal Jurisdiction legislation, I looked forward to the increased role the UK would be able to play in the peace process. However, two months on, talks have now effectively come to a halt and President Abbas, in discussion with the Arab League, has stated that the US has one month to resuscitate the negotiations before the Palestinians will pull out completely.
At the time I warmly welcomed the announcement of the renewed talks, although I had spoken, both in the House of Commons and outside of it, of the problems that beset the process. The expiration of the settlement moratorium posed a significant challenge to the negotiations. President Abbas’s argument that it is neither politically feasible nor morally acceptable to engage in talks while Israel is seen to be altering facts on the ground is entirely valid. It is understandably hard to see how peace can be achieved if settlements continue.
Evidently settlements became the first major obstacle in the way of talks. And yes, settlements will need to be addressed and tough decisions made. It is fundamentally important, however, to point out that the failure of the talks is not all about this one issue; settlements are not the reason for failure but merely the pretext for failure.
In the past, Israel has evacuated and destroyed its settlements in an effort to give momentum to peace. Removal of the settlement of Yamit in Sinai as part of the peace treaty with Egypt in 1982 and the unilateral removal of all Jewish settlements in Gaza in 2005 are important examples that Israel is prepared to make painful sacrifices in the interests of peace. If there is a credible and tangible peace process, with necessary assurances of coexistence and security, the Israeli public would undoubtedly be willing to sacrifice settlements again.
Netanyahu’s current thinking is that now efforts are underway to resolve the conflict within one year, it is unreasonable and unwise to expect him to expend political capital and potentially threaten his fragile coalition over concluding an agreement about an issue that will be of little significance if a conflict-ending agreement is in fact reached.
Despite creating an unhelpful reality in the region, the settlements are by no means the only obstacle to successful peace talks. Settlements are merely a symptom of a conflict that is ideological, not territorial. When looking at the role ideology plays in the region, certain challenges must be addressed before peace talks can become fruitful.
Firstly, the role and aim of spoilers in the region must not be underplayed. Hamas Islamists operating in Gaza seek to undermine the possibility for peace at every step. The murder of four Israelis in the West Bank by Hamas terrorists, on the eve of the Washington Summit, was a cynical attempt to de-rail the peace talks. Additionally, the group still holds kidnapped Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, now in his fourth year of captivity.
With its ideology in tact, Hamas is no partner for peace, and if this is our reality, how can the fact Gaza is not in play be reconciled? Are we now looking at a three-state solution? Perhaps Palestinian reconciliation, on ideological terms that support a genuine resolution to the conflict, must first be sought.
Secondly, according to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the real root of the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians has been their ongoing refusal to recognise "the right of the Jewish people to a state of their own in their historic homeland". Netanyahu has singled out this issue as a key "prerequisite for ending the conflict". At Camp David and Oslo, under the terms of binding international agreements, Israel committed itself to recognising "the legitimate rights of the Palestinian Arab nation", and in doing so represented a willingness to accept the legitimacy of “Palestine” and to seek a compromise.
In reality, no agreement can be reached without some form of Palestinian acceptance that a two-state solution means preserving Israel’s character as the state of the Jewish people. By focusing almost exclusively on the impact of settlements on peace talks, Western commentators and policy-makers wrongly ignore this most fundamental ideological issue and the damage it does to prospects for peace.
Both Netanyahu and Abbas must be commended for pursuing peace despite their challenging respective political realities. However, we in the UK mustn’t lose site of the fact that in any peace talks, the challenges are momentous and concessions will need to be made by both sides. We can only hope that the prize of an agreement that offers the potential for a secure, stable and prosperous reality for both peoples is enough to keep both sides at the negotiating table. The ultimate goal of lasting peace must not be relinquished.
Israel may not always make the right decisions, but the state’s lack of confining ideology and its willingness to take difficult steps towards peace fail to be sufficiently emphasised. The settlements are not the defining issue of the peace process and as peace talks hang in the balance, we would do well to remind ourselves of this.