Poof went the “peace process”

May 6, 2014

The collapse of the Israel-Palestinian "peace process" has led to new assertions of Israeli supremacy and calls for annexation of the West Bank, explains Daphna Thier.

NINE MONTHS after boldly announcing the resumption of the "peace process," U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry was finally forced to admit in early April that his frenetic trips to the Middle East and late-night phone calls had come to naught.

On April 7, Kerry blamed the breakdown of the talks on Israel's failure to follow through on its commitment to release Palestinian prisoners. When Israel then approved more settlement construction, it was, in Kerry's words before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, "Poof. That was sort of the moment."

Since then, two more events have pushed the breakdown into a full-fledged collapse: first, the announcement of a reconciliation deal between the Palestinian Authority (PA) in the West Bank and Hamas in Gaza; and second, Kerry's use of the word "apartheid" to describe its possible future if Israel refused to make the necessary compromises to achieve a two-state solution. Israeli officials seized on both developments in turn to exclaim that they couldn't be expected to negotiate peace under such circumstances.

Secretary of State John Kerry meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu
Secretary of State John Kerry meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (Matty Ster)

The upshot is pretty much exactly what Israel had hoped for: Kerry is licking his wounds after the drubbing he got for daring to say something honest about Israel's regime of repression and control--even if he consigned that to a possible future, rather than the very real present. Yet Kerry still insists the talks are simply on "pause." Meanwhile, Israel is now operating with greater freedom than ever as it seeks to continue its project of colonization of Palestinian land.

IN HIS vain pursuit of a "peace process" that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud Party never wanted, Kerry held 34 meetings with PA President Mahmoud Abbas and nearly twice as many with Netanyahu.

Though Kerry had already declared the talks at an impasse two weeks earlier, Israeli negotiators seized on the Hamas-Fatah reconciliation deal to declare an immediate end to the negotiations--a few days before the deadline for the talks was to expire anyway--presumably hoping that this would shift blame for the collapse in talks onto the Palestinians.

Israel had agreed to release 104 of several thousand Palestinians it has long held in its dungeons. In return, the PA agreed to not seek further recognition of statehood by the United Nations. Israel released 78 prisoners in three groups, but Netanyahu balked at releasing the final group of prisoners. After a few more days, his government announced the construction of some 700 settlement units.

This triggered Abbas to resume efforts to get the UN to recognize Palestinian statehood. He signed documents requesting the UN's acceptance of Palestine as a party to 15 international treaties that would guarantee the rights of Palestinian civilians in times of war.

Netanyahu decried this as a "unilateral" step on the part of Abbas and the PA that sabotaged negotiations. But throughout the two decades of the "peace process," Israel has been accelerating its construction of Jewish-only settlements in the West Bank, even as it was supposedly committed to talks to create a Palestinian state on the same land.

This accelerated pace of settlement construction has been stepped up even more. According to a report by Peace Now, a Zionist group that supports a two-state solution, during Kerry's nine-month diplomatic effort, Netanyahu's government approved plans for nearly four times as many settlement housing units as compared to recent years. Of the newly proposed 4,868 units, more than half are planned for East Jerusalem and its periphery.

In the second half of 2013 alone, during the very heart of the negotiations, 828 additional living units were under construction, nearly twice as many as during the same period the year before. Two new outposts were also established in the West Bank, and a third was newly settled with 60 families. And in the city of Hebron, home to about 250,000 Palestinians and 500 settlers, Jews occupied an additional neighborhood for the first time since the 1980s. This is only a fraction of the original 24,000 units the Israeli Ministry of Housing planned to advance.

THE TORRID pace of settlement construction goes hand in hand with the already existing infrastructure of Israel's apartheid regime in the West Bank--to cite just a few aspects: separate roads for Jewish settlers and Palestinians; ubiquitous checkpoints and requirement of papers for Palestinians; unequal distribution of water resources and arable land; and separate judicial systems for Palestinians and settlers.

So while Palestinians aim to secure fundamental civil rights, Israel is running bulldozers and framing out houses.

Tzipi Livni, Israel's Justice Minister and one of the few Likud Party members who supports the "peace process," acknowledged that the ongoing settlement construction posed a problem for negotiations. But she was nevertheless entirely dismissive of Palestinian indignation at her government's duplicity. "When you make an agreement with someone, if he says to you, 'Listen, I'm going to pay, but it's going to take some time,' if you want the deal, and if you really want to continue negotiations, you wait," Livni said.

According to the PA delegation to the talks, from the outset, Israel refused to discuss the status of East Jerusalem or define the borders of a new Palestinian state. The illegal construction of Jewish settlements meanwhile has paved the way for the far right in Israeli politics to begin issuing calls for outright annexation of areas of the West Bank.

Naftali Bennett, Israel's Economy Minister and leader of the Jewish Home party, in April called on Netanyahu to "absorb" into Israel areas of the West Bank that are home to 440,000 Jewish settlers.

Bennett acknowledged without flinching that this would be tantamount to an act of war. According to the Times of Israel, "Bennett compared the process of absorbing these areas into Israel to the incorporation of Jerusalem during the Six Day War, and the Golan Heights during then-prime minister Menachem Begin's reign."

The Washington Post reported that Kerry said progress had been made nevertheless--even though he announced no schedule for any renewed U.S. effort. "It's time for a pause," said Kerry. "But it's also time to be reflective about the ways in which one might be able to find common ground even out of these difficulties."

But for Israel, the failed negotiations represent an opportunity to take the unilateral steps various parties in government have flirted with for some time. The usual "no partner" rhetoric has served as the excuse for Netanyahu's consideration of various ominous proposals for "resolution." All the proposed plans involve annexation of territories east of the 1967 border.

As former Israeli ambassador to the U.S. Michael Oren told the New York Times: "We're not talking about removing the vast majority of settlements, and not talking about removing our army. There's going to be risk, but there's risk in any way we go, whether two-state solution or maintaining the status quo." But these are precisely the kind of risks that the aggressive wing of Zionist political parties have long craved.

SOME IN Netanyahu's cabinet have proposed the removal of some 100,000 settlers in the more isolated settlements--in order to shore up the larger blocs.

Other more extreme recommendations include the outright annexation of Area C portions of the West Bank--where civil and security affairs are under Israeli control--and extending citizenship to the Palestinians living there. However, based on a recent law that requires pledges of allegiance to Israel as a Jewish state and giving up any other citizenship, these conditions are likely to deter Palestinians.

Area C accounts for more than 60 percent of the West Bank, and its annexation would leave very small isolated Bantustans in the remaining Area A (civil and security affairs under Palestinian control) and Area B (civil affairs under Palestinian control, security under joint Israeli-Palestinian control).

But the reality on the ground since the Oslo Accords in the 1990s is that the majority of Area C is already inaccessible to Palestinians. Israel has maintained authority over all the border crossings between Areas A, B and C as well as the border between Area C and the neighboring state of Jordan. Israel determines who and what can pass through those borders. Furthermore, its military controls the entire airspace. Even access to radio frequencies is Israel's to offer--or rescind.

In addition to travel, communication and commerce, Israel controls the currency, central bank and even taxation in the Occupied Territories. It maintains a comprehensive civilian census of Areas A, B and C. Even Palestinian police forces are ultimately under Israeli supervision--and their main role is the maintenance of order for Israel. If, for example, an Israeli harms a Palestinian, the Palestinian police have no jurisdiction, can't enforce the law and can't even arrest the perpetrator.

Finally, the offer of citizenship to those who might be annexed is not only an increasingly qualified right, but is also associated with a decreasing level of rights.

IN WHAT Justice Minster Livni herself described as a move to derail future negotiations, Netanyahu is moving forward with a change to Israel's basic laws (its version of a constitution) that would define Israel as "the nation state of one people only--the Jewish people--and of no other people."

Though there are many laws currently in effect that discriminate against Palestinians, the state's Jewish character has never been legally constituted as such. In explaining his motives, Netanyahu said:

I am sorry to say that, as we have seen lately, there are those who don't recognize that basic right. They want to discredit the historical, legal and moral right of Israel's existence as a nation state of our people. And I see it as one of my fundamental missions as prime minister to fortify Israel's position as the nation state of our people.

The Labor Party, which serves as a tepid opposition to Netanyahu's Likud government, offered a characteristically lame response, saying that it was harmful to Israel to privilege Israel's Jewish character over its purportedly democratic nature. Labor Party head Isaac Herzog said:

With all its being, the Labor Party supports Israel as a Jewish and democratic state. Labor built the state, and its leaders formulated the Declaration of Independence, the foundational document that anchors Israel as a Jewish state. Unfortunately, the diplomatic destruction Netanyahu is causing will lead Israel to lose its Jewish majority and become a bi-national state. This unfortunate fact is something no law can hide.

In other words, the problem isn't the drive to deny basic rights to Palestinians living in their own land. Nor is it the glaring contradiction of asserting that Israel can be both democratic and yet not a state of all its citizens.

Instead, Labor is condemning Netanyahu's rush to declare Jewish ethno-religious supremacy because it might end up inadvertently triggering a situation in which Israel in fact does become a state of all its citizens--a state with equal rights for Jews and Palestinians.

"Netanyahu is completing the series of racist laws that have been emerging in recent years and is leading Israel to become the first racial state of the 21st century," said Mohammed Barakeh, head of the small left-wing Arab-Jewish party Hadash. "The intent of his legislation is to realize John Kerry's description of Israel as an apartheid state."

Kerry's reference to apartheid came during an appearance before the Trilateral Commission, during which he warned that without a two-state solution, Israel could become an apartheid state or else risk "destruction of its capacity" to be a Jewish state. When his statement was leaked to the press, Kerry was attacked by the pro-Zionist and Israeli establishment, leading him to quickly recant the truth that had slipped from his lips.

Kerry has also previously made reference to the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement when speaking to an international security conference. "The risks are very high for Israel," he said. "People are talking about boycott. That will intensify in the case of failure [of the talks]. We all have a strong interest in this conflict resolution."

Though he clearly refers to the boycott as a mutual worry, the Israeli government reacted with fury to Kerry's mention of the BDS movement. "You can't expect the state of Israel to conduct negotiations with a gun pointed to its head," responded Yuval Steinitz, minister of international relations, as if Kerry were himself the architect of the BDS movement.

But words like "apartheid" and "boycott" from people like John Kerry frighten the Israeli establishment, which is increasingly alarmed by the ascendency of a grassroots movement that relentlessly focuses on equality and civil rights for Palestinians.

Though Israeli politicians would like to continue to blame the failure of the peace process on the Palestinians--and thus claim for themselves them carte blanche to impose whatever terms they would like--the changing landscape of public opinion means that the era of Israel's total impunity is finally coming to an end.

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