A grim staging ground

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The two main Middle East-related events of 2011 appear to be continuing into the new year. One is the complete stagnation of the Palestinian-Israeli peace process, and the other is the roiling wave of Arab revolutions and uprisings, which also carry weighty implications for the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

In spite of the renewal of Palestinian-Israeli talks in Jordan, there are clear signs that the factors driving last year’s stagnation remain in effect. These include Israel’s conservative and extreme political positions and practices, particularly the illegal expansion of settlements, that are distant from and antithetical to the peace process terms of reference.

Another main factor is the Palestinian leadership’s continued insistence that Israel halt its settlement activities and agree to terms of reference including a two-state solution on the basis of the borders of 1967 before the start of peace negotiations. Finally, there is the weak role of the third party in the room, the United States. Washington in 2012 will be increasingly busy with its presidential elections and thus less neutral in its mediation role. Europe’s attempt to play a larger role through the Quartet working group on Middle East peace has not yet shown itself as strong enough to offset the near-complete absence of United States’ participation.

Meanwhile, however, this stagnation is having a long-term impact. Public opinion in Israel and Palestine, in trends already quite visible last year, is continuously being radicalized. Israeli analysts in particular are seeing rightward trends in Israeli society, whether on politics or broader ideology. The outcome of this will be a further widening in the gap that now exists between the Palestinian and Israeli negotiating positions and fewer opportunities for resuming a meaningful peace process.

Criticism of the Israeli government is growing, whether international criticism related to its practices (particularly expansion of settlements) or internal criticism related to governing policies. As a result, we can expect Israel to use developments in the region as a pretext to further escape its obligations to the peace process and international legality. Iran is a candidate for being drawn into that pretext, as are the Arab states in transition. In the Palestinian logic, and the logic of many other international players including US President Barack Obama, these regional developments should be an impetus in encouraging Israelis and Palestinians to move faster in resolving their problems. The ongoing suffering of Palestinians under occupation is being used by Iran and others in the region to strengthen their arguments. But Israel’s government is portraying these regional conditions in a manner that serves its arguments for maintaining the occupation and thus delaying any solution.

The clear trends of radicalization in Israel, politically and ideologically, will remain the main impediment to reversing this trend of deterioration in the peace process. Israel’s willingness to end the occupation and (as an indication of such willingness) stop constructing settlements is the only way to allow progress towards ending the conflict peacefully and reaching the comprehensive and lasting peace that all the people of the region aspire to and desire.

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