Time for the international community to show its hand

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With the PLO deciding to accept the American invitation to proximity talks, helped in no small measure by the Arab League’s backing, the stage is set for another round of negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians under US auspices.

The question remains, however, about the extent to which the Israeli government headed by Binyamin Netanyahu is ready and serious regarding this new phase and to what extent Israel’s stated keenness to hold negotiations without conditions is merely a public relations exercise.

The Palestinian people and leadership have learned through many years of experience of Israeli governments not to listen to what is said but to look at what is done. And judging by the state of the domestic Israeli political scene, the composition of the Israeli coalition government and Israeli practices on the ground in occupied territory, it is very difficult for Palestinians to be optimistic about the coming negotiations.

Furthermore, the Israeli insistence on "no pre-conditions" for negotiations is understood on the Palestinian side to be an attempt to start negotiations without terms of reference, agenda or time limit. This will allow Israel to turn talks into photo opportunities while dragging out a process that will serve only to shield illegal Israeli activities in occupied territory, especially settlement expansion in Jerusalem, from growing international criticism, which has been isolating Israel to an unprecedented degree recently.

On the other hand, the international community has been frustrated by the absence of a peace process that might provide an opportunity for influential states with an interest in contributing to stability in the region through meaningful Palestinian-Israeli negotiations, to play a bigger role. The current American administration, which showed early interest and engagement, keeps arguing that it needs an active process in order to be able to contribute to moving things toward a peaceful agreement and the end of conflict.

The European Union, collectively, and many leading European states, individually, have recently expressed positions that indicate a clear commitment to international legality. The December 8 EU statement on Jerusalem and the Kouchner/Moratinos article regarding UN recognition of a Palestinian state are examples. Europeans argue that the international atmosphere might allow them to be active partners with the US in efforts to support an ongoing peace process. Moreover, the Europeans would like to move from being payers to being players.

The position of the Arab League, which enabled the PLO to approve the resumption of talks, meanwhile, was politically costly. In light of declared Israeli positions and practices, Palestinian public opinion and the majority of the political elite are convinced that the winner in resuming negotiations is Israel, simply because, once again, Israel will likely be allowed to eat its cake and keep it at the same time. This could backfire on Arab countries.

The real question therefore now is, will this American administration and the EU, as well as other interested and active members of the international community, really allow Israel to get away with it again? If yes, then there can be only one outcome of this process: further encouragement for the right-wing in Israel and the Hamas opposition in Palestine and further radicalization in both societies.

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