Domestic Politics Overshadow Moribund Peace Process
The “talks about talks” that took place between key Israeli and Palestinian envoys in Jordan last month have stalled out, with little hope of restarting. In what appears to be an effort to keep some sort of forward movement, the international community has sent the UN’s top diplomat to prod Israelis and Palestinians to return to the table.
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said this week that Israelis and Palestinians are running out of time to resolve their conflict. “Our highest priority must be to return to negotiations, not merely procedural talks but genuine and substantive neogations to resolve the core issues,” said Ban during a speech in Tel Aviv.During his two-week trip to the region he met with Israeli and Palestinian leaders, urging all sides to refrain from provocative actions that undermine trust. In particular, he emphasized that Israelis must make confidence-building measures if they want the Palestinians to continue talks. Haaretz reports that such gestures might include releasing Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails, and increasing Palestinian control over areas B and C in the West Bank.
Yossi Alpher told Americans for Peace Now he thinks such steps might be possible. There are, “apparently some favorable indications that [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu would consider Israeli confidence-building gestures if the talks continue, though he has backed down on commitments in this regard repeatedly over the past three years,” Alpher explained. Alpher is an Israeli writer and analyst who does a weekly interview with APN.
In the days leading up to Ban’s visit, Israelis and Palestinians were not on their best behavior. In an effort to win support of voters during the week of Likud party primaries in Israel, Netanyahu announced subsidies and incentives to encourage Israelis to move to settlements in the West Bank.
Following the Likud elections, Netanyahu’s cabinet backtracked on the subsidy plan, amending the resolution to exclude the 70 West Bank settlements from the incentive package unless Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak approves them.
The UN secretary general spoke out against settlements, saying settlement activity, "does not help the ongoing peace process. They [Israelis] should refrain from further settlement for the sake of ongoing peace talks. This can be a way of expressing goodwill gestures."
Palestinian militants in Gaza fired rockets into Israel, putting nearby residents on high alert with the terrorizing attacks. The four rockets landed in fields, causing no injuries or damage. When visiting Gaza on Thursday, Ban condemned the practice, saying, “All this violence must stop. I would urge the Palestinians from Gaza: they must stop firing rockets on the Israeli side ... this killing of civilians is not acceptable.”
The coming weeks could bring more news on whether or not the Israeli-Palestinian talks will continue. Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas is expected to consult with the Arab League next week, hoping to shore up support before making a decision.
Netanyahu’s Likud party held primary elections on Tuesday to determine the party’s leader. The prime minister won in a landslide, getting 75 percent of the vote and serving up a resounding defeat to his opponent, Moshe Feiglin, who represents a hardline settler faction within Likud. Netanyahu told reporters, “The more voters that turn out, the clearer it will be how great the support is for me.” However, only 46 percent of eligible party members made it to the polls, an expectedly low turnout.
The Israeli cabinet’s opportunely-timed resolution included subsidies for some 70 Israeli settlements in the West Bank (see above). The resolution, passed just hours before the voting took place, could be interpreted as a move to solicit support from the settler factions within Likud, some of whom consider the prime minister too soft on peacemaking. In the past, Israel promised the international community it would not provide special incentives for settlement development and settlers. However, the Jerusalem Post reported that, “Hagit Ofran of Peace Now said the continued presence of settlements on the list was proof that the government was still financially supporting settlements.”
U.S. State Department spokesman Mark Toner condemned the move on Tuesday in a press briefing, saying, “We find those unconstructive and unhelpful. We're seeking clarity on what is actually being proposed here.” After strategically walking the announcement back, Netanyahu’s government stated that U.S. pressure had not influenced the change in policy.
It has been months since the Palestinian leadership effectively put their UN membership ambitions on hold. However, lawmakers in Washington continue to withhold vital funds that support humanitarian and civil society projects in the Palestinian territories. Approximately $147 million in USAID funding for 2011 remains stuck in a congressional hold that has been in place since August.
While a portion of the funds have been released, the Palestinians have become acutely aware of the importance of this remaining aid and are struggling with the repercussions.
Since 1994, USAID has spent $3.4 billion in the Palestinian territories developing new roads, water systems, health care facilities and schools. Khaled Osaily, Hebron's mayor said, "The USAID support is very essential. It creates a lot of jobs. The situation here, the infrastructure is very bad. This USAID money stopped a lot of suffering for the people."
Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (FL-18), chairwoman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, is responsible for the hold. At a congressional hearing this summer she said, "By providing the Palestinians with $2.5 billion over the last five years, the U.S. has only rewarded and reinforced their bad behavior.”
Without these funds many Palestinians are impacts in visible and not-so-visible ways. Several projects have been postponed or cancelled due to the freeze in funding. For example “Palestinian Sesame Street” has been unable to make new shows for children. The show, which in Arabic is Sharaa’ Simsim, works to promote tolerance, diversity and peace. Similarly, the Princess Basma Centre in East Jerusalem received funding from USAID for their work with deaf, crippled, developmentally delayed and autistic children. However, since USAID has shut down funding, the Centre cannot meet payroll and has halted all of its outreach programs.
The Palestinian Islamist party Hamas is exploring its options for relocating its headquarters from Damascus. Hamas Chairman Khaled Mashaal to Jordan in hopes of forming a better relationship with King Abdullah II. With the situation rapidly deteriorating in Syria, where the movement has been based since the
Hamas was kicked out of Jordan a decade ago and this is the first time the two sides have met since. An advisor to Jordan’s royal court said the meeting was “positive” and it opened “a new page” in relations. Hamas is currently in an awkward situation. Much of the leadership is based in Damascus but they have refused to back President Assad’s crackdown, angering him and his primary ally, Iran.
Gaza’s Prime Minister and local Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh is going in a different direction though, revealing cracks between the leadership in Gaza and those based in Damascus. Haniyeh traveled to Iran to strengthen Hamas’s relationship with the Islamic Republic. Ahmad Moussalli, professor of Islamic studies at the American University in Beirut says, “The visits of Meshaal to Jordan and Haniyeh to Iran symbolize competing visions within the group, and this [the visits] seems to be solidifying these differences as well."
Mashaal’s decision not to run for re-election as chairman of the party has also escalated the power struggle. It is clear that countries such as Jordan, Egypt and Qatar prefer the more moderate Mashaal, but Iran is hoping Haniyeh will take his place.
In a recent positive development, Israeli authorities cleared two truckloads of furniture made in Gaza for export to Jordan last week. This marks the first time since 2007, when Israel imposed the current blockade, that non-agricultural products were officially allowed out of Gaza, travelling by truck to a furniture expo in Jordan. Additional allowances of non-agricultural exports have the potential to put a dent in Gaza’s 28 percent unemployment rate. Abu Muhanad Al-Helo, a furniture factory owner, told The Media Line. “I used to export daily shipments from Gaza but that stopped back in 2007. If we’re allowed to make more shipments, I’ll need to employ new workers to finish the local and export workloads.” However, there is no indication that this is the start of a new trend.
The Israeli human rights organization Gisha welcomed the move, but encouraged authorities to go further. The organization’s website says, “Gisha welcomes the security establishment’s decision to allow Gaza furniture makers to develop new markets for their products in Jordan. The shipment of the furniture to Jordan proves that the marketing of these and other kinds of products can also take place in both the West Bank and Israel itself – Gaza’s traditional markets.”
Before 2007, Gazans exported 40-50 truckloads of goods every day, agricultural products making up two-thirds of the goods destined for Arab and European consumers. Last year, the number of trucks leaving Gaza with goods was around two per day. As Gisha notes, less than 15 percent of Gaza’s exports have historically been bound for Europe. Current Israeli export rules do not allow Gaza farmers and businesses to ship to consumers in Israel or the West Bank, which before 2007 was the destination for 85 percent of the goods coming from Gaza.
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