Published: September 2 2010 18:29 | Last updated: September 2 2010 18:29
A new round of Israeli-Palestinian talks is under way after a carefully choreographed White House ceremony rich in political pieties and low on substance. No sooner was it over than the questions began.
It is not just that, while both sides employ the same words – peace, two-states solution and so on – they mean different things. It is not just that both camps are split and their leaders may not be able to close a deal, were they to reach one. Nor is it just that Israel, as the occupier, able ultimately to count on unconditional US support, is so much more powerful than the occupied Palestinians.
Within weeks the talks could judder to a halt. On September 26, the partial Israeli moratorium on building settlements on occupied Palestinian land expires – and the government of Benjamin Netanyahu says it will not renew it.
While ways of fudging this are being looked at, the settlers’ lobby, powerful within Mr Netanyahu’s coalition and, indeed, his own Likud party, wants none of it.
Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, is under enormous pressure. He has nothing to show for his strategy of seeking a Palestinian state by negotiation. Israel has expanded the occupation, having taken 42 per cent of the West Bank according to B’Tselem, the Israeli human rights group. To retain what little remains of his credibility, Mr Abbas may be forced to withdraw if the moratorium is not renewed.
The standstill was in any case relative. Exclusions of Palestinians from occupied east Jerusalem have increased. Two Arab villages have just been razed, in the Jordan Valley and Negev desert. Segregated, Israelis-only roads have bulldozed ahead. The situation is explosive enough even without the moratorium timebomb under the talks. Mr Abbas called off West Bank municipal elections in July, even though Hamas – which defeated his Fatah party in the 2006 general elections – was not standing.
While every consideration is being given to the delicacy of Mr Netanyahu’s position, little or none is accorded to Mr Abbas.
Yet, it should be perfectly obvious that talks aimed at the creation of a Palestinian state cannot possibly prosper while Israel continues its strategic colonisation of the land on which that state would be built. The US and its international partners must insist on a cessation of settlement-building.
Would this sink the Israeli coalition? Very possibly. But Mr Netanyahu has options, including an alliance with the centrist Kadima party. Mr Abbas has none.