Binyamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, has just finished another trip to the US, this time including an important meeting with US President Barack Obama.
The meeting has since been presented by Israeli officials and media as a political breakthrough in both US-Israeli relations and Israeli-Palestinian relations. The reasons for this range between comparing the current atmosphere in US-Israel relations with the previous visit and Obama’s apparent support for the main tenet of Israel’s PR campaign during the visit, namely the need to move to direct negotiations with the Palestinians after five rounds of indirect talks.
In the media and on the public level among Palestinians, however, the visit created disappointment, especially since both had been under the impression that the Palestinian leadership and the US administration were on the same wavelength regarding what was required to move from proximity to direct talks.
If the conflict is about public relations, then there is no doubt that Netanyahu has managed to score a very valuable victory over the Palestinians. However, if success is measured in how much progress is made toward peace between the two sides, then Netanyahu’s visit achieved nothing.
Since the renewed American peace efforts, which started immediately after the US elections and the inauguration of the current president, Palestinians have warned against repeating the previous 18 years of unsuccessful negotiations. They have stressed the fact that Israel has stalled talks simply in order to unilaterally create new facts on the ground that undermine the Palestinian position.
The ultimate result is a functional division between the Israeli military and the Palestinian Authority in governing the occupied territories. And the last thing Palestinians want to see now is a resumption of negotiations alongside continued settlement expansion.
When the Americans suggested proximity talks, it was understood that they would serve to create a conducive atmosphere for productive and serious negotiations. This would happen by ending the expansion of settlements and showing signs of seriousness and readiness for productive negotiations.
During the proximity talks, the Palestinian side presented full and comprehensive written negotiating positions on the two issues the American mediator requested, borders and security. The Palestinians have also continued governing in accordance with all their obligations under the roadmap. Israel, however, refrained from engaging on the two issues and continued its provocative activities, including settlement expansion and violating Palestinian rights, especially in East Jerusalem.
In other words, while the Palestinian side was engaged in a serious process of state-building and institutional reform with the full support of the international community, and at the same time committed itself earnestly to the proximity talks, the other side showed no seriousness whatsoever.
The only question now is, what will the third party, whether the US or the Quartet, do about that?
Attempting to move things forward at the expense of the weaker party will only cause everyone to lose yet another opportunity. Time is against the Palestinian side, whether in terms of the extent to which the Palestinian leadership can afford more time or the extent to which the reality on the ground in the West Bank can bear it.
But the absence of progress toward a solution is not only wasting everyone’s time, it is being used as a cover by the enemies of peace to ensure further radicalization in both societies and to create more facts on the ground–more settlements–of the kind that will render the concept of two states practically impossible and politically irrelevant.
The only way to move things forward is to empower the peace camp on both sides. This involves forcing each side to respect its obligations to the terms of reference of the peace process, including the roadmap, and to show seriousness in negotiations, regardless of their form.
Part of such seriousness should be a timeframe for negotiations and a promise to pursue other means to achieve the internationally accepted framework for peace should talks fail.