The Israeli approval Tuesday of another 1,600 new housing units in east Jerusalem — coming just hours after Vice President Joe Biden announced in Jerusalem the launching of new Israeli-Palestinian peace talks — stunned the White House but should not have been surprising, according to Middle East expert Stephen P. Cohen.
"Israel has been doing this for many years now," he said. "Whenever an American official goes to Israel, Israelis announce new settlements or new construction to show America that Israel is willing to defy American preferences and to show it has a macho mentality that it won’t give it up because of the U.S.," he said.
Cohen, author of "Beyond America’s Grasp: A Century of Failed Diplomacy in the Middle East," said the announcement by Israel’s Interior Ministry "shows that this so-called partial freeze that [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu announced will not mean that Israel will not continue to defy that freeze during the lead-up to the negotiations."
Reminded that the freeze never applied to Jerusalem, Cohen replied: "It was not part of the freeze but it was part of the expectation of the Palestinians and the U.S. ... They were willing to defy the needs of the Palestinians and the U.S."
Biden was equally upset, in a statement "condemning" the move and railing at the timing — just hours after he had announced that the U.S. would serve as a mediator for what are called "proximity" talks between Israelis and Palestinians.
"The substance and timing of the announcement, particularly with the launching of proximity talks, is precisely the kind of step that undermines the trust we need right now and runs counter to the constructive discussions that I’ve had here in Israel," he said.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas called the Israeli action a "provocative and predetermined Israeli escalation following the Palestinian Authority’s decision to renew the negotiations."
One Palestinian official even suggested that the move could derail the talks before they start.
Perhaps fearing that, Biden said in his statement: "This announcement underscores the need to get negotiations under way that can resolve all the outstanding issues of the conflict."
The housing announcement reportedly caught Netanyahu by surprise, but he had no immediate comment.
The term being used for the Palestinian-Israeli negotiations is "proximity" talks, which Cohen said implies that U.S. Middle East envoy George Mitchell could be shuttling between Palestinians in Ramallah and Israelis in Jerusalem one week but not necessarily the next.
"Proximity means that the two sides could gradually come closer to one another so that they could be in adjoining hotels or even in two rooms adjacent to one another," he said. "It means there could be partial progress. The U.S. is beginning to recognize that you do not do this in one fell swoop but gradually. There is no timetable."
But the Palestinians did say that these talks would be given only four months to produce results, something few in Israel give much chance of happening.
"It’s ridiculous," said Pinhas Inbari, a researcher at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs. "Each party is expecting something completely different, and I cannot see any way to bridge the differences."
He explained that the Palestinians are seeking an agreement for Israel to withdraw to its 1967 borders in return for security. But Israel, Inbari said, is not ready to agree because "it does not need Abbas to defend Israel."
"So the formula the Palestinians are proposing is a non-starter in the eyes of the Israelis," Inbari said. "Israel considers these talks to be only a corridor to direct talks and so it is not ready to discuss any core issues — borders, security, anything. The Israelis are ready only to discuss the technicalities of how to run direct talks."
Barry Rubin, director of the Global Research in International Affairs Center of the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, was equally frank in his pessimistic appraisal of the talks.
"Everybody knows that these talks will not lead anywhere," he said. "It’s for show so that the U.S. can claim success. ... Last September the president said there would be direct talks on final-status issues and now it’s a great achievement for indirect talks."
The problem, Rubin said, is that the Palestinians "can’t or don’t want to reach an agreement. The problem is not with the Israelis but with the Palestinians."
Inbari pointed out that should the four months of talks end in failure, it will be in July, the same month the Egyptians have given Abbas’ Fatah Party to reconcile its differences with Hamas, the Palestinian terrorist group that controls the Gaza Strip.
"Hamas will not do it and so there will be another crisis," Inbari said. "And July is also the date for Palestinian municipal elections. The Palestinian general election in January was canceled because of Hamas opposition, and if [Abbas] has to confront Hamas on the ground over the municipal elections, he may cancel those too. He may then resign and Mitchell may resign [from the proximity talks]. ... We’ll have to wait and see how this mega-crisis plays out. It’s like a tsunami coming."
Rubin pointed out that Netanyahu has been calling for unconditional peace talks with the Palestinians for the past six months and that the Palestinians "won’t agree to an agreement that ends the conflict" because "they can’t deliver the Gaza Strip and they believe they will win a total victory if they wait long enough."
But Gerald Steinberg, a professor of political science at Bar-Ilan University, said he believes the proximity talks can work because "the majority of Israelis want to find a way out of the status quo and to be recognized as having ended the occupation."
"Israelis don’t want to be responsible for running the lives of more than one million Palestinians in the West Bank," he said. "We tried unilateral withdrawal and the Oslo peace accords. They didn’t work; this is another vehicle. Most Israelis don’t expect this to lead to a messianic peace agreement, but it could provide as framework under which Netanyahu would justify significant withdrawals [of Israeli settlers from the West Bank]. He needs to have some sort of political cover to start the painful process of taking down settlements."
Even if the proximity talks fail, Steinberg continued, "Netanyahu could then say Israel has to extract itself from the mostly costly points of friction. ... One of the Palestinian spokesmen said that if the talks failed, the Palestinians would declare independence. If they did that in the territory they control without claims on Jerusalem or refugees, it would be something Israel would indirectly accept."
Eyal Zisser, a professor of Middle East and African studies at Tel Aviv University, said he believes that although proximity talks "represent some sort of progress, I doubt anything can be achieved because the gaps are so wide. I don’t see any trust or readiness on both sides to take risks. The Palestinians say Israel must withdraw to the 1967 borders and the Israelis say we have to discuss the withdrawal. I don’t see it moving ahead."
But the fact that proximity talks have been agreed upon is a plus, according to Cohen, the Middle East expert, because "everybody knows those talks have to be followed by direct talks or another method of jumping over the slow non-decision of indirect talks."
"Israel says these talks are a corridor," he added. "A corridor to the main building where there will be a resolution of the issues, or a corridor to the basement and another intifada? I don’t believe that either side wants this to develop into another military confrontation."
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