Can Obama’s Israel visit restart the peace process?
President Barak Obama is expected to visit Israel, the Palestinian Authority and Jordan in March. While Washington announced that he would not bring a peace plan to the area, the timing and the itinerary suggest that peace negotiations with the Palestinians will be high on the president’s agenda, in addition to other pressing issues like Iran and Syria.
Obama’s move is reminiscent of the beginning of his first term, when the newly elected president chose Mahmoud Abbas as the first world leader to telephone and declared the resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian problem to be at the top of his foreign policy agenda. Asian powers like Japan and South Korea, who anticipated that this time around America would shift its priorities to the Far East, may be in for a disappointment.
But what do Palestinians expect from renewed peace talks? According to Fatah sources in Ramallah, two weeks ago President Abbas told senior Fatah members of the information he exchanged with France and Britain.
Abbas claimed that at this time the European countries are determined to lead the peace process to a successful end. They will lay out parameters for a solution based on several EU resolutions on the subject, set a six-month-long timetable for negotiations and, in case of failure, hand over the issue to the UN Security Council that will decide who is to blame. More than likely, the blame would fall on Israel due to its reservations regarding the European resolutions. Therefore, Fatah leaders are convinced they are closer than ever to imposing a solution on Israel.
Abbas also told Fatah members that the Europeans proposed holding direct negotiations in Jordan, not Egypt, where internal problems and a built-in preference for Hamas are the order of the day. In addition, Jordan would assume responsibility for security arrangements along the Jordan River in order to avoid a security vacuum akin to the one created by the collapse of the Philadelphi route after Israel disengaged from Gaza.
Jordan would patrol the border on its side, with the entrance to St. John’s baptismal holy site to be set up on the Jordanian instead of the Israeli side due to IDF presence there.
Israel is expected to have an economic presence along the Jordan River, including joint ventures with the Palestinians. The Europeans anticipate that the transformation of the area into an economic zone would foster security and encourage the Palestinians to stay away from violence. Israel would not be expected to recognize the Palestinian state de jure, however, it will do so de facto by not objecting to statehood markers like Palestinian passports, stamps, etc.
Diplomatic sources in Israel confirmed that Europe would be in favor of imposing a solution on Israel. They were, however, told by the United States that while America supports the European initiative, it would block any move in the Security Council aimed at smearing Israel’s name and singling it out as the guilty party.
Before the Palestinians pursue the European strategy for peace talks, they must tackle their own growing internal problems. Fatah’s senior membership remains quite skeptical of Abbas’ European option as it has lost faith in the feasibility of the two-state solution. Some Fatah members are actually advocating the abandonment of the strategy in favor of a single state with Israel.
Obama visiting the Western Wall in 2008In addition, Abbas faces a growing unrest on the Palestinian street. Many Palestinians have embarked on an ‘Electricity Intifada’, whereby they refuse to pay their electricity bills.
To make matters worse, the military wing of Fatah is rebelling by staging military parades in refugee camps, which can quickly turn into actual violence.
Until the breakout of the Arab Spring there was a widespread conviction among world leaders that a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians would be the cornerstone of regional stability. President Obama’s visit will reveal whether this conviction prevails, or whether the widespread instability across the region has created a new list of priorities for world leadership.