It may be easy to overlook, but the Palestinians and Israelis are allegedly negotiating over the future of Palestine once again. To be more precise, the Palestinian regime in the West Bank is reported to be meeting with the Israeli leadership over the future of the West Bank, which represents only one fifth of Palestinians.
The so-called negotiations have been conducted in a highly secretive manner, and only after much-publicized wrangling to bring both sides to the table. United States Secretary of State John Kerry inexplicably put an enormous amount of weight into the resumption of talks, and still the parties yielded only to talks about the possibility of talks. Even then the Israelis announced plans to deepen the apartheid in East Jerusalem and the West Bank by building several thousand housing units in new and existing settlements, all of which are illegal under international law.
Kerry, for his part, took the news stoically. He encouraged the Palestinians to avoid reacting and for the most part they proved accommodating. Mahmoud Abbas embraced the role the Americans asked him to play and met with Israeli parliamentarians on August 22, when he allegedly expressed unhappiness “at the slow pace of negotiations”.
That the Palestinians and Israelis will achieve an agreement on two states is a losing proposition — and it has been all along. The Madrid Conference established the basis for the accommodation in 1991 when it was proposed that land occupied by the Israelis could be ceded to the Palestinians in return for a complete end to the conflict. In reality, the parties to the conference, which was co-sponsored by the United States and the Soviet Union, failed to understand the objectives of the leadership in Israel: the maximum amount of land with the fewest number of Palestinians on it. Indeed the Oslo years, which began in 1993, witnessed the most rapid expansion of settlements since 1948. Palestinians were aggressively cantonized — that is, ethnically cleansed from the rural to the urban centers of the West Bank — even as Jerusalem was Judaized.
Today, Palestine is a series of noncontiguous cantons, separated by Israeli-only roads and apartheid Jewish-only colonies in the West Bank. More than one in six people living in the Occupied Territories is a Jewish Israeli, while one in every four living in Israel is not Jewish. In other words, the unscrambling and partition required by a two-state outcome is far from imaginable. So why do the parties negotiate? And why has Mahmoud Abbas, the illegitimate governor of the cities of the West Bank — his elected term in office ended in 2009 — agreed to preside over a demilitarized entity policed by US soldiers? For the Palestinians part of the answer is that the ‘process’ is the only persistent validation of Abbas’s rule. The absence of a deal of any kind would have meant that the leadership of the PA policed and repressed Palestinians in the West Bank for very little, if nothing at all. But it’s also the case that the Palestinians who negotiate do so in an inertial, unenthusiastic manner — Abbas’s meetings with members of the Knesset notwithstanding — for the maintenance of the PA regime.
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For 20 years the Oslo process has created a vast patronage network that relies on donor money. The absence of a political process may undermine international donor largesse and that outcome may have disastrous consequences for the personal incomes of many members of the ruling elite and many thousands of civil servants.
In other words, the negotiations process is about legitimizing the existence of the PA and about the continuation of European donor aid. That the Palestinians do not believe in the talks is indicated by Abbas’s latest utterly unrealistic claim to members of the Knesset that a deal could include American police in the West Bank. He is merely playing for support and time.
Israelis rely on the surface-level observance of negotiations in order to relieve international pressure as they continue to annex the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Negotiations do not obscure the settlement process, but they do provide an argument for changing the subject — that ‘peace’ is being pursued. So long as that’s the case, Europeans feel relieved from their considerable responsibilities to begin sanctioning apartheid, a costly endeavor in any case.
For those reasons one arrives at a bizarre juncture where the rational behavior for both parties is to negotiate over a partition that everyone knows will never materialize. And there’s no reason to think that the basis for their rationality will change.
Ahmed Moor is a Palestinian-American writer and co-founder and CEO of Liwwa.com, which provides support to Middle Eastern small businesses