The statement by the United States that Israel and the Palestinians are to meet for the first direct talks between the two sides since September 2010 confirms yet again the gulf between the two sides. For the record, on July 19 U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry concluded four months of West Asian visits and intensive exchanges with all parties with his announcement, made in Amman, that talks would resume. Martin Indyk, twice Washington’s ambassador to Tel Aviv during the Clinton years, is reportedly to manage the meetings, which are to be a “basis” for final-status talks. Saab Erekat is likely to represent the Palestinian Authority (PA), and Israel’s current justice minister Tzipi Livni will attend for Israel. The previous exchanges broke down acrimoniously after only 16 hours. In any case the new round will only be talks about talks, and will occur in a context of profound distrust among the main protagonists. The initial Palestinian response has been cautious, with spokesperson Yasser Abed Rabbo saying nothing would happen before the PA resolves certain issues with Washington, but the PA supports talks “in principle”, and Israel has started releasing hundreds of Palestinian prisoners.
Israel, however, is already trying to maintain the current stalemate. It has expressed reservations about Mr. Indyk’s perceived pro-Palestinian leanings. Secondly, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu says any deal will be put to a referendum — a procedure which would itself require new legislation. Furthermore, Israel’s cabinet is severely divided, with trade minister and leader of the extreme Jewish Home Party Naftali Bennett categorically rejecting any construction freeze in the illegally occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem. Even more problems lie in the future status of Jerusalem, which both sides want as their capital, and on Palestinian refugees’ right of return. Above all, Israel refuses to accept the 1967 borders as an absolute precondition for any kind of agreement, and neither Tel Aviv nor Washington can admit that Hamas and not the PA are the elected representatives of the Palestinian people. Therefore, another breakdown in talks is the most probable result. If all is not lost, it may well be because the European Union has finally started to enforce its own law by telling Israel that EU funding must not go into the illegal settlements. The reaction has been that of a bully facing unexpected resistance, but Tel Aviv’s vehemence indicates genuine alarm over the prospect of sanctions. Officials in the old South Africa later admitted that sanctions had really hurt the apartheid regime, and now the message for the rest of the world, including Israel, is clear.