New Faces for an Old Struggle

By Joharah Baker – Jerusalem

Two major events took place this week, which will most definitely contribute to the shape and outcome of future events in the ongoing Palestinian-Israeli conflict. The first is the meeting that took place between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and US President Barack Obama on May 18, which in many senses, laid down the groundwork for US-Israel relations for at least the next four years. The second is, of course, the swearing in of the new Palestinian caretaker government, the 13th in 14 years, on May 19.

Much can be said about both. In terms of the Netanyahu-Obama meeting, the Israeli prime minister didn’t pull any surprises out of his hat – at least not any pleasant ones. His position vis-à-vis the Palestinians was more or less the same, falling far short of endorsing the two-state solution and remaining adamant about settlements. The most he would offer was to say Israel would work to dismantle illegal outposts and commit to not building any "new" settlements. Anyone who knows anything about Jewish settlements in the West Bank understands that this so-called commitment is nothing more than a brush-off and a whitewashing of any commitment to real progress. For one, according to international law, all Israeli settlements on occupied Palestinian land are deemed illegal, not just these wayward "outposts". Secondly, committing to not building any new settlements just means the ones already there will continue to expand at exponential rates. Netanyahu was sure he did not impinge on Israel’s "right" to build within existing settlements to accommodate these colonies’ "natural growth". Never mind that every time these settlements grow, they are doing so at the expense of the Palestinians, their land and their livelihood.

In all fairness, Bibi did say at the closing press conference that he was ready to "restart" the peace process with the Palestinians. Where exactly he intends for this process to go is still uncertain, given that autonomy seems to be the most far-reaching concession Netanyahu is willing to grace the Palestinians with. Even this is contingent upon the Palestinians’ recognition of Israel as a Jewish state, something to which they have already said they would not agree.

Good-intentioned President Obama is still adamant that the two state solution is the only way to a peaceful settlement of this conflict. He even mentioned Gaza, rarely alluded to by western leaders in such passionate tones.

"The fact is, that if the people of Gaza have no hope, if they can’t even get clean water at this point, if the border closures are so tight that it is impossible for reconstruction and humanitarian efforts to take place, then that is not going to be a recipe for Israel’s long-term security or a constructive peace track to move forward."

He’s right of course. The peace process will not move forward, nor will Israel ever feel safe and secure as long as the Gaza Strip continues to suffer under a strangulating siege, poor sanitation and lack of clean water and sufficient basic necessities.

However, Israel and its oppressive measures in all of the Palestinian territories, regardless of their magnitude, are unfortunately not the only problems the Palestinians are facing today.

Yesterday’s swearing in of the newest caretaker government – basically an amendment of the last one under reinstated Prime Minister Salaam Fayyad – has by nature of the circumstances surrounding it, probably the testiest road ahead of it yet. Not only is this government faced with the less-than-friendly Israeli government under Netanyahu and his sidekick Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, but the internal strife and division that has plagued the Palestinians for so long is still securely in place.

Hamas and Fatah have stumbled through five rounds of reconciliation talks in Cairo over the past several months. There has been plenty of name-calling, finger-pointing, back-stabbing and rumors generating between the two sides, each burdening the other with complete responsibility for their failure to reach an agreement. The fact is, all the original sources of strife still exist if not even more firmly planted on the ground. Hamas, in spite of the recent devastating Israeli operation in the Gaza Strip, is still ruling the coastal area. It has not even attempted to loosen its hold over power there and will only share power with the secular West Bank government under President Abbas if it on its own terms.

This seems to be more or less the case with Abbas. Not willing to hand the PA over to the Islamic movement, the president was willing to put reconciliation talks on hold to restructure his own government with ministers that, unsurprisingly excluded anyone from Hamas, which is now calling its formation "illegal and unconstitutional." Other factions have also opted to sit this government out, including the PFLP and the People’s Party along with members of Abbas’ own faction, Fatah, claiming this would only consolidate the state of disunity among the Palestinians.

In all cases, it is too early to tell what the future has in store for this fledgling authority. President Abbas is due to meet President Obama on May 28 and some say he cannot possibly meet the man of the hour empty-handed. With a full cabinet of old and new ministers, Abbas may be signaling to Obama that he is ready and willing to move forward as long as there is a wiling Israeli partner, thus throwing that ball into Netanyahu’s court.

If the Obama-Netanyahu meeting is any kind of indicator, Abbas will find a sympathetic ear on his upcoming trip. President Obama has made it clear that he opposes settlement expansion and does not appreciate Netanyahu’s disregard for his government’s roadmap obligations. He has publicly endorsed the two-state solution, of which Abbas is an avid proponent and he is resisting Netanyahu’s implication that the "Iran issue" must be settled before the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is solved. If anything, the US President insists on the opposite, that a resolution to this problem could pave the way for a more regional solution.

As with almost every other time period in Palestinian history, this stretch of time is very volatile and can go either way depending on which way the political winds blow. While no one – including Obama apparently – has much faith in Netanyahu shifting his positions by his own accord – there is always hope that if the right circumstances present themselves, he will simply have to.

– Joharah Baker is a writer for the Media and Information Program at the Palestinian Initiative for the Promotion of Global Dialogue and Democracy (MIFTAH). She can be contacted at mip@miftah.org. (Published in MIFTAH – www.miftah.org).

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