Peace talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority began Monday night. Above, Secretary of State John Kerry announcing that Martin Indyk would be America’s representative at the talks.(AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)
The peace process has begun again. On Monday night, Israeli and Palestinian negotiators met in Washington, D.C. for a Ramadan iftar dinner, and on Tuesday talks are set to continue. The next round of talks, if they happen, will reportedly be in the Middle East.
The path forward on peace talks was cleared after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu agreed to release a number of long-serving Palestinian prisoners as a way to coax the Palestinian Authority to get back to the table. Reports indicate that Israel will also soon issue building tenders for housing units in some of the major settlement blocs, including the mega-settlement of Ariel.
The Israeli negotiating team will be represented by Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, and Isaac Molho, an envoy to Netanyahu. The PA team will be represented by chief negotiator Saeb Erekat and Mohammed Shtayyeh, an aide to PA President Mahmoud Abbas.
For more on the peace talks, journalist Lizzy Ratner and I spoke to Josh Ruebner, the national advocacy director of the US Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation and the author of the forthcoming book, Shattered Hopes: Obama’s Failure to Broker Israeli-Palestinian Peace. Ruebner talked with us over the weekend on the WBAI radio show Beyond the Pale. What follows is a lightly edited transcript of our conversation.
Alex Kane: Let’s start with the basics. Explain what’s set to happen and whether this is significant–the announcement of peace talks between Israel and Palestinian Authority negotiators. Are these just talks about talks, or will substantive issues be aired?
Josh Ruebner: These are actually just talks about talks. So what’s set to happen is that on Tuesday, Israeli and Palestinian negotiators are set to convene in Washington, D.C. to talk about establishing an agreement to actually get into negotiations. So it really is talking about talking, and not so much substantive issues of negotiations at this point.
Lizzy Ratner: And, what are they going to be talking about talking about, or do I even add another layer of talking about there. What are some of the hurdles to bringing them to actually having negotiations?
JR: So the major outstanding issues at this point to get back to negotiations appear to be three: whether Israel will agree to negotiate on the basis of it returning to its pre-1967 armistice line, so that’s number one; number two, the scope of any freeze in Israeli colonization of Palestinian land in the West Bank and East Jerusalem as negotiations progress; and number three, the scope of any prisoner release of political prisoners who Israel has been holding in jail, in some cases many years, even predating the Oslo peace process. So those are the three major sticking points, and I think it remains to be seen whether the negotiators will be able to fudge some kind of compromise on these issues that will allow them to get back into actual negotiations. I actually don’t hold out much prospect of hope for that at this point.
AK: And the fact that John Kerry has been the man who has brought these two sides together proves that the American role in the peace process is once again paramount. What’s your take on the American role in all this, and where does this current round of talks fit in with the Obama administration’s prior efforts on Israel/Palestine?
JR: Sadly, the Obama administration is repeating the same mistakes and the same failed strategies that it tried to employ during its first term to broker Israeli/Palestinian peace. So what we’re seeing is in all likelihood getting Israeli and Palestinian negotiators back to the table in the absence of a complete Israeli freeze on the colonization of Palestinian land. And that was what really torpedoed the Obama administration’s efforts during its first term. At the outset of the Obama presidency, the Obama administration was very clear: Israeli colonization of Palestinian land had to stop in order to resume negotiations. And that was, I think, a correct strategy. But unfortunately, after 6 months of pressing this point, Obama really caved in before pressure from the Israel lobby and then reversed course and said, “well, let’s just get back to negotiations whether or not there’s an actual freeze on Israeli colonization on Palestinian land.”
And given that history of what happened in the first term–and given the ideological underpinnings of the current Israeli government–any so-called settlement freeze, or colonization freeze, would be cosmetic, and in name only. There’s no way that Israel is going to agree to stop its colonization of Palestinian land in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, and in fact, the government just announced plans for a major, major rail infrastructure project in the West Bank, which really casts doubt on whether Israel intends to relinquish any West Bank land in any foreseeable negotiation.
LR: I want to actually rewind for a second. Because as you’ve been talking I realized that there’s, of course, a ton of precedent–not just precedent within the Obama administration, but peace process precedent. People always talk about the peace process, let’s get back to the table, let’s get these negotiations going again, this is the solution, the salvation, the end of the conflict lies here. But of course the peace process, in some way, has been dragging on for decades, on and off. And so, I’m wondering if you could look back in time and talk to us a little bit about the history of the peace process. Has it been all that some people crack it up to be? Has it actually led to substantive changes on the ground for Israelis and Palestinians? Or is this something like a red herring, something that’s nice to talk about and yearn for, but really historically doesn’t bring that much to the table?
JR: It’s a great question, and one that is, I think, very multifaceted to try to answer. So this September will mark the 20th anniversary of the Oslo peace accords, which were negotiated in secret between Israel and the PLO in 1993, and signed on the White House lawn that September. That inaugurated a U.S.-led negotiation process, even though the U.S. played a very, very minor role in the actual signing of this first agreement. And the problem throughout these past two decades, has been that the United States has acted, in the words of Aaron David Miller, who was a former peace process player and a very high-ranking one at that, that the United States functions as “Israel’s lawyers.”
And if you look at the published memoirs of people like Dennis Ross, who has been a key peace process participant for the last two decades, if you look at what was revealed through WikiLeaks and through the Palestine Papers, which was thousands of documents from inside the Palestinian negotiating team that were leaked to Al Jazeera a couple of years ago, what you’ll find is a very coherent and very straightforward strategy that the United States has pursued regardless of who is the president of the United States. And that is to work with Israel, to try to mold proposals that are to Israel’s benefit, and then to try to ram these proposals down the throat of the Palestinians, and to blame them when they don’t accept them, when they don’t even come close to meeting standards of international law, human rights, and come nowhere close to fulfilling Palestinian self-determination.
AK: You mentioned the role of Aaron David Miller, and Dennis Ross, and Dennis Ross in particular has been a key player in all of these negotiations. And he’s very much a pillar of the Jewish establishment and the Israel lobby–he was a top official in what’s called the Jewish People Policy Institute. He was the American representative, which tells you a lot about where the United States lies in this whole thing.
Now we have another top, former government official that’s going to be the American point man for the peace process. And his name is Martin Indyk. He is a former official at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and AIPAC. What do you make of that? What is the impact of that?
JR: It’s definitely a step backwards for the Obama administration. When the Obama administration came to office in 2009, they appointed former Senate majority leader George Mitchell as special envoy for Middle East peace. And that was widely seen as revolutionary within the circle of analysts who look at “peace process” issues, because Mitchell has been the only key figure involved in the “peace process” for the last two decades who doesn’t come from that kind of a background, like Indyk, like Ross, like Aaron David Miller, who are very much part and parcel of the Israel lobby–and who, when they’re not in office, then shuttle back to pro-Israel think tanks. So it was seen as very revolutionary, and in fact the Israel lobby came out very strongly against Mitchell, saying, “we don’t want someone who’s even handed. Even handed is bad. We need to be pro-Israel.”
So the fact that Mitchell was seen as unencumbered with this ideological baggage of belonging to these pro-Israel lobbying institutions was seen as a negative in their eyes. So the fact that Obama would consider appointing Indyk to head up this “peace process” in the second term, is really, really a huge step backwards. And you know, I’ll say even though Mitchell was considered to be more even-handed in his approach, actually again, if you look at the Palestine Papers, look at WikiLeaks, and this is something I detail in my book coming up, you’ll see how Mitchell did the exact same thing as a lot of the other pro-Israel peace process officials, and that is twist the arms of the Palestinians into accepting Israeli proposals.
So if Obama thinks that Martin Indyk could do a better job where George Mitchell couldn’t, he’s sadly mistaken, and he’s sadly mistaken if he believes that he can keep appointing individuals from these very pro-Israel ideological perspectives to somehow bring about a just and lasting peace. It’s not going to work. It hasn’t worked in the past, it won’t work in the future. And it really brings to mind Einstein’s definition of insanity. The United States keeps doing the exact same thing over and over again, and somehow expects that it’s going to lead to a different result, and it’s not. It’s only been leading to more Israeli colonization of Palestinian land, which many people would argue is really the point of having a “peace process”–it seems as if Israelis and Palestinians are negotiating towards a peace agreement, that takes a lot of pressure off of Israel, and allows them to continue colonization.
LR: So I want to actually switch focus for one second to players outside the United States, but I do feel the need to make a full disclosure statement here, which is that: I’m cousins with Aaron David Miller, and of course we love each other dearly as family, and I admire him enormously, even though we don’t always see eye to eye politically. But I do feel like I need to say to the audience that I have a conflict of interest there. So we are family, and care about each other immensely, even if we have political differences. So, on that note, I want to look to the European Union for a second, because the United States, while it is the superpower, is not the only player in the universe.
The European Union came out with new guidelines recently that prohibited the union from funding settlement entities. What’s your take on these guidelines, and how do you think they might impact the peace process, or at least sort of the dynamic within Israel/Palestine.
JR: I think the EU’s move is extremely significant, and in fact it’s the first time that key players in the peace process have imposed actual sanctions on Israel for continuing to colonize Palestinian land. These are governmental sanctions, make no mistake about it.
And so the fact that the EU is imposing these sanctions is really going to cause widespread ramifications in Israeli society and in Israeli institutions, and it really strengthens the global campaign and movement that’s Palestinian civil society-led for boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) against Israel. And this, I think, is much more significant, has much more of an impact than any potential talks about talks in Washington, D.C., and I think part of the reason why Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu agreed to send negotiators to D.C. to talk about restarting talks was exactly to do what I mentioned before, which is to take the pressure off Israel, to sort of counter these emerging European sanctions, to say “why are you sanctioning us? We’re sitting down and talking to try and bring about peace with the Palestinians”–all the while Israel continues its colonization of Palestinian land.
AK: We only time for one more question. The peace process is often seen as the only way to solve the conflict. But your organization has been involved in the BDS movement. Could you talk about the BDS movement’s role and whether you think it’s a better shot at solving the conflict, or imposing costs on Israeli violations, than the so-called peace process?
JR: The call for boycott, divestment and sanctions was issued by a broad spectrum of Palestinian civil society–more than 170 organizations representing Palestinians in the occupied territories, within Israel, and within Palestinian refugee communities. And they came together unanimously, and they said, “we need global civil society to impose campaigns of boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel” until it ends its occupation of Palestinian territories seized in 1967; grants equality to Palestinian citizens of Israel; and allows for the implementation of Palestinian refugees’ right of return–those Palestinians who were driven into exile from their homes in 1948 and their descendants upon the establishment of the state of Israel.
And since that call in 2005, these global campaigns have had enormous successes. Companies like Veolia, for example, the French multinational that deals in transit and environmental services, lost billions of dollars in contracts in Europe because of its involvement in various Israeli colonization efforts. And those types of campaigns are spreading to the United States. We’re seeing growing successes on college campuses, within financial institutions like TIAA-CREF, and it’s very much a replication the strategy that was used to dismantle apartheid in South Africa, and I think it will have similar successes in terms of Israel/Palestine as well.