By Con Coughlin, January 24, 2012.
While the world’s attention is fixed on the deepening drama of Iran’s nuclear programme and the continuing fall-out from the wave of anti-government protests in the Arab world (I still refuse to countenance the concept of an Arab Spring), it is hardly surprising that attempts to revive the Palestinian-Israeli peace dialogue are not generating many headlines.
And yet this crucial issue is quietly reaching its own crisis point as the two sides approach the January 26 deadline set by the Quartet – the US, EU, UN and Russia – for the resumption of direct negotiations, with the aim of reaching a final settlement by the end of the year.
For anyone acquainted with the poisonous politics of the Middle East, resolving the long-standing dispute between Israel and the Palestinians would go a long way in undermining the cause of the Islamist militants who are trying to hijack the current wave of anti-government protests in the region for their own ends. The whole raison d’etre of regimes like Iran is that they claim they are fighting on behalf of the Palestinians to liberate their land from Israel’s occupation. But if Israel suddenly did a deal, and made peace Palestinians, the Islamists would suddenly find themselves left high and dry.
Most people in the West believe the main reason the talks are not going anywhere is because of Israel’s refusal to compromise on its settlement building programme. But while the Netanyahu government’s insistence on building settlements is certainly an obstacle, I am told by Western diplomats close to the exploratory talks that are currently taking place in Jordan between the two sides that the real reason they are running into difficulty is because the Palestinian delegation, led by the veteran Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat, is refusing to take the talks seriously.
For example, I am told by a Western diplomat working for the Quartet that when the Israeli delegation arrived for a meeting last weekend in Amman, the Jordanian capital, to present their latest security proposals, Mr Erekat simply refused to enter the room.
My man in the Jordan conference room says that he was surprised at Mr Erekat’s behaviour, especially as the topic under discussion was supposed to be one of the two main topics the Palestinian delegation wanted on the agenda for the Jordan talks, which are a precursor for the more formal talks that are supposed to take place once both sides have agreed a negotiating framework.
Mr Erekat’s refusal to enter the negotiating room and hear what the Israelis had to say does not bode well for the Quartet’s attempts to get the two sides to resume full negotiations, and raises questions about just how serious the Palestinians are about getting a peace deal. With Israel feeling increasingly isolated as world attention focuses on the fall-out from the recent revolts in Libya, Egypt and Syria, there is a growing suspicion among Western diplomats that the Palestinians are working on the basis that, if they draw out the process, they will be able to strike a better deal with Israel.
If that is the case, then they are badly mistaken. The real enemy in the Middle East today is Iran, not Israel, and by playing into the hands of Islamist militants who seek Israel’s destruction, the Palestinians could see their cause being overtaken by a far greater regional conflict.