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Israel-Palestine: Why the peace talks failed


As the dust settles after the collapse of the latest round of peace talks between Israel and Palestine, the way forward is unclear. Both sides lay the blame on each other for the failure, and an anonymous US official has been quoted as saying the willingness of US Secretary of State John Kerry—who brokered the talks—to continue his efforts ‘depends on the sides' willingness to show seriousness’.

The talks, although fraught, lasted nearly nine months before completely breaking down only days before the original 29 April deadline, when Israel suspended talks after Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas signed a unity agreement with Hamas. Hamas governs the Gaza strip, and is widely categorised as a terrorist organisation.

When the talks began mid last year, Kerry was aiming to have a ‘final status’ agreement for a two-state solution by the end of April 2014, though he later revised this to a ‘framework’ agreement that would leave finer details—including exact borders—to be negotiated later.

Aside from the eventual unity agreement between Abbas’ Fatah party and Hamas, key issues causing friction in the talks included:

Israeli settlements continuing to be built in occupied territory

Israel’s building of settlements in Palestinian territory occupied since 1967—widely considered to be illegal under international law—was cited by Palestine at the UN Security Council as a key issue that led to the breakdown of the talks. As well as this, Kerry pointed to a moment at the beginning of April when 700 new settlement units were announced in Jerusalem as a turning point that derailed the talks. During peace talks in 2009, settlement building was temporarily halted, but this time settlement building in occupied East Jerusalem and the West Bank increased dramatically during the talks.

While the agreement pushed by Kerry has land swaps taking place so Israel can keep 75 to 80 per cent of settlements, Abbas has pushed for a settlement freeze and emphasised the need for agreement on the final borders for a two-state solution.

Release of prisoners

Israel had agreed to release 104 Palestinian prisoners—all jailed since before the Oslo Accords were signed in 1993—in four stages during the talks, on the condition that Palestine did not seek further international recognition during negotiations.

The final group of 26 were scheduled for release at the end of April, but when their release was made conditional on Palestine agreeing to extend talks past the deadline, Abbas responded by applying to join international treaties. Israel in turn cancelled the prisoner release.

Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu already faced political pressure at home not to release the prisoners, many of whom had been convicted of murdering Israelis, and were described in a government press release as ‘terrorists’.

The international treaties

At the beginning of April, Abbas applied to join 15 international treaties and conventions, including the Geneva Conventions. Knesset Speaker Yuli-Yoel Edelstein said this was an ‘outrageous violation of the basic agreement’ for the peace process, as the Palestinians had agreed not to take such steps during the talks.

However, Palestine argued it had been forced to look beyond talks with Israel for ways to gain statehood. Palestine also plans to apply to 40 more treaties and agencies, including the International Criminal Court—something which may allow them to prosecute Israel over settlement building.

Recognition of Israel as a ‘Jewish state’

While the Palestinian Government recognised Israel’s right to exist decades ago, in the recent talks, for the first time, Palestine was asked to recognise Israel as a ‘Jewish state’. Abbas refused, arguing it could have implications the non-Jewish minority of Israeli citizens. Palestine also argues recognising Israel as a Jewish state is akin to denying its own history and identity.

The Lowy Institute noted there is disagreement between Israeli politicians about what a ‘Jewish state’ actually means. As well as this, some Israeli politicians have raised concerns about the implications it could have for democracy. In May, after talks ended, Netanyahu pledged to push through a bill to legally define Israel as a Jewish state, though has emphasised that the rights of minorities, including Israeli-Arabs, would be protected.

It is unclear how much more time and effort the US will be prepared to invest in brokering talks. Both sides also face internal political pressures that make compromise difficult. According to The Economist, ‘a majority of Knesset members in Israel’s ruling coalition and a majority of ministers are either against a two-state solution or lukewarm towards it’. The same article also notes Netanyahu has little incentive to change the status quo. And for Abbas, who is increasingly seen as a weak leader, even his own party opposed the talks from the beginning.

Comments from Australia at the UN Security Council have been cautious, mainly commending US efforts and urging both sides to continue talks and show restraint, although Palestine was singled out for specific advice on upholding non-violence and continuing to recognise Israel.