News Analysis: Israelis, Palestinians, far from negotiating table than ever before?

Source: Xinhua| 2018-01-08 19:12:53|Editor: Zhou Xin
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by Keren Setton

JERUSALEM, Jan. 8 (Xinhua) -- The latest developments in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict show that the sides are further away from resolving their issues.

Although a full-blown conflict seems far, a continuous trickle of fire exchanges between Israel and Gaza coupled with constant chatter on the tricky matter of Jerusalem may create a problematic combination with unwanted results.

A month ago, when U.S. President Donald Trump made the controversial announcement that his country was recognizing Jerusalem as Israel's capital, there was speculation that widespread violence would erupt.

This did not happen. Aside from demonstrations with a small number of casualties, the common reaction on the streets was indifference.

However, both the Palestinian and Israeli leaderships took it as a clear signal on how to act in the coming future.

As the Arab world condemned Trump's move, many Israelis welcomed it.

Trump made a departure from the international consensus that the fate of the disputed city would be determined through negotiations between the two sides.

Israel believes all of Jerusalem is its capital while Palestinians want the eastern side of the city as its future capital.

Over the weekend, Jordanian Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi announced the Arab league would push for international recognition of East Jerusalem as the Palestinian capital, a counter measure to the Trump move.

Just last week, picking up on the momentum of American backing, the Israeli parliament, the Knesset, approved the "Jerusalem Bill" which mandates that any changes to Jerusalem's status need a supermajority of 80 of the 120 Knesset members. This would make any concessions on the city in future negotiations difficult.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said in a statement released after the passing of the bill that it was "tantamount to declaring war on the Palestinian people."

The law was another blow to the Palestinian cause.

Shuli Moalem-Refaeli, the member of parliament who initiated the bill, tweeted afterwards that it puts an end to the possibility of a "shady political settlement" with the Palestinians. It was a reflection of a growing sentiment amongst Israelis, but also Palestinians, that peace is unattainable.

Dr. Ofer Israeli, a geostrategist and an expert for international security and the Middle East from the Institute for Policy and Strategy (IPS) at the Interdisciplinary Center (IDC) in Herzliya, believes the current momentum on Jerusalem will eventually lead to a change in the international attitudes towards the city.

"We might see a change in the discourse on the issue of Jerusalem and this will eventually lead to a majority of countries supporting Jerusalem as Israel's capital," Dr. Israeli told Xinhua. "In this interim period, Israel can change reality and make it almost impossible to change things."

Dr. Amneh Badran, a political scientist from the Al Quds University in Jerusalem, believes the current state of affairs is "part of a systematic approach to cancel the so-called two state-solution."

"They want to start 'the deal' by taking Jerusalem out of the deal," Badran told Xinhua.

She is referring to Trump's campaign aspiration to strike "the ultimate deal" of peace between Israelis and Palestinians.

Slow simmering in the background of controversy surrounding Jerusalem is the conflict between Israel and the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip.

In recent weeks, the two sides have been exchanging rounds of fire, and rockets and mortars have been fired into Israel with the Israeli military retaliating with airstrikes. In addition, last month, the Israeli army announced it had demolished a Hamas attack tunnel that it believed was to be used in order to carry out attacks against Israelis.

The tension on the southern border rose immediately after the Trump announcement and since then, several Palestinians have been killed and dozens injured in clashes with Israeli forces, both on the Gaza border and in the West Bank.

"If one of the missiles falls in a populated area, the Israeli government will not be able to ignore it and then we will see a replay of previous events, a military operation or maybe even a war," says Dr. Israeli.

So far, there have been no Israeli casualties in the attacks so public opinion is not yet pressuring a harsher response.

In recent days, Trump tweeted that his administration would stop sending aid to the Palestinians and hold funding from UNRWA, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for the Palestinian refugees, in response to "Palestinians no longer willing to talk peace."

According to UNRWA data from 2017, almost 2 million Palestinians receive aid from the agency in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip alone. An additional 3 million refugees and their descendants spread out in the Middle East also rely on that aid.

Media reports in Israel said the government was in a bind over the U.S. intention. A leaked internal foreign ministry report said that Israel preferred a gradual approach rather than a cold-turkey stoppage of funds. A humanitarian crisis in the Palestinian territories will certainly have an effect on neighboring Israel.

"UNRWA needs to cease to exist, this is an Israeli and Palestinian interest. It perpetuates their situation," Dr. Israeli tells Xinhua. "Israel will have to deal with the implications for a period of time."

Israel has long claimed that Palestinian militant organizations, Hamas included, have exploited the UN umbrella for its own activities. UNRWA has acknowledged several times that Hamas has used its buildings for stockpiling missiles in Gaza. In the fall of last year, a tunnel was found under one of UNRWA's schools in the isolated territory.

"The Palestinian leadership will not beg for American money," said Dr. Badran. "UNRWA is providing the minimum for Palestinian refugees ... there will be other sources to support UNRWA, the Americans will not stop others ... they are not interested in making the refugee issue rise to the surface."

Prospects for future negotiations are dim. The Palestinian leadership has said repeatedly that they do not believe the Americans can serve as an honest broker.

"It is not easy to re-build ... the peace process again. We are going back to the same limbo, nothing new," said Dr. Badran.

Trump's tweet that "we have taken Jerusalem ... off the table," was satisfactory for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu but a severe blow to the Palestinians. Indeed, it appears American recognition of Jerusalem as Israel's capital will be a turning point in the conflict.

"The Palestinian might choose to take a tough stance and not return to the negotiating table. They might try to enlist others, mainly the European Union, to counteract the Americans," said Dr. Israeli.

With the Israelis and the Palestinians each entrenched in polar positions, dialogue between the two rivals will probably not be the chosen method of interaction at the moment.