Off the record: Is time running out for peace?

By Paul Danahar
Middle East bureau editor

  • Published
Mahmoud Abbas and Benjamin Netanyahu at the White House on 1 September 2010
Image caption,
The recent talks, launched in September at the White House, led nowhere

"It was a total waste of time."

This, a Palestinian assessment of the 18 months of proximity talks run by the US special envoy to the Middle East, George Mitchell.

"Rubbish, nothing, no progress whatsoever," said to me by someone with in-depth knowledge of the process, shortly after the direct talks began to run into the sand last month.

Those talks have been abandoned over the issue of Jewish settlements being built on occupied Palestinian land.

So, the State Department has said, George Mitchell is heading back to the region to start over. 

Mr Mitchell privately joked that his role as the special Middle East envoy was his "second retirement". Perhaps this will be his third. 

Coercion, not seduction

So after all the noise and bluster and the "wasted" time, has this American administration lost all credibility?

Image caption,
George Mitchell is well-liked, but is he up to the job?

"Absolutely," another senior Palestinian source told me this week. And while they like and respect Mr Mitchell, the Palestinians believe it's going to take someone higher up the food chain to move things on. 

"It needs the [full] clout of the United States to tell [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu 'You are going to do this', to show willingness to take measures such as those taken by Mr Bush, the father [George HW Bush]."

It was time for Mr Obama to stop trying to "seduce" the Israeli prime minister.

But many commentators from all sides believe that there is little prospect of a peace deal with the present Israeli coalition.

A senior Israeli politician told me last week: "At the end of the day, the choice is between this coalition and peace. Not 'peace process'. They can live with peace process, they like peace process."  

The Palestinians too want Mr Netanyahu to dump the right-wingers and offer the centrist party, Kadima, a role in government.

I was told that the leader of Kadima, Tzipi Livni, once said privately about Mr Netanyahu that she would "join the coalition if only to hold his shaking hand while he signs the peace deal".

But while the leaders of the two main Israeli parties do have occasional talks, they seem a long way from a new coalition. 

Laughing and fighting

The peace process has been going on now since October 1991, nearly 20 years. 

The issues are not new, the likely look of a final deal is not new, not even the people that are discussing the issues are new.

Image caption,
The peace process has been going a long time

They all know each other, greet like old friends, crack jokes. Then sit down and argue.

The only things that have changed over the years are the lengths of the sideburns and the width of the trousers. But can it keep going on like this?

The Israeli Deputy Prime Minister Moshe Ya'alon told me earlier this year that peace would only be possible with the next generation of Palestinians.

The problem he said was that "the Arabs are still teaching their kids to deny Israel's right to exist".

Attitudes could not be changed in two years, he said: "If they can do it in five years, OK, but..."

'Now-ish or never'

Palestinians say the leadership of Mahmoud Abbas and Salam Fayyad is about as moderate as Israel is going to get.

Hoping that the next generation of Palestinians, walled off by Israel's concrete barrier, is going to be more benign is, they say, wishful thinking. 

A former Israeli cabinet minister told me recently he thought that "time is of the essence" before shifts in Israeli society and the growth in the ultra-Orthodox population changes the dynamics for good. 

"We have no other alternative, we need to do it. Ten years from now we are going to see something completely different demographically in Israel.

"It's not only about the state of Israel as a democratic and Jewish state but also the substance of the nature of the Israeli Jewish state.

"What does it mean from a religious perspective, from a national perspective… the Jewish-ness of the state? Without solving this, it's going to make it almost impossible."

The fear that it's "now-ish or never" is also shared by foreign diplomats.

"Jerusalem today is Israel tomorrow," one told me, and the demographics in Jerusalem are already "incredible" with just a small percentage of children being educated in secular state schools.

The growth is coming from the ultra-Orthodox Jewish and Israeli Arab communities - the two ends of the spectrum. 

Endangered species

The secular Israeli right are also worried about growing signs of intolerance in Israeli society.

Prime Minister Netanyahu just this week condemned a call by 50 state-funded rabbis for a ban on the renting or sale of property to Israeli citizens who are not Jewish. 

The call for peace used to be led by the Israeli left but they have been completely marginalised and are up there on the endangered list with the panda. 

If this generation can't reach a deal, will the next one even try? 

A peace deal within a year was Mr Obama's ambition. That looks very unlikely now.

A peace deal within this generation of Israeli and Palestinians leaders is still not impossible.

A peace deal with this present coalition, according to many, is.  

The Palestinians were "hopeful that this administration had all the good intentions to really take us somewhere".

Mr Obama had made all the right noises about "the linkage of the peace process and settlements" and so "Obama took himself up a high tree and we went with him", I was told by a source.

He then likened the president to an old man watching pretty girls pass by.

"Obama," he said, "He has the desire but he doesn't have the capacity."

This is the second in an occasional series of pieces by the BBC's Middle East bureau editor based on off-the-record briefings by officials and decision-makers in the region.