“This parrot is no more,” rants former Monty Python member John Cleese in the English-speaking world’s best-loved TV sketch. “It has ceased to be,” he tells fellow Python Michael Palin, playing a pet-shop owner who insists that the obviously dead bird is still alive. “It's expired and gone to meet its maker. This is a late parrot. It's a stiff. Bereft of life, it rests in peace. It's rung down the curtain and joined the choir invisible. This is an ex-parrot."
Same with the “Middle East peace process”, another old joke that is getting a bit creaky in the joints. The U.S. State Department, like the pet-shop owner, insists that the obviously dead process is still alive. “There, it moved,” as Palin says in the sketch. “No, it didn’t. That was you pushing the cage,” replies the outraged Cleese. But the State Department still gets away with it.
It’s a necessary fiction. Nobody in authority will publicly admit that no Israeli government will take on the Jewish settlers in the West Bank and force through a “land for peace” deal, or that there is no unified government for Israelis to talk to on the Palestinian side anyway—that there is, in fact, no prospect of an Israeli-Palestinian peace settlement in this generation. But that is the reality; the rest is the theatre of the absurd.
"I welcome this American decision. It is good for Israel. It is good for peace," said Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on December 13. Yet the U.S. had just abandoned all hope of getting Israel to freeze new building in the Jewish settlements in the occupied territories (which already control 40 percent of the West Bank’s land) long enough to keep direct peace talks with the Palestinians going.
Netanyahu had agreed to a 10-month freeze in new construction as a condition for entering into direct talks with Mahmoud Abbas’s Palestinian Authority, but the ten months expired just after the talks opened, and he refused to extend the freeze. The U.S. even tried bribing him with a multi-billion dollar pledge to give Israel new F-35 fighters, but to no avail.
Why so obdurate? “If someone says that he agrees to 10 months of freezing,” said former prime minister Ehud Olmert last month, “and the president of the mightiest nation on Earth and the friendliest nation to Israel comes to you and says 'Please give me two more months, only two months,' I would say 'President, why two? Why not three? Take three'.”
Did Netanyahu refuse to grant Barack Obama the extra time because he was afraid that otherwise the settler lobby, which has powerful backers in his cabinet, would bring his coalition government down? Or just because he has always secretly opposed a land-for-peace deal with the Palestinians anyway. Probably both, but we’ll have to wait on WikiLeaks to know for sure.
As for Mahmoud Abbas, he only controls the West Bank and must guard his flank against the more radical Hamas Organization, which rules in the Gaza Strip and rejects peace with Israel. Abbas had gone as far as he safely could in agreeing to direct talks while building in the Jewish settlements was frozen.
Netanyahu knew that refusing to extend the freeze would force Abbas to end direct talks, but he was under great pressure from Washington to extend it. To divert that pressure, he introduced a new Israeli precondition for talks. The Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) long ago accepted Israel as a legitimate state; now, if it wanted the freeze to continue, it must recognize Israel specifically as a Jewish state.
That’s a lot to ask of people whose parents or grand-parents lost their homes and became refugees as a direct result of the creation of Israel, so that ended the risk of returning even to talks about talks. As Yasser Abed Rabbo of the PLO’s executive committee said, “The policy and efforts of the U.S. administration failed because of the blow it received from the Israeli government.”
Meeting in Cairo on December 15, the foreign ministers of the Arab League declared that "resuming the negotiations will be conditioned on receiving a serious offer that guarantees an end to the Arab-Israeli conflict." By a “serious offer”, they mean a U.S.-backed proposal for a comprehensive peace settlement.
No U.S. administration would dare make such a proposal: it would be torn to shreds in days by the Israeli lobby in the United States and its allies in Congress. So there really is no peace process. Most Israelis want a peace settlement in principle, but there is just no consensus in Israel on the territorial compromises that would be needed to bring it about.
Increasingly, there is no consensus on the Palestinian side either, with many people losing faith in the very idea of a “two-state solution”. The only reason that a fake “peace process” continues is because the United States needs it to reconcile its huge emotional investment in Israel with its concrete financial and strategic interests in the Arab countries.
Is this an unsustainable situation? Not at all; it has lasted more than a decade already. It could last for several more, with occasional interruptions by further Israeli punishment attacks on south Lebanon and the Gaza Strip. It cannot go on forever, of course, but forever is a long, long time.