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    Middle East
     Apr 28, '14

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Israel-Palestine peace talks hit the wall
By Richard Silverstein

With the recent announcement of a Hamas-Fatah reconciliation and the prospect of a unity government between the rival Palestinian factions, the US-brokered Israeli-Palestinian peace talks have come to a screeching halt.

The agreement, which shocked Mideast analysts as well as the Israeli and US negotiators who had been working to resume the talks, was a signal of the frustration of the Palestinians at the lack of results. It was a vote of no confidence in the process that had been led by US Secretary of State John Kerry.

In response to the Palestinian plan for a unity government and new elections, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has broken off talks and angrily told PLO chairman Mahmoud Abbas

to choose between Hamas and Israel. Abbas has clearly made his choice.

Given the likely failure of the Kerry initiative, what comes next? Does this mean the end of the two-state solution, a development that has been predicted with increasing vigor for years? If it does, what will replace it?

Shifting the blame
The problems began when Israel refused to release 25 Palestinian prisoners slated for freedom under a previously agreed framework. Part of the drawback was that Israel had agreed to release some Arab Israeli prisoners among them, prompting outrage from Netanyahu's far-right coalition partners. When Netanyahu rejected the prisoner release, Abbas threatened to file applications for Palestinian membership in a dozen or so United Nations agencies, which would advance the Palestinian bid for statehood to the forefront.

In addition, at a very delicate moment in the process, Israeli Housing Minster Uri Ariel publicly announced plans for 700 new housing units in the occupied West Bank. Given how sensitive the Palestinians are to their dispossession from large swaths of territory currently occupied by settlements, the announcement was akin to planting an improvised explosive device in the peace process.

At that point, Kerry and President Barack Obama became desperate and floated the idea of freeing Jonathan Pollard - an American citizen serving a life sentence for leaking US state secrets to Israel - in return for further Israeli concessions. But the Israeli response was not what the US negotiators had hoped for. Instead of the 400 additional Palestinian prisoners whose release Kerry had hoped to place on the table, the Israelis would agree only to release the 25 they were supposed to have already freed.

Despite mounting pressure from hawkish "pro-Israel" interest groups intent on freeing Pollard, most observers saw the idea of exchanging him as a Hail Mary pass that could backfire. After being floated, the idea dropped like a lead balloon and appears to have been shelved.

When the talks stalled, Abbas filed applications to nearly a score of UN agencies, against both US and Israeli wishes. If Palestine becomes a signatory to the International Criminal Court (ICC), it could potentially bring war crimes cases against Israeli leaders and generals allegedly responsible for attacks against Palestinian civilians. Although Abbas has yet to apply for membership at the ICC, this prospect is one of the reasons Israel shudders at Palestine's bid for UN recognition.

Abbas's reconciliation with Hamas also ratchets up pressure against Israel and the United States, neither of which wants to include the Islamist group in the process. The key question is whether Abbas is serious about the rapprochement, or is it a bargaining chip to gain a more favorable position in the peace talks?

Such agreements between the Palestinian factions have come and gone before. But if this one succeeds, Israel and the United States will have a far different - and less stable - playing field on which to make their moves.

A US State Department spokesperson has criticized Abbas for expecting Israel to "negotiate with a government that doesn't believe in its right to exist". But the blame game had already begun before the Fatah-Hamas reconciliation. Just as the United States and Israel blamed Yasser Arafat for the failure of Camp David, Netanyahu placed responsibility for the collapse squarely on the shoulders of the Palestinians. But unlike at Camp David, this time the United States has made it all but publicly known that the cause of failure lies with Israel, not the Palestinians.

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