Since the failure of the Oslo Accords over two decades ago, there have been a several attempts made to reach a peace agreement between the Israelis and Palestinians. The latest installment of the talks began on 14 August 2013 and is ongoing. Like previous talks, however, these have been fraught with tension.
In an unexpected development, just three days before the first scheduled meeting, Israeli Housing Minister Uri Ariel announced construction plans for a large settlement expansion within the occupied territories of the West Bank and Gaza. The planned construction is estimated to include 1000 to 2000 new Jewish homes. Hundreds of them are to be built across the pre-1967 Green Line, the location in which the Palestinians plan to make their new state capital – a worrying sign for hopeful onlookers.
Following the unexpected announcement, Palestinian authorities immediately condemned the plans and accused the Israeli side of sabotaging the negotiations. This is not the first time construction plans have caused problems: talks in September 2010 came to a halt before they even had a chance to begin because of disagreements over Israeli construction plans within the occupied areas. The United States has expressed concern, fearing that a settlement expansion will bring the current peace talks to a grinding halt, just as it did three years ago.
Yet, here have also been hopeful signs. Just hours before the talks were due to start, the Israeli state released 26 Palestinian prisoners, a prerequisite for the Palestinians. The symbolic gesture demonstrated a commitment to pursue peace on behalf of Israel. The remaining 78 prisoners are due to be released over the next nine months of scheduled talks, depending on the progress of the negotiations.
The Israeli public spoke out against the decision to release prisoners, who had been convicted of terrorist activities, murder and accessory to murder. Members of the victim’s families submitted appeals to the Israeli courts and held protests on the streets, their hands covered in red paint to represent the blood on the hands of those released. Meanwhile, the 26 released prisoners were greeted by Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas with fireworks and festivities.
The first meeting on 14 August lasted several hours. As a result of an agreed news blackout, details of the meeting have not been made public. Representing the Palestinians is Oslo Accords-negotiator Saeb Erekat and Fatah Official Muhammed Shtayyah, while the Israelis are represented by Minister of Justice Tzipi Livnii and Aide to the Prime Minister Issac Molcho.
Martin Indyk, the former US Ambassador to Israel, and his deputy have been named as US envoys for the talks. However, despite Indyk’s involvement, the Secretary General of the PLO has expressed deep concerns over the absence of US representatives at the meetings, with one PLO leader going so far as to blame Israel for the lack of US involvement.
Further meetings will take place over the coming months , alternating between Jerusalem and Jericho. Details of the negotiations will remain strictly confidential. However, Abbas and UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon said in a joint press release earlier this month that everything is on the table – “borders, Jerusalem, settlements.” However, the priorities of the two negotiating parties vastly differ.
Although the release of prisoners was a significant step for the overall peace process and shows compromise, the location of the planned construction could demonstrate Israeli unwillingness to agree to a two-state solution.
The West Bank and Gaza continue to be at the center of the deadlock between the parties, with neither side willing to walk away from this land. It is extremely unlikely that the Palestinians will concede on this point, and with the Israeli expansion plans within the area, it seems that neither will Israel.