JERUSALEM – Although the crisis over Israel’s naval interventions to defend its blockade of Gaza is gaining all the headlines around the world, something of far more historic importance is taking place in the Middle East. The Palestine National Authority is preparing to issue a unilateral declaration of independence, and it is taking concrete steps on the ground to make any such declaration viable.
When US President Barack Obama appointed former Senator George Mitchell as his special envoy for Middle East peace negotiations, Mitchell’s mandate was to achieve within two years not only an agreement between Israel and the Palestinians, but also overall peace between the Jewish state and the whole Arab world. But, after 15 months on the job, and innumerable visits to the region, all Mitchell has to show for his efforts is an agreement between Israel and the Palestinian Authority to start indirect “proximity talks” – which it is hoped will lead to direct talks in due course.
When one bears in mind that both sides have been negotiating directly for 15 years, Mitchell’s achievement appears even more minuscule. Under such circumstances, calling Mitchell’s work up to now a failure is the only polite – and realistic – thing to do.
It is as easy to blame Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s intransigence – his enforcement of the Gaza blockade, for example – as it is to point out that the Palestinian Authority does not control Hamas-ruled Gaza, with its 1.2 million inhabitants, leaving it in no position to speak authoritatively for Palestinians. As a result, one thing that both Israelis and Palestinians agree on is that the proximity talks will most likely lead nowhere, so both sides are currently busy ensuring that the other side will be blamed for the failure. On too many issues – borders, settlements, refugees, Jerusalem – the gaps between the two sides are too deep to be easily bridged.