The latest Israel-Palestine peace talks were doomed to fail before they began

If you want the bottom line about why William Hague and other dignitaries are in Israel for sham talks about peace, look at the bottom line.

It’s a long way to go for a game of charades. William Hague is in Israel today to support US secretary of state John Kerry’s bid to re-start Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations. With the peace process stalled since the last serious talks in 2008, Kerry is said to be "obsessed" with finding a way to solve the conflict.

But it won’t happen – not any time soon, and not with the current set of leaders in charge. There will be talks about talks, and there may even be talks. But you can bet your bottom shekel they will lead precisely where every other round of negotiations has led, from Madrid to Oslo to Camp David to Annapolis – down a dead end of continued occupation and war.

This isn’t because, as some claim, the Israel-Palestine conflict is some mind-bendingly complex problem with no ready solution. In fact, there is already a detailed plan on offer, supported by the US, the UN, the EU, the Arab League, and Israeli-Palestinian civil society, to create two states for two peoples, based on the 1967 lines with minor “land swaps”, and with Jerusalem as a shared capital.

And polls of Israelis and Palestinians show that a majority of both peoples continue to support it.

Israel’s hard-line prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu has paid lip-service to the two-state solution. But look at the small print, and it’s clear he is unprepared to make the concessions necessary to bring it about. Netanyahu refuses to consider dividing Jerusalem or to base the border on the 1967 lines – which is like negotiating a divorce settlement on the understanding that one side will keep the family home, the life savings, and the kids.

Other members of Netanyahu’s ruling coalition are more honest: “Two states for two peoples is not the government’s official position,” one bluntly said in a Knesset debate on Tuesday.

The Palestinians, meanwhile, have long made clear they support the main points of the two-state plan. We now know that, even on the most sensitive issue – the fate of refugees displaced by the conflict – they have shown they are ready to compromise by accepting that only a “symbolic” number will be allowed to resettle in Israel.

But the Palestinians’ lack of bargaining power leaves them with no way of putting pressure on an Israeli government that rejects the global consensus. And what’s more, with the Palestinian Authority kept afloat by taxes collected on its behalf by Israel, and on aid from the US and other foreign donors (which accounts for a third of its annual budget), it has no choice but to toe the line, paying lip service to a peace process that offers no hope of peace.

And that, ultimately, is the reason why both sides will engage in this US-sponsored dumb show in the full knowledge it will fail. The Palestinians must negotiate in “good faith” –  providing cover for the continued growth of Israeli settlements – because doing so is the only way to keep the money flowing. And Israel must go through the rigmarole of pretending to seek a deal because, with government budget cuts looming, it needs the $3 billion aid (plus extras) it receives each year from the US, and the international legitimacy even a fraudulent peace process provides.

If you want the bottom line about why these sham talks are taking place, look at the bottom line. Each side has too much invested in the status quo to tell Hague and the other visiting dignataries the truth: that the current “peace process” is no more than a PR process. The conflict will drag on, with no imminent end in sight. After all, why wage peace when war makes for such good business?

John Kerry and William Hague. Photograph: Getty Images

Matt Hill has written on the Middle East for the Daily Telegraph and the Independent. You can follow him on Twitter @mattrowlandhill.

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A small dose of facts could transform Britain's immigration debate

While "myth-busting" doesn't always work, there is an appetite for a better informed conversation than the one we're having now. 

For some time opinion polls have shown that the public sees immigration as one of the most important issues facing Britain. At the same time, public understanding of the economic and social impacts of immigration is poor and strongly influenced by the media: people consistently over-estimate the proportion of the population born outside the UK and know little about policy measures such as the cap on skilled non-EU migration. The public gets it wrong on other issues too - on teenage pregnancy, the Muslim population of the UK and benefit fraud to name just three. However, in the case of immigration, the strength of public opinion has led governments and political parties to reformulate policies and rules. Theresa May said she was cracking down on “health tourists” not because of any evidence they exist but because of public “feeling”. Immigration was of course a key factor in David Cameron’s decision to call a referendum on the UK’s membership with the EU and has been central to his current renegotiations.  

Do immigration facts always make us more stubborn and confused?

The question of how to both improve public understanding and raise the low quality of the immigration debate has been exercising the minds of those with a policy and research interest in the issue. Could the use of facts address misconceptions, improve the abysmally low quality of the debate and bring evidence to policy making? The respected think tank British Future rightly warns of the dangers associated with excessive reliance on statistical and economic evidence. Their own research finds that it leaves people hardened and confused. Where does that leave those of us who believe in informed debate and evidence based policy? Can a more limited use of facts help improve understandings and raise the quality of the debate?

My colleagues Jonathan Portes and Nathan Hudson-Sharp and I set out to look at whether attitudes towards immigration can be influenced by evidence, presented in a simple and straightforward way. We scripted a short video animation in a cartoon format conveying some statistics and simple messages taken from research findings on the economic and social impacts of immigration.

Targeted at a wide audience, we framed the video within a ‘cost-benefit’ narrative, showing the economic benefits through migrants’ skills and taxes and the (limited) impact on services. A pilot was shown to focus groups attended separately by the general public, school pupils studying ‘A’ level economics and employers.

Some statistics are useful

To some extent our findings confirm that the public is not very interested in big statistics, such as the number of migrants in the UK. But our respondents did find some statistics useful. These included rates of benefit claims among migrants, effects on wages, effects on jobs and the economic contribution of migrants through taxes. They also wanted more information from which to answer their own questions about immigration. These related to a number of current narratives around selective migration versus free movement, ‘welfare tourism’ and the idea that our services are under strain.

Our research suggests that statistics can play a useful role in the immigration debate when linked closely to specific issues that are of direct concern to the public. There is a role for careful and accurate explanation of the evidence, and indeed there is considerable demand for this among people who are interested in immigration but do not have strong preconceptions. At the same time, there was a clear message from the focus groups that statistics should be kept simple. Participants also wanted to be sure that the statistics they were given were from credible and unbiased sources.

The public is ready for a more sophisticated public debate on immigration

The appetite for facts and interest in having an informed debate was clear, but can views be changed through fact-based evidence? We found that when situated within a facts-based discussion, our participants questioned some common misconceptions about the impact of immigration on jobs, pay and services. Participants saw the ‘costs and benefits’ narrative of the video as meaningful, responding particularly to the message that immigrants contribute to their costs through paying taxes. They also talked of a range of other economic, social and cultural contributions. But they also felt that those impacts were not the full story. They were also concerned about the perceived impact of immigration on communities, where issues become more complex, subjective and intangible for statistics to be used in a meaningful way.

Opinion poll findings are often taken as proof that the public cannot have a sensible discussion on immigration and the debate is frequently described as ‘toxic’. But our research suggests that behind headline figures showing concern for its scale there may be both a more nuanced set of views and a real appetite for informed discussion. A small dose of statistics might just help to detoxify the debate. With immigration a deciding factor in how people cast their vote in the forthcoming referendum there can be no better time to try.