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.

Photo: Getty Images
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We don't need to build more prisons - we need to send fewer people there

The government talks a good game on prisons - but at the moment, the old failed policies hold sway

Some years ago the Howard League set up an independent expert review of what should happen to the penal system. We called it Do better, do less.

Too many governments have come in with enthusiasm for doing more, in the mistaken belief that this means better. We have ended up with more prisons, more prisoners, a bulging system that costs a fortune and blights lives. It is disappointing that the new regime appears to have fallen into the same old trap.

It is a big mistake to imagine that the justice system can be asked to sort out people’s lives. Prisons rarely, very rarely, turn people into model citizens able to get a great job and settle with a family. It is naïve to think that building huge new prisons with fewer staff but lots of classrooms will help to ‘rehabilitate’ people.

Let’s turn this on its head. There are more than 80,000 men in prison at any one time, and 40,000 of them are serving long sentences. Simply giving them a few extra courses or getting them to do a bit more work at £10 a week means they are still reliant on supplementary funding from families. Imagine you are the wife or partner of a man who is serving five to ten years. Why should you welcome him back to your home and your bed after all that time if you have hardly been able to see him, you got one phone call a week, and he’s spent all those years in a highly macho environment?

The message of new prisons providing the answer to all our problems has been repeated ad nauseam. New Labour embarked on a massive prison-building programme with exactly the same message that was trotted out in the Spending Review today – that new buildings will solve all our problems. Labour even looked at selling off Victorian prisons but found it too complicated as land ownership is opaque. It is no surprise that, despite trumpeting the sell-off of Victorian prisons, the one that was announced was in fact a jail totally rebuilt in the 1980s, Holloway.

The heart of the problem is that too many people are sent to prison, both on remand and under sentence. Some 70 per cent of the people remanded to prison by magistrates do not get a prison sentence and tens of thousands get sentenced to a few weeks or months. An erroneous diagnosis of the problem has led to expensive and ineffective policy responses. I am disappointed that yet again the Ministry of Justice is apparently embarking on expansion instead of stemming the flow into the system.

A welcome announcement is the court closure programme and investment in technology. Perhaps, in the end, fewer courts will choke the flow of people into the system, but I am not optimistic.

It is so seductive for well-meaning ministers to want to sort out people’s lives. But this is not the way to do it. Homeless people stealing because they are hungry (yes, it is happening more and more) are taking up police and court time and ending up in prison. We all know that mentally ill people comprise a substantial proportion of the prison population. It is cheaper, kinder and more efficacious to invest in front line services that prevent much of the crime that triggers a criminal justice intervention.

That does leave a cohort of men who have committed serious and violent crime and will be held in custody for public safety reasons. This is where I agree with recent announcements that prison needs to be transformed. The Howard League has developed a plan for this, allowing long-term prisoners to work and earn a real wage.

The spending review was an opportunity to do something different and to move away from repeating the mistakes of the past. There is still time; we have a radical Justice Secretary whose rhetoric is redemptive and compassionate. I hope that he has the courage of these convictions.

Frances Crook is the Chief Executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform.