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
Show Hide image

Theresa May is paying the price for mismanaging Boris Johnson

The Foreign Secretary's bruised ego may end up destroying Theresa May. 

And to think that Theresa May scheduled her big speech for this Friday to make sure that Conservative party conference wouldn’t be dominated by the matter of Brexit. Now, thanks to Boris Johnson, it won’t just be her conference, but Labour’s, which is overshadowed by Brexit in general and Tory in-fighting in particular. (One imagines that the Labour leadership will find a way to cope somehow.)

May is paying the price for mismanaging Johnson during her period of political hegemony after she became leader. After he was betrayed by Michael Gove and lacking any particular faction in the parliamentary party, she brought him back from the brink of political death by making him Foreign Secretary, but also used her strength and his weakness to shrink his empire.

The Foreign Office had its responsibility for negotiating Brexit hived off to the newly-created Department for Exiting the European Union (Dexeu) and for navigating post-Brexit trade deals to the Department of International Trade. Johnson was given control of one of the great offices of state, but with no responsibility at all for the greatest foreign policy challenge since the Second World War.

Adding to his discomfort, the new Foreign Secretary was regularly the subject of jokes from the Prime Minister and cabinet colleagues. May likened him to a dog that had to be put down. Philip Hammond quipped about him during his joke-fuelled 2017 Budget. All of which gave Johnson’s allies the impression that Johnson-hunting was a licensed sport as far as Downing Street was concerned. He was then shut out of the election campaign and has continued to be a marginalised figure even as the disappointing election result forced May to involve the wider cabinet in policymaking.

His sense of exclusion from the discussions around May’s Florence speech only added to his sense of isolation. May forgot that if you aren’t going to kill, don’t wound: now, thanks to her lost majority, she can’t afford to put any of the Brexiteers out in the cold, and Johnson is once again where he wants to be: centre-stage. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.