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
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The Conservative-DUP deal is great news for the DUP, but bad news for Theresa May

The DUP has secured a 10 per cent increase in Northern Ireland's budget in return for propping up the Prime Minister.

Well, that’s that then. Theresa May has reached an accord with the Democratic Unionist Party to keep herself in office. Among the items: the triple lock on pensions will remain in place, and the winter fuel allowance will not be means-tested across the United Kingdom. In addition, the DUP have bagged an extra £1bn of spending for Northern Ireland, which will go on schools, hospitals and roads. That’s more than a five per cent increase in Northern Ireland’s budget, which in 2016-7 was just £9.8bn.

The most politically significant item will be the extension of the military covenant – the government’s agreement to look after veterans of war and their families – to Northern Ireland. Although the price tag is small, extending priority access to healthcare to veterans is particularly contentious in Northern Ireland, where they have served not just overseas but in Northern Ireland itself. Sensitivities about the role of the Armed Forces in the Troubles were why the Labour government of Tony Blair did not include Northern Ireland in the covenant in 2000, when elements of it were first codified.

It gives an opportunity for the SNP…

Gina Miller, whose court judgement successfully forced the government into holding a vote on triggering Article 50, has claimed that an increase in spending in Northern Ireland will automatically entail spending increases in Wales and Scotland thanks to the Barnett formula. This allocates funding for Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland based on spending in England or on GB-wide schemes.

However, this is incorrect. The Barnett formula has no legal force, and, in any case, is calculated using England as a baseline. However, that won’t stop the SNP MPs making political hay with the issue, particularly as “the Vow” – the last minute promise by the three Unionist party leaders during the 2014 independence referendum – promised to codify the formula. They will argue this breaks the spirit, if not the letter of the vow. 

…and Welsh Labour

However, the SNP will have a direct opponent in Wales. The Welsh Labour party has long argued that the Barnett formula, devised in 1978, gives too little to Wales. They will take the accord with Northern Ireland as an opportunity to argue that the formula should be ripped up and renegotiated.

It risks toxifying the Tories further

The DUP’s socially conservative positions, though they put them on the same side as their voters, are anathema to many voters in England, Scotland and Wales. Although the DUP’s positions on abortion and equal marriage will not be brought to bear on rUK, the association could leave a bad taste in the mouth for voters considering a Conservative vote next time. Added to that, the bumper increase in spending in Northern Ireland will make it even harder to win support for continuing cuts in the rest of the United Kingdom.

All of which is moot if the Conservatives U-Turn on austerity

Of course, all of these problems will fade if the Conservatives further loosen their deficit target, as they did last year. Turning on the spending taps in England, Scotland and Wales is probably their last, best chance of turning around the grim political picture.

It’s a remarkable coup for Arlene Foster

The agreement, which ticks a number of boxes for the DUP, caps off an astonishing reversal of fortunes for the DUP’s leader, Arlene Foster. The significant increase in spending in Northern Ireland – equivalent to the budget of the entirety of the United Kingdom going up by £70bn over two years  – is only the biggest ticket item. The extension of the military covenant to Northern Ireland appeals to two longstanding aims of the DUP. The first is to end “Northern Ireland exceptionalism” wherever possible, and the second is the red meat to their voters in offering better treatment to veterans.

It feels like a lifetime ago when you remember that in March 2017, Foster was a weakened figure having led the DUP into its worst election result since the creation of the devolved assembly at Stormont.

The election result, in which the DUP took the lion’s share of Westminster seats in Northern Ireland, is part of that. But so too are the series of canny moves made by Foster in the aftermath of her March disappointment. By attending Martin McGuinness’s funeral and striking a more consensual note on some issues, she has helped shed some of the blame for the collapse of power-sharing, and proven herself to be a tricky negotiator.

Conservatives are hoping it will be plain sailing for them, and the DUP from now on should take note. 

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.

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