RAMALLAH, West Bank (AP) — Senior Palestinians say the diplomatic pressure that produced the nuclear deal with Iran – world powers negotiating jointly in Geneva and wielding the stick of sanctions – should now be applied to the long-festering Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The call for emulating the “Geneva model” is a result of plummeting faith in the traditional formula of U.S.-mediated talks with Israel that produced two decades of failures. With the current round in trouble, Palestinians are grasping at alternatives.
“What happened in Geneva is a model that proves that if the world wants something, then it can achieve it,” said chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat. “If they want to achieve peace and stability, then the (Israeli) occupation is no less dangerous than nuclear weapons.”
Others around Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas have made the same point in recent days, though Abbas himself has not spoken on the matter. He says he’ll keep his promise to the U.S. to stay in bilateral talks with Israel throughout a nine-month period that ends in April.
Any effort to change the format will meet resistance.
Israel strongly opposes the idea of “internationalizing” the negotiations, fearing pressure from countries it considers less supportive.
U.S. officials have traditionally been cool to the idea of bringing in other mediators, arguing that only Washington has the necessary leverage and influence with both sides.
“We’re less than halfway through the nine-month timeline,” U.S. State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said Monday. “So our focus remains on the direct negotiations, and I don’t think we’re, at this point, speculating on a different alternative forum.”
Peace efforts have been internationalized to a degree since the 2002 creation of the so-called Quartet of mediators comprising the United States, the United Nations, Russia and the European Union. Washington’s partners in the Quartet are often cast in secondary roles, such as helping finance Abbas’ self-rule government, but have not tried to challenge U.S. dominance.
That said, there is a growing sense of urgency about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry returns to the region on Wednesday to try to salvage the effort. He is meeting separately with Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who remain so far apart in their positions they haven’t even met since negotiations resumed in late July.
The atmosphere has grown extremely charged, in part because of Israel’s accelerated construction in Jewish settlements on occupied lands the Palestinians want for their state.
The Palestinians already have said that once the set period for talks is over, they will resume their bid for broader international recognition of a state of Palestine, accepted a year ago by the U.N. General Assembly as a non-member observer state. Fearing further isolation, Israel might retaliate.
At the same time, Palestinian officials have praised the Geneva deal as an important precedent because the international community pulled together, using sanctions, to defuse a dangerous conflict.
In talks with six global powers, Iran agreed to freeze much of its nuclear program in exchange for relief from economic sanctions, even as Netanyahu warned a historic mistake was being made. The West has accused Tehran of seeking to build atomic weapons, although the Iranians insist their nuclear program is for peaceful purposes.
Erekat said the world must now show the same determination to help establish a Palestinian state.
In a taste of what might lie ahead, the EU linked hundreds of millions of dollars in research money for Israel to a pledge that the money would not be spent in occupied territories. Israel initially balked, but signed the agreement, while noting its opposition to the territorial clause in official documents.
Netanyahu has said he is committed to the negotiations and supports the idea of a Palestinian state. But the Palestinians do not trust him because he has accelerated construction for Jews in the West Bank and east Jerusalem.
Settlement housing starts have jumped by more than 130 percent to more than 2,100 apartments in the first nine months of this year, compared to the same period in 2012, according to recent Israeli government figures. Since March, the government has promoted plans for more than 11,000 additional settlement apartments, the Israeli anti-settlement group Peace Now said.
The number of Jews in the West Bank and east Jerusalem is approaching 600,000, compared to about 2.5 million Palestinians in those territories.
The Palestinians claim both areas and the Gaza Strip, all captured by Israel in 1967, for their state and see settlement construction as a sign of bad faith.
Israel withdrew from Gaza in 2005 and dismantled its settlements there – but this required the removal of only several thousand settlers. The exploding settler numbers in the West Bank has led many on both sides to conclude that a partition of the Holy Land may no longer even be possible.
Paul Hirschson of Israel’s Foreign Ministry dismissed the criticism.
“Let stop talking rubbish about this (settlements) being an obstacle,” he said, arguing that some of the settlements would become part of Israel in a future deal. “This has zero impact on the peace map.”
He was referring to the oft-cited – and much disputed – argument that most of the settlements are close enough to pre-1967 border that minor adjustments could leave them on the Israeli side of a negotiated border.
Daniel Levy, a former Israeli peace negotiator who is now at the European Council on Foreign Relations, a think tank, said that Israel currently faces no consequences for maintaining its occupation, while reversing it is politically costly. Without pressure, Israel is unlikely to change course, he said.
This has led even some Israelis to call for international economic pressure aimed at forcing their country to halt its settlement enterprise.
“The time has come for sanctions,” commentator Gideon Levy recently wrote in the liberal Haaretz daily. “When these are felt in Israel, only then should an international committee be formed … where the world will translate economic sanctions into political achievements.”
By The Associated Press
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