There are many reasons why serious, substantive peace talks between the Israelis and Palestinians have been stalled for four years but one of the most difficult stumbling blocks between the two sides has been the settlements issue. As the settlement population has risen in the West Bank over the past few years, Palestinian officials have been reluctant to meet with Israeli diplomats, believing that the discussions will not result in anything concrete. The Israelis, on the other hand, have consistently argued that the growth of settlements should not be an impediment to successful talks. Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu has pointed the finger at Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas as the man holding up the process.
The same man may now break the impasse. The Associated Press and The Jerusalem Post both report this week that Abbas may be rethinking his original position. After a meeting with European diplomats about Palestine’s effort to acclaim nonmember state status at the United Nations, Abbas seemed to suggest that he was willing to rejoin the peace effort after the United Nations has a vote on the bid, which is scheduled for November.
“Going to the UN does not mean canceling the peace negotiations,” said Abbas. This, presumably, means that the Palestinian Authority may finally be ready to sit back down with the Israelis, a state whose leaders have largely kicked the Palestinian issue down the road to focus on the Iranian nuclear threat.
But more important than what he said was what Abbas left out. In contrast to previous speeches and statements he has made on the peace process, the president made no mention of Israeli settlement construction. Whether or not this is, in fact, a change in his position remains to be seen but the omission is a positive nugget that Middle Eastern hands are taking an interest in.
Settlements are not the only issue that has frustrated the process. Border disputes, including those in Jerusalem, the participation of other Palestinian parties like Hamas and the future presence of Israeli security forces in the West Bank have to be resolved. But it’s the settlements that Abbas has consistently referenced as reason not to sit down with the Israelis.
The only reason for the Palestinians to return to the negotiating table in 2010 was Netanyahu’s temporary freeze in settlement construction. But the Palestinians waited too long and the talks collapsed after three weeks. Netanyahu refused to extend the settlement freeze, despite pleas from the international actors involved in the peace process.
The question now is how Israel will respond to Abbas’ comments. The Israelis have been adamant that talks must be unconditional, meaning that the continued building of Jewish settlements in the West Bank should not be used as an excuse for delay. Yet the Israelis have been equally opposed to the Palestinian Authority’s campaign at the United Nations to attain nonmember state status, something that could very well put a stain on the process before it resumes.