Latest Israel-Palestine talks likely to falter over land swap

Land under threat: Palestinian shepherds in the Jordan valley. AP Photo/Oded Balilty

When US secretary of state John Kerry returned to the Middle East last week, it was with the assurance from senior officials that “nobody has an intention of sticking a finger in Kerry’s eye” on the issue of settlements. As the tenth round of talks commences, it is more likely that the Palestinian eye will bear the prod.

While the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, has asked his housing minister, Uri Ariel, to stay the publication of tenders for the construction of new settlements in West Bank and East Jerusalem, the delay will only last until Kerry’s departure from the region. Meanwhile, the framework peace deal being negotiated will not result in a signed document.

The negotiations nonetheless focus on the points that have dominated talks since their commencement on July 29, 2013: Palestinian refugees, the borders between Israel and Palestine, security and disputed claims to the holy city of Jerusalem. Numbering less than a dozen pages, the purpose of the framework is to promote discussion on both parties’ views on the key issues. While the nine months provided for the talks run out in April, they could be extended into late 2014 in the absence of an agreement.

Of swaps and settlements

Although the tenders for the proposed 1,400 new housing units have been delayed, the transfer of land and residents has been raised again since talks between justice minister, Tzipi Livni, and the chief negotiator of the Palestinian Authority, Saeb Erekat, in October.

Their proposal outlined a transfer of land around Shechem to the Palestinian Authority, while Israel would annex areas in the West Bank. At the time, it was thought impossible that the Palestinians would ever agree to the demarcations proposed by Netanyahu.

Three months later the idea has re-emerged, and the transfer of territory in “the triangle” around Haifa – including the Kafr Qara, Umm al-Fahem, Tayibe and Qalansawe – has been discussed at the highest levels between Israel and the United States, as well as in the presence of senior officials including Kerry.

Talks: high on level, low on agreement. US Department of State

The aim of the transfer would be two-fold: to compensate Palestinians with territory while extending sovereignty to West Bank settlements, and to preserve a population majority through the transfer of 300,000 Israeli Arabs that would leave Israel’s Arabs approximately 12% of the country’s population.

This transfer of territory and residents has featured in negotiations since 2000, and responses have fluctuated between support and opposition. While land swaps were incorporated into negotiations by Israeli prime ministers Ehud Barak and Ehud Olmert, Netanyahu has dismissed the concept of equal land transfer in favour of militarisation and sovereignty over the West Bank. This has prioritised short-term Israeli interests over a compromise that could potentially broker peace.

In April 2013, the Qatari foreign minister, Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani, raised the transfer proposal in Washington, stating the Arab League is open to the possibility of “mutually agreed” land swaps, while Erekat praised the initiative for providing “a comprehensive regional solution”.

Despite these gestures of support from crucial figures, the transfer of territory and residents would not make for a path to peace. While it might seem like progress, its disadvantages would be profound. In particular, political and legal reservations remain – not least because it would condone settlements and facilitate their protection even as they are deemed illegal under international law.

(In)security in the Jordan Valley

In the context of peace negotiations, borders, security and settlements are inextricably linked and co-dependent. While each could – and has been – addressed alone, the failure of one immediately affects the others, regardless of whether positive progress has been achieved.

Regarded as “the frontline of Israel’s defence”, the Jordan Valley is strategically vital not only in terms of borders and security, but also by virtue of natural resources that could provide food and employment. According to a 2009-2010 study by the Joint Palestinian-Israeli-International Economic Working Group, the agricultural cultivation of 10,000 hectares in the Jordan Valley could provide up to 200,000 new jobs.

But the report concludes that this potential is unlikely to be realised, since “the present situation severely handicaps Palestinian economic activity […] as most of the Jordan Valley is Area C, and the vast majority of it is completely off limits to Palestinian access – Israeli closed military areas/fire zones, or settlement areas.”

Since the publication of this report, restrictions and expansions in the Jordan Valley have continued. Two days before Kerry’s arrival in Israel, right-wing Israeli government ministers backed a parliamentary bill to extend Israeli sovereignty to the area, while Hebrew graffiti in a Palestinian village sent “regards to John Kerry” and warned that “blood will be spilled in Judea and Samaria”.

Since the peace talks commenced, instability has continued to dominate the West Bank: according to a report by B’Tselem, last year marked a five-year high for Palestinian fatalities in the area, three times as many as 2012.

These tensions are combining to fuel the militarisation of the West Bank and the displacement of Palestinian communities. For instance, just as Kerry returns to the region, the Palestinian community of Khirbet ‘Ein Qarzaliyah in the northern Jordan Valley could be evicted. Small though the community is, they represent a deeper issue in the West Bank: due to a range of restrictions (from firing zones to nature reserves) Palestinians are barred access from 85% of the West Bank, while between 2006-2013 315 residential units were demolished in Palestinian communities in the Jordan Valley, displacing 1,577 people.

Meanwhile, confidence that the peace process will yield a workable solution remains low on both sides. Last month, the results of a poll jointly conducted by the Harry S Truman Research Institute at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research in Ramallah revealed that mutual caution and scepticism over the two-state solution remains strong.

The talks continue, but so does settlement construction and militarisation. As long as the latter continues to outpace the former, there can be little hope that the negotiations will yield a positive result in 2014.

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