If ever there were a news story which goes nowhere, it must surely come under the heading of ‘Middle East peace talks’ with specific reference to the Israelis and Palestinians. Google the topic and you will find no less than 84,800,000 references at last count.
Mediators come and go, the protagonists gather at the White House and Camp David, optimistic speeches are made, governments change, the Oslo accords were agreed, detailed ‘road maps’ reached, fresh initiatives made, the UN has been involved and international leaders have descended on Israeli and the Palestinian capitals with high-minded intentions and yet nothing really changes.
One reason is the rapid spread of Jewish settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, both Palestinian territory until the Six-Day War in 1967. The UN, the International Court of Justice and the international community at large, never mind the Palestinians, all regard the settlements as illegal. Israel’s attorney-general back in 2005 actually thought so, too, but two years ago a Jerusalem judicial commission disagreed. They were perfectly legal under international law, according to the three jurists appointed by the government. It was the ideal excuse to accelerate development.
Pleas, including by US presidents, have been made to put a stop to the expansion in the interests of peace. There have been freezes on construction, but they’ve always been temporary.
It is widely accepted that the current dispute is a result of the 1967 war when Israel took over East Jerusalem, which it then annexed, and the West Bank. But the Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, disagrees. He said only last week that the problem actually goes back to 1921 when Palestinians, hostile to Jewish immigration, attacked a home for immigrants in Jaffa. At least, his reason was a 20th century one rather than the once customary biblical ones given in recent years, namely Israel’s rightful claims to the ancient lands of Judea and Samaria which basically comprise Jerusalem and the West Bank.
The latest peace talks, brokered by President Barack Obama, have been stalled since 2010 when Netanyahu refused to freeze settlement construction in East Jerusalem. An overall settlement is supposed to involve Israel’s withdrawal from the West Bank.
That is highly unlikely when you consider it already has 121 officially- recognised settlements and a population of 350,000 Jewish settlers. A recent survey said there were more than 55,000 private homes and apartments worth US$13.5 billion. The settlers rely on the Israel Defence Force for their security, surrounded as they are by Palestinian towns and villages and many resentful residents.
This is clearly an investment by people confident about their long- term future there. Indeed the rate of population growth in the settlements is higher than in Israel itself. Communities elsewhere in Israel complain that they don’t get the same government financial aid as the West Bank outposts do.
A Palestinian would have to be a supreme optimist to think that he or she has any hope of repossessing now occupied land. Israel has said that claims to East Jerusalem are non-negotiable. Until its annexation, it was the home for thousands of Palestinians. Now it is home for 300,000 Jewish residents.
One can ask why, if Israel genuinely aspires to peace, it aggravates its neighbour by building so much on disputed land when it has five times as much undisputed land. The fact is that the settlements represent frontline security for Israel. In addition, many settlers are religious fanatics who believe the land was selected by God for them, the chosen people. Try negotiating on that basis!
Leftist sympathies for the Palestinian cause in previous governments have all but vanished as Israelis, mindful of suicide bombings in recent years and increasingly distrustful of Palestinians, move to the Right in their electoral preferences. The current and recent coalition governments have depended on small Jewish nationalist parties to survive.
A long-time Jewish foreign correspondent based in Israel told me that most Israelis could not care less about the Palestinians. What’s more, he said, ‘settling the land God gave the Jews, expanding the borders, is an unspoken priority for all Israeli governments’.
A few years ago, a Palestinian friend, who was born in Israel and speaks Hebrew better than most Jews, told me how she and her family now had a new address at a place near Jerusalem. Innocently, I asked if both Jews and Palestinians lived there. She looked at me in disbelief. ‘Of course not’, she said. ‘Why would you ask such a question?’
Some things in the Middle East will never change.
As a postscript, I would add that I was at the birth of this never-ending story, covering the Six-Day War as a young journalist. I recall driving from Tel Aviv and reaching the brow of the hill. There before me, across the valley on the ridge, were scores of whitewashed homes bathed in the afternoon light. It was like a Biblical scene. It was in fact Jerusalem. The only concession to the 20th century was the outline of the Hilton Hotel. Five years later I returned and was shocked to discover the ridge dominated by tall tv aerials and modern architectural eyesores having muscled in among those whitewashed homes. The expansion of the Jewish presence was under way.
John Tulloh had a 40-year career in foreign news, including 15 as the ABC’s first international editor for television news and current affairs.