Open Debate on the Middle East— Following Collapse of Peace Talks
Tomorrow (29 April), UN Special Coordinator Robert Serry will brief the Council during its quarterly open debate on the Middle East. His comments will likely focus on the collapse of peace talks between Israel and Palestine. Tomorrow also marks the final day of the nine-month period that the parties committed to direct talks.
Council members will want to hear Serry’s assessment of whether there is any chance to resuscitate the seemingly collapsed talks and the implications of the reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas on such efforts.
The US-brokered negotiations started on 29 July 2013. What began as a nine month timeframe to achieve a comprehensive settlement devolved into a struggle to get the parties to agree to continue talking. There have been very public signals, in talks meant to be confidential, that negotiations have been under consistent and significant strain.
Recent incidents highlight some of the difficulties that arose during the negotiations. In early March, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reiterated demands that Palestine recognise Israel as a Jewish state, a position rejected by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas since the Palestine Liberation Organisation recognised Israel in 1993. Palestinian officials argue that the sole purpose of insisting on recognition of Israel as a Jewish state is to undermine the Palestinian right of return in a final status agreement and that any such recognition would also damage the rights of Palestinian citizens of Israel. A further impasse emerged in late March when Israel refused to release Palestinian prisoners until Abbas agreed to continue talks past the 29 April deadline.
Council members will also likely be keen for an update on the status of the letters Palestine presented on 2 April to accede to 15 international conventions and treaties which should come into force in early May. Palestine deposited 13 letters for accession to international conventions and treaties with the UN. In addition, two letters were also submitted to Switzerland and the Netherlands for accession to the Geneva Conventions and the Hague Convention respectively. The move caused US Secretary of State John Kerry to cancel an upcoming trip to the region. Such moves for recognition have long been opposed by both Israel and the US. That same day, Ambassador Riyad Mansour (Palestine) said Palestine was “exercising its legal right as a state to join those instruments and live up to its international responsibility”.
On 23 April, with less than a week remaining before the end of the US-brokered negotiations, Abbas’ Fatah movement and the Hamas leadership in Gaza reached an agreement to form a unity government. An interim unity government could be formed within five weeks with elections possibly being held early next year. While Hamas-Fatah reconciliation agreements have been reached several times—most notably in Mecca in 2007, Cairo in 2011, and Doha in 2012—each has gone unimplemented. However, this time both Fatah and Hamas have a significant impetus to make this agreement stick. Fatah’s talks with Israel have collapsed and Hamas has become increasingly isolated in Gaza following the military ouster of the Muslim Brotherhood-led government in Egypt on 3 July 2013. Israel responded to the announced agreement by suspending its participation in the already faltering negotiations. Netanyahu accused Abbas of forming an alliance with “a terrorist organisation that calls for the destruction of Israel” and stating that “whoever chooses Hamas does not want peace”.
The day after the announcement, US Secretary of State John Kerry spoke by phone with Abbas who said that a unity government between Fatah and Hamas would renounce violence and recognise the state of Israel. That same day, Kerry admitted that the process had reached “a difficult point”, but he continued to urge Israel and the Palestinians to make the compromises needed to forge ahead with peace talks. Abbas has said he would not resume talks unless Israel agreed to a settlement freeze and honoured its previous commitment to release Palestinian prisoners. Council members are likely to be interested in Serry’s assessment of the longer-term impact of these developments on the talks.
Even prior to the developments over the last two months, few Council members had confidence that the talks would have concluded with a comprehensive settlement. Most only hoped for a continuance of talks that have already spanned two decades. It is too early to ascertain whether the collapse of this round of talks will spur more direct Council involvement in the Middle East Peace Process. At least for now, while the US is trying to find a formula to enable the furtherance of talks, Council activity on this issue is unlikely to break out of its current monthly cycle of the almost liturgical repetition of the importance of a two-state solution.