Have the Palestinian-Israeli peace talks reached a 'dead end?'

Editor's Note:

In the book Life and Death in the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict, journalist Ma Xiaolin recorded a question raised by a Palestinian man during a protest on May 4, 1999: "The May 4 has arrived, but where is our country? Tell me, where is Palestine?" According to the Oslo Accords signed between the Palestinian Liberation Organization and Israel, this date was meant to herald the end of a five-year transitional autonomy period and the achievement of Palestinian independence. However, this dream has remained elusive. The negotiations between the Palestinians and Israelis have long been at a standstill, resulting in a deadlocked peace process. Why is it so difficult for both sides to make concessions? How have internal conflicts and competition hindered the peace talks?

Failure of Oslo Accords

The Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) was established in 1964. The most powerful and influential faction within the PLO has been the Palestinian National Liberation Movement (Fatah). The PLO's founding aim was to liberate the entire Palestine amid a struggle with Israel, but due to changing regional and international circumstances, as well as consecutive defeats in the first four Middle East wars, the organization gradually abandoned this goal and, instead, sought a political solution to the Palestinian issue. In 1974, it was recognized as the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people at the Arab League Summit.

In November 1988, the PLO issued the "Declaration of Independence," announcing the formal establishment of the State of Palestine with Jerusalem as its capital. However, at the same time, they also recognized several resolutions, including the 1947 United Nations Partition Plan, indirectly acknowledging Israel's right to exist and accepting the two-state solution to resolve the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

However, in December 1987, an Israeli truck driver entered the Gaza Strip and caused the deaths of four Palestinians. This incident sparked the first mass Palestinian uprising and led to the formation of armed organizations such as Hamas and the Islamic Jihad.

Under the mediation of the international community, the PLO and the Israeli government signed the Declaration of Principles on Interim Self-Government Arrangements, also known as the Oslo Accords, in 1993. They later signed several agreements including the Gaza-Jericho Agreement. The "Oslo model," therefore, gradually emerged as a way to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The PLO recognized Israel's right to exist, and Israel recognized the PLO as the representative of the Palestinian people. Both sides embarked on the Oslo peace process, with the core "land for peace" principle.

The signing of the Oslo Accords sparked a wave of optimism in Israel and the Middle East, leading to a thawing of relations between Israel and some Arab countries, achieving some initial progress in the pursuit of peace. The Palestinian Authority was established in 1994 as an interim government, implementing phased limited autonomy in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. The Israel Defense Forces also withdrew from most of the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. The then Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat, former Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, and former Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres jointly won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1994 for their efforts.

However, many Palestinians were dissatisfied with the Oslo Accords as they believed that the agreement did not grant them statehood, but rather provided for a phased autonomy for a vague Palestinian entity. The right-wing in Israel was also opposed to the establishment of a Palestinian state. In order to obstruct the peace process, a Jewish extremist massacred 29 Palestinians in Hebron in 1994.

On November 4, 1995, the then Israeli prime minister and leader of the left-wing Labor Party, Yitzhak Rabin, was assassinated by a fanatic Israeli Jew. Some analysts argue that Rabin was the only figure with enough influence to rally public support for the peace process. However, others pointed out that although the Israeli left-wing agreed to the establishment of a Palestinian state, their vision of a Palestinian nation was one far from being a fully sovereign state and was largely focused on civil governance.

The timetable for the final status negotiations between Palestine and Israel was already outlined in the Oslo Accords, but it was not until September 1999 that the negotiations officially began. Due to the complex nature of the issues involved, such as national, sovereignty, security, economic, and religious disputes, it was difficult for either party to make concessions.

Additionally, the negotiations faced obstacles from extremist forces and frequent changes in the political landscape. In July 2000, the Camp David Summit between Palestine and Israel ended in failure. Just two months later, amid heightened tensions in Israeli-Palestinian relations, Ariel Sharon the leader of Israel's right-wing Likud party, made a forceful visit to the Al-Aqsa Mosque, leading to a large-scale armed conflict and the Palestinian people launching a second uprising.

Since then, peace talks have repeatedly resumed and stalled, rendering the Oslo Peace Process virtually defunct. The international community has proposed solutions such as the "Arab Peace Initiative" and the "Roadmap for Peace in the Middle East," but none have successfully been implemented.

Refugees after building separation barrier

Jerusalem, a holy city in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, has had a tumultuous history. Due to its unique status, the United Nations (UN) once designated Jerusalem as a separate entity under a special international regime administered by the UN. In the first Arab-Israeli war in 1948, Jerusalem was divided, with East Jerusalem, including the Old City, coming under the control of Transjordan (now Jordan), and West Jerusalem under Israeli control. However, after the third Arab-Israeli war in 1967, East Jerusalem also came under Israeli control.

By then, Israel had gained a strategic advantage over the Arab camp, and the influence of the "Greater Israel" ideology was gradually expanding. There were also significant differences between Israelis and Palestinians regarding the status of Jerusalem. In 1980, Israel declared Jerusalem as its eternal and indivisible capital, but this declaration was rejected by a United Nations Security Council resolution that same year. Currently, most countries have their embassies in Tel Aviv rather than Jerusalem. To ensure control of East Jerusalem, Israel implemented a policy of "de-Arabization" in the region, continuously eradicating Arab elements and restricting the residency rights of Arab residents. Additionally, Israel began promoting the establishment of Jewish settlements and the construction of a separation wall in the area to reinforce its Jewish character.

Land is a key point of contention between Palestine and Israel, and the expansion of Jewish settlements is a major method used by Israel to occupy land, divide Palestinian territory, control water resources, and expand defense depth. Jewish settlements are closed military zones. Palestinians are not allowed to enter without special permission. There is a modern road network connecting various Jewish settlements and cities in Israel. These roads generally bypass Palestinian villages, and are often restricted to Palestinians, thus dividing the Palestinian-controlled areas into isolated islands. The two largest of these areas are the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

While occupying land, Israel has also implemented a security barrier plan. The barrier, approximately 8 meters high and 700 kilometers long, consists of fences, ditches, barbed wire, electronic surveillance systems, and patrol roads. The separation wall was originally earmarked for construction along the 1967 armistice line (the "Green Line") to separate Palestinian areas from Israel. However, the actual construction of the separation wall extends into Palestinian territory, sectioning off 9.4 percent of the West Bank for the Israeli side, and nearly 25,000 Palestinians are forced to live in a closed area between the "Green Line" and the separation wall.

During the 1996 elections, due to concerns over "Palestinian extremists conducting terrorist attacks" and disappointment with the peace process advocated by the Labor Party government, the Israeli people voted for the Likud, which pursued a hardline policy. During Likud's tenure, the trend of advocating for the annexation of the West Bank and opposing Palestinian statehood increasingly became a political practice in Israel. Since his return to power in 2009, Benjamin Netanyahu has taken a tougher stance on the Palestinian issue. In February 2017, the Israeli parliament passed a controversial bill legalizing all unauthorized Jewish settlements in the West Bank.

At the same time, the Palestinian refugee issue presented another challenge in the final status negotiations between Israel and Palestine. After the first Arab-Israeli war, a large number of Palestinian Arabs were displaced and became refugees. The initial generation of Palestinian refugees dates back many years and, and many of the original refugees are now in their fifth generation. By 2016, the number of registered Palestinian refugees with the UN had reached 5.9 million. The Palestinian side believes that Israel should bear the primary responsibility for the refugee issue and advocates for the right of all refugees to return to Palestine. However, Israel denies this claim and, in order to maintain the Jewish character of the state, does not recognize the right of Palestinian refugees to return and instead advocates for their local resettlement. Israel also controls the borders of Palestine and even prohibits refugees from entering the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and does not issue them entry visas.

Numerous internal contradictions within Palestine

In addition to the major differences between Palestine and Israel on issues such as the status of Jerusalem, Jewish settlements, border delineation, and Palestinian refugees, there is also a fierce power struggle within the Palestinian territories between secularism represented by the Palestinian Authority and Islamic fundamentalism represented by Hamas. Some analysts believe that the Palestinian national movement is constrained by internal conflicts and is unable to effectively respond to Israel.

Due to the declining influence of the Palestinian Authority, Hamas won the 2006 Palestinian Legislative Council elections and gained the power to form an autonomous government. Hamas' position on key issues such as the nature of the Palestinian state, its attitude toward Israel, and internal power distribution are in stark contrast to those of the Palestinian Authority.

The Palestinian Authority is committed to establishing a secular, democratic, and pluralistic modern nation-state, while Hamas aims to establish an Islamic state. The Palestinian Authority recognizes Israel and advocates for the establishment of an independent state through negotiations in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. On the other hand, Hamas refuses to recognize the legitimacy of any Jewish state, opposes negotiations, and insists on using armed struggle to eliminate Israel and establish a state on historic Palestinian land from the Mediterranean Sea to the West Bank of the Jordan River.

The rise of Hamas has changed the political landscape of Palestine. In 2007, a large-scale armed conflict erupted between Hamas and Fatah in the Gaza Strip, resulting in Hamas seizing control of the territory. This division led to Palestine being split into two parts, with Fatah ruling the West Bank of the Jordan River and Hamas controlling the Gaza Strip. Hamas insists that "resistance and holy war" are the only way for Palestine to achieve liberation and independence. They have employed tactics such as tunnel digging to infiltrate Israel and launch attacks on civilians, as well as repeatedly firing rockets into Israeli territory. These acts of violence against civilians have become a serious obstacle to the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and have led the US, the UK, and other countries' designation of Hamas as a terrorist organization.

In response to the extremist violent acts by Hamas and others, Israel has retaliated with military strikes, severely damaging the local socio-economic conditions and caused a severe humanitarian crisis in the Gaza Strip, essentially turning it into "the largest open-air prison in the world." In addition to the discord between Fatah and Hamas, internal conflicts within the Palestinian Authority are also important factors affecting the unity of the Palestinian people. The stagnation of the Palestinian-Israeli peace process, the deterioration of the economic and social living standards, and issues of corruption have undermined the legitimacy of the Palestinian Authority and the authority of the older generation of leaders.

Analysts point out that the Second Intifada, which began in September 2000 as a major Palestinian uprising in the Israeli-occupied Palestinian territories and Israel, indicates that the younger generation of leaders within the Palestinian Authority has started to challenge the older generation of leaders, intensifying power struggles over succession. This infighting weakens the secular nationalist camp, limits the ability of Palestinian leaders to control the situation and negotiate with Israel, and creates conditions for the rise of radical Islamic forces.

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