Middle East

Off the record: Poisoned atmosphere in Mid-East peace efforts

A Palestinian youth throws a stone towards Israeli soldiers standing on the other side of Israel's separation wall 3 June 2011.
Image caption Since the separation barrier went up around the West Bank, Israelis don't have to watch their backs anymore

"If you're going to crucify yourself, don't do it on a small cross." An interesting metaphor particularly when it is addressed to the prime minister of Israel. This advice, I'm told, was from US Vice President Joe Biden to Benjamin Netanyahu.

It was a little while ago, but there's been no sign since of the PM wandering around the Jerusalem forest looking for tall trees.

The message from his speech to the US Congress last month suggested he's not ready for self-sacrifice yet. There were no concessions to US President Barack Obama or the Palestinians.

So, said a senior member of the PLO to me recently: "It's going to be another showdown" when the UN General Assembly meets in September.

There is a lot of diplomatic activity at the moment to persuade Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas not to seek statehood in the autumn.

It's likely that more than two-thirds of the UN General Assembly will recognise a Palestinian state if it goes to a vote.

But a state cannot get actual membership of the UN unless it is approved by the Security Council, and the Americans will veto that.

The Israelis are hoping to at least get the proposal rejected by a majority of the Security Council.

They want - to translate a common Hebrew phrase - to "lose with dignity".

Western 'bluff'

The Palestinian Authority wants a moral victory over what it sees as Israeli intransigence and American capitulation to Israel.

"What we need is recognition," I was told by someone senior in the Palestinian camp, "and there's wrong language that's being presented as though we going to declare statehood all of a sudden, we are not.

"We are going to ask the UN for recognition of Palestinian statehood, so we're going multi-lateral - we're not unilaterally declaring, which we did in 1988.

"We are trying to put ourselves in the community of nations where we are within international law and where our boundaries are defined by the '67 territories and occupied territories including East Jerusalem... and where will have access then to international accountability venues."

Diplomats say the key voters are Germany, France and the UK.

Germany has said no to recognition; France is "on the fence but trending positively" to supporting recognition; the UK is undecided and anyway won't show its hand until the last minute.

The wording of the resolution could be crucial to its support.

The Israeli government thinks this is a bluff.

"France and Britain will use it as a threat rather than an option," I was told.

Obama 'ambush'

But on the ground Israeli military commanders in the West Bank told me they feared a slow deterioration after September if no political solution were on the horizon.

Image caption The US will veto a Palestinian state at the UN

President Obama said in his speech on the Middle East in May that the "international community is tired of an endless process that never produces an outcome".

How tired?

Before the Arab Spring started someone from the "international community" described the conflict as "a competition for victimhood".

He said Mr Netanyahu "doesn't have it in him to be courageous... and he doesn't believe in it." He said the Arab leaders of the time were "huge hypocrites". That tired!

But President Obama hasn't made the process any easier.

His apparently personal decision, late in the day, to include in the May speech a reference to the peace process and in particular a solution based on the 1967 borders infuriated the Israelis.

"We felt like it was an ambush," an Israeli cabinet minister told me. "What seems clear at the moment is that America's most important ally doesn't have a voice in the inner circle.

"We realised, not for the first time, those we speak with like Dennis Ross, Dan Shapiro, [George] Mitchell... and so forth are not in the inner circle.

"The inner circle is very different, different agenda with different understandings."

I asked the minister whether the lack of a good personal relationship between Mr Netanyahu and Mr Obama was making life harder for Israel to make its case.

"You might be right," he said, "but the gaps are so wide - not just between us and the president but between the president and his staff. Mitchell, Dennis Ross, Dan Shapiro they see things very differently."

'Tricks and games'

And what of the Palestinians? They feel betrayed after the hope generated by President Obama's Cairo speech two years ago.

Image caption Arabs "don't hate [Foreign Minister Avigdor] Lieberman, they fear him," a government official said

"Netanyahu is a disaster. Everybody knows that," the PLO member said.

"I don't know how in his right mind he thinks he can deceive everybody all the time - except the Americans, who are willing accomplices. They do want to be deceived.

"But the Europeans don't want to be deceived, so they see through his tricks and games and they know [Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor] Lieberman for the SOB that he is."

"[The Arab world] don't hate him, they fear him," a government official told me. "They fear him the way they feared [former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel] Sharon. They fear Lieberman, they take what he says at face value."

"The level of trust is incredibly low between everyone and anyone," a European diplomat told me this week with masterly understatement. And he saw broad support in Israel for Prime Minister Netanyahu's tough stand.

"There he was going to Washington picking a fight with the US president who is likely to be re-elected... and his poll ratings in Israel shoot up."

The fact is that the status quo in recent years has been quite manageable for every nation and region involved in the process apart from the Palestinians, and the Israelis who live along the border with Gaza.

The same diplomat said he thought that "the Israeli people move on peace when they think it will make them more secure not less secure".

The truth is security is not a big issue for the large majority of Israelis and neither is the peace process.

Since the separation barrier went up around the West Bank, they don't have to watch their backs anymore.

The Arab world is actually only a few kilometres away but this autumn - while the rest of the world turns it sights towards the United Nations building in New York - many Israelis will continue to sit on the beach, look across the Mediterranean and pretend they're in Europe.

This is part of an occasional series of pieces by the BBC's Middle East bureau editor based on off-the-record briefings by officials and decision-makers in the region. Follow Paul Danahar on his Twitter feed.

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