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Phyllis Bennis and Shir Hever discuss the timing of the talks, U.S and European interests in resuming them, and the imbalanced power between the negotiating sides

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JAISAL NOOR, TRNN PRODUCER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Jaisal Noor in Baltimore.

The Israeli and Palestinian governments have resumed direct peace talks for the first time in more than three years.

Now joining us to give us an update about these latest developments are Shir Hever. He’s an economist studying the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories for the Alternative Information Center, a joint Palestinian-Israeli organization dedicated to publishing alternative information and analysis. And Phyllis Bennis. She’s a fellow and the director of the New Internationalism Project at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, D.C. She’s the author of the books Before and After: U.S. Foreign Policy and the War on Terrorism, Understanding the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict: A Primer.

Thank you so much for joining us. And let’s start with Phyllis.

So direct peace talks have resumed, but Israel has not indicated it’s willing to really negotiate on the major issues, including the borders and the more than 600,000 Israeli settlers that are living in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem. Why now? Why restart these talks now?

PHYLLIS BENNIS, FELLOW, INSTITUTE FOR POLICY STUDIES: I think for the Obama administration this has an awful lot to do with the crisis bubbling up everywhere else in the region, the fact that the U.S. does not have a viable strategy to deal with the escalating civil war and regional war in Syria. It has failed to deal sufficiently with the political crisis in Egypt since the military’s coup d’état, despite the fact that the U.S. is the main backer of the Egyptian military. All of these are part of a failure of U.S. strategy, the widening sectarian gap that’s emerging across the region. In all of these ways, the U.S. has shown itself to be weak and unable to respond.

In that context, I think that there is a concern in the administration that they do something that will look like they’re playing a major role, they’re still a power to be reckoned with, and they will reassure Israel’s backers, obviously a key domestic constituency, that the U.S. remains committed to Israel above all.

In that context, they announced the resumption of talks that are no different than the last 22 years of failed diplomacy. We’re about to go into 23 years of failed diplomacy, and I don’t think it’s going to look any different than the first 22 failures.

NOOR: And, Shir Hever, you take a slightly different view on why these talks have resumed. Especially you argue that they have resumed in response to moves by the E.U. to put pressure on Israeli companies doing work in the West Bank.

SHIR HEVER, ECONOMIST, ALTERNATIVE INFORMATION CENTER: Yeah. I agree completely with Phyllis’s analysis, except for the conclusion, because I think that the United States has been trying to resume negotiations. Kerry has been doing a lot of work trying to get their negotiations to resume. But he hasn’t offered anything new.

And the timing of the negotiations is very critical here, because the Israeli government is actually the one that changed their mind. The Palestinian government were very clear that they refused to get back to the negotiating table unless Israel will freeze construction in the colonies. The Israeli government has completely disagreed with this condition. And now the Israeli government has actually made a sort of unofficial admission that they are going to freeze this construction and release Palestinian prisoners in order to get back to the talks.

And the change of mind in the Israeli government happened one day exactly after the European Union announced their change of policy. This is something that was a big surprise in the Israeli government. The Israeli government has always hoped that they could buy more time by pretending to want to continue negotiations but not actually agreeing to the very basic preconditions that Palestinians have demanded.

Inside the Israeli government and in the Israeli political discourse there is a kind of formula: as long as negotiations continue, as long as Israel shows its willingness to continue the peace process, that should be enough to get the international community content about the continued occupation, the continued apartheid and colonization of Palestinians. So that means that as long as the negotiations, the talks go on, there’s no reason for the European Union, for example, to put these sanctions.

So what the Israeli government said as soon as the European sanctions were announced is this comes at a bad time, because we were just going to resume negotiations, and why are you coming with these sanctions now. But, of course, they immediately went on to prove the opposite. They proved that without the threat of sanctions, Israel has no reason to make any kind of compromise. And the European Union has actually–did more to get the negotiations to resume than Kerry, although that doesn’t mean that these negotiations are going to solve everything. We shouldn’t look at the negotiations as the holy grail. But if we want to understand why the sudden change of opinion, I think we have to look at the European decision.

NOOR: So, Phyllis, what’s your response? How much impact to you think the E.U.’s moves are making on Israel?

BENNIS: I think they’re very important, and I really agree with everything that Shir said. We can disagree about which part was key to the timing, but ultimately that’s not what’s important. What’s important are: are these talks any different than before? I would say no. I would say this round of talks should perhaps be named for–as the Einstein talks, you know, the Einstein statement about the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different outcome. That’s what we’re seeing here. We’re doing the same thing over and over again–it’s been 22 years; now it’ll be 23–and expecting a different outcome.

I think that Secretary of State Kerry made that point very clearly yesterday when he was announcing the end of this first initial session of the talks and he described very clearly what is the U.S. goal for the talks. He said it’s ending the conflict, ending the claims, period, full stop, not ending the occupation, not ending apartheid, not ending the siege of Gaza, not ending the denial of the right of return, not ending the apartheid wall, not ending the theft of land and water. None of these things are on the agenda. International law is off the table.

And, as Shir said, I think it’s absolutely right that the talks become a substitute for international law. As long as we’re not going to have international law, we’ll have peace talks and we’ll say that should be enough. So when you talk about ending the conflict, what you’re saying is we want to stop the turmoil, we want things to calm down.

And if you imagine, you know, if today all of the violence that is happening at any given moment, which isn’t very much at the moment, but if there were, if it all stopped, what would that mean for Israelis? Israel is the 27th wealthiest country in the world. Its passports are good everywhere. Its people travel all over, are recognized, have a high, very powerful standard of living, the only nuclear power, nuclear weapons power in the region, the fourth most powerful military in the world. Israelis are doing pretty good. If they didn’t have to worry about little bits and pieces of conflict, as Kerry said, things for them would be perfect.

For the Palestinians, imagine an end right this minute to any violence, and what we see is the Palestinians in the West Bank are still living under occupation, in isolated bantustans divided from each other, separated from each other by the wall, by checkpoints, by closures. The whole position of Palestinians, Palestinian refugees would remain in their countries of exile. They still wouldn’t be able to go back. So the idea that ending the conflict should be the goal really means that you have no intention of changing the situation for the occupied population.

This is a scenario, as we’ve seen before, where, for the United States, they bring together the occupying power, one of the most powerful countries in the world, backed unequivocally and uncritically by the United States, and they sit across the table from the Palestinians, a stateless, dispossessed, disempowered, and impoverished population with no military, no control of their own borders, no control of their own airspace, no control of their own waters, and are expected to negotiate as if they were equals. The occupied and the occupier have very different obligations under international law. This new set of talks, just like those that preceded it, don’t recognize that. They act as if the occupied and the occupier are equal.

NOOR: So I’ll put this question to Shir and then to Phyllis. Some analysts have suggested that the Palestinian Authority is so weak right now that it may, during these talks, offer some serious concessions to Israel in regards to the land swaps that have been proposed, as a way to come to some type of permanent peace treaty, come to a two-state solution. And can you also comment on the U.S. special envoy, Martin Indyk, the former U.S. ambassador to Israel who has close ties to the Israel lobby?

HEVER: I would say first of all that the way that–picking up from the last point made by Phyllis, the negotiations are imbalanced in power. And that’s the key to understanding what’s going on. And the Palestinian government is indeed very weak, not just because of the division between the West Bank and Gaza; also because it doesn’t really represent the entire Palestinian people. It cannot represent the Palestinian citizens inside Israel and the Palestinian diaspora around the world.

But what Israel demands and what Kerry also wants to put on the table is an end to the demands. That means that Palestinians will actually–are expected to fulfill their national aspirations and all of the various elements that this struggle for freedom and for self-determination is about within the framework of these negotiations when they’re only represented by the government which hasn’t actually been elected in democratic elections. So of course this puts the Palestinian government in a very difficult position, which I think also shows to a great extent why the European sanctions are so important, because for the first time they are threatening to put–not to straighten the playing field, not to end the imbalance between the power, but to put also some kind of stick, not just carrot, when it comes to putting influence on Israel.

But, of course, these negotiations are held under the auspices of the United States. The United States continues to give Israel $3 billion every year in the form of weaponry. Much of that weaponry is actually used against the Palestinians. The U.S. is not giving the Palestinian government a fraction of this amount. And that means that the United States is clearly biased towards Israel and is trying to get out of the way Palestinians’ completely legitimate demands to recognize and implement the right of return of Palestinian refugees, the sole implementation of the ’67 borders, which means the removal of the illegal colonies, and all of the elements which are required to establish a sovereign state.

Netanyahu said very clearly that his idea of a Palestinian state is a demilitarized state in which the colonies remain in place or most of them remain in place; Palestinian refugees will not be allowed to get to return. So there is always a possibility that under extreme pressure the Palestinian government will make some unacceptable concessions. But without public support from the Palestinian people, again we get back to this problem that these negotiations are just a show, a theater. But if people don’t really support the result of these negotiations, they will just be words on paper.

NOOR: Phyllis Bennis, your final thoughts.

BENNIS: You know, I think that what we’re seeing here is an effort by the United States to somewhat divert attention from the other crises in the region to make the claim that we are back on track, we’re back negotiating, as if simply talking was a solution in its own right.

The irony is that in this scenario, in this new round of talks, Secretary of State Kerry indicated that he was basing these talks on the 2002 Arab peace initiative, which at the time Israel rejected and the United States simply ignored. It’s ironic that now that’s being used as an excuse to say these are different, this is going to be a different route of talks, the Einstein theory shouldn’t apply.

But the problem is, of course, that the U.S. and Israel have jointly sucked all of the potential out of the Arab peace initiative, which basically said that the Arab states in the region would finally move towards full normalization in terms of trade, in terms of tourism, people, all those things, diplomatic relations, following the full withdrawal–that was the term that was the term that was used–full withdrawal of Israel from the occupied territories–all of the West Bank, all of Gaza, and all of East Jerusalem–and a just solution to the refugee crisis based on UN Resolution 194, which guarantees the right to return.

The U.S. position now is, well, we’ve made just a small tweaking. We won’t talk about refugees at all. And you can be sure that we will not hear the words 194 anywhere in these negotiations. And on the question of withdrawal, we will change it to the favored U.S.-Israeli line, which is two-state solution with swaps. They say it as if it’s all one word. The swaps mean that Israel, as Shir said earlier, Israel will be allowed to keep the vast majority of its 600-plus thousand settlers, illegal settlers in the West Bank and occupied East Jerusalem. The major settlement blocks, the city-sized settlements that are real cities in the West Bank, Israeli-Jews-only settlements that are the size of cities, 30,000, 40,000, 50,000 people, they will remain. The apartheid wall will become essentially the borders of a Palestinian statelet which will not have access to control of its own borders, will not have control over who enters and exit, will not have control over its own economy, will not have control over its airspace, over its water, over its land, over anything. But we will call it a state. We’ll give them passports and postage stamps and go back to the second part of what Kerry said is his goal, an end to the claims, meaning any Palestinian claim after this agreement will be considered almost a form of terrorism.

So that’s what we’re faced with here. These talks are going to fail just like the 22 years of talks failed before them. This is indeed an Einstein theory. They’re doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. There’s not going to be a different result.

NOOR: So, Shir Hever, let’s give you the final word.

HEVER: We should pay special attention to the decision of the Israeli Ministry of Defense, which announced that they are going to prevent European projects from assisting Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza in retaliation to those sanctions imposed by the European Union on Israel’s occupation. This is something very important, because ever since 2008, there’s been a wave of Jewish-Israeli terrorism, which is called price tagprice tag. And what they basically say is that if the Israeli government is going to make any concessions towards the Palestinians like release prisoners or slow down the colony construction, they are going to attack Palestinians. So they’ll vent their anger and violence against Palestinians in order to put pressure on the Israeli government, as if the Israeli government really cares about Palestinians.

Now what the Israeli Ministry of Defense is doing is adopting this exact concept from these terror organizations of price tag. The European Union has made a decision that Israel is not happy about, and they’re going to punish Palestinians for it. And because Palestinians are very dependent on international aid, their economy is strangled by Israel–Gaza especially is the most aid-dependent area in the world because Israel doesn’t allow any exports from Gaza, almost anything, and severely restricts imports into Gaza. So these aid projects keep the population alive.

Now the Israeli government has already started–and we’ve seen some evidence from these project managers on the ground saying that the Israeli army is starting to prevent them from fulfilling these projects, from giving the food or infrastructure to people who need it to survive.

Now, it should be stressed very clearly that in fact the fact that European donors–not just European, but Europe is the biggest donor–are spending all this money to sustain the Palestinian population is actually a gift to Israel, because as the occupier, like Phyllis said before, Israel has the responsibility to the occupied population. The Palestinians’ standard of living or their basic access to jobs, to food, is something that Israel has to provide as long as it occupies this population. And Israel doesn’t provide it. The European Union decided to provided on Israel’s behalf. Now Israel is sabotaging this aid. And this sabotage is going to be very dangerous, because it could really blow up the situation on the ground. It could cause a lot of Palestinians to lose their access to their livelihood.

What’s interesting is that the European Union is actually not responding to Israel’s decision so far. And I would expect the European Union at the very least to cancel all of their trade benefits to Israel if they’re going to use the Palestinians as hostages.

NOOR: Phyllis Bennis and Shir Hever, thank you so much, both, for joining us.

BENNIS: Thank you.

HEVER: Thank you.

NOOR: Thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.


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Dr. Shir Hever grew up in Israel and now lives in Germany. He has been reporting on Israel/Palestine stories for 16 years, and for the Real News specifically since 2016. He’s the author of two books and many articles, and is a committed member of several Palestine solidarity groups.

Phyllis Bennis is a Fellow and the Director of the New Internationalism Project at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington DC.  Her books include Understanding ISIS & the New Global War on Terror, and the latest updated edition of Understanding the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict: A Primer.