September witnessed the resumption of direct talks between Israel and the Palestinians after a 19-month hiatus, inspired and launched by US President Barack Obama. The encounter in Washington led Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to agree to hold fortnightly meetings, with the goal of a hoped for final peace agreement within a year. Subsequent meetings occurred at Sharm el-Sheikh on Sept. 14 and in Jerusalem days later.
While there are several factors militating against any peace breakthrough, there are also grounds for cautious optimism that at least some progress may emerge.
On the negative side, Abbas was essentially dragged to the table under pressure – despite a previous 18 years of near continuous Israeli-Palestinian direct engagement. He continues to insist that not only must Israel’s unprecedented 10-month freeze on new residential construction in settlements be extended past its scheduled expiration at the end of September, it must also be expanded to cover east Jerusalem. Otherwise, he threatens a pull-out from the talks.
Abbas’ ability to make a final deal stick is also in doubt. He certainly cannot claim to make commitments on behalf of the Palestinians of Gaza, under control of rejectionist Iranian-backed terror organisation Hamas. But even in the West Bank, Abbas’ ability to bring the population with him is unclear.
Firstly, his original term in office expired last year, and thanks to the split with Hamas, no new elections have been held.
Second, the Palestinian leadership and official media have done almost nothing to convince Palestinians that peace will require compromise or to promote the benefits of a peace based on mutual concessions.
On the Israeli side, Netanyahu’s current coalition is dependent in part on conservative parties, as well as on the left-leaning Labor party. Furthermore, while Netanyahu has consistently stated his support for a two-state resolution, most commentators do not expect him to be willing to agree to all of the far-reaching concessions offered for peace by his predecessor, Ehud Olmert, in 2008 – and even that offer was rejected as insufficient by the Palestinian leadership.
On the other hand, Netanyahu, unlike most recent Israeli leaders, is politically strong – with high public approval and no serious challenge to his leadership. Moreover, contrary to portrayals in the international media, he has not acted hawkishly. Indeed, Aluf Benn, a left-leaning senior Israeli political journalist and no fan of Netanyahu, recently described the current government as “the most dovish since Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination 15 years ago.”
The looming expiration of the settlement building freeze poses a dilemma for Netanyahu. While politically he cannot deliver the complete cessation of all building over the 1949 armistice lines the Palestinians are demanding, he can probably limit building to the settlement blocs most observers expect Israeli will keep, as part of land swaps, in any final peace. Given this type of building cannot conceivably affect the viability of a future Palestinian state, such a moratorium should be an acceptable offer. If Abbas wants peace, he will accept this proposition. If he walks away, it will suggest he was looking for an excuse to do so.
The expiration of the moratorium presents Obama with an opportunity to change bad habits of the past. When the issue of the settlements came up previously, Obama’s hardline attitude toward Israel – “not one brick more” – forced Abbas to take a similar line, resulting in no peace talks for a year and a half.
If Obama is pragmatic on this issue, while at the same time focussing talks with Palestinians on what the final borders will look like, any sting Abbas feels from the settlement issue will be soothed.
Despite the increasing violence from Hamas and other rejectionists, and concern Abbas might pull out of the talks, there is still reason to be cautiously positive about the Palestinian side. We have witnessed a dramatic drop in terrorist attacks against Israel, since the Palestinian Authority recommenced security co-operation with Israel in the West Bank following the Hamas coup in Gaza in 2007. As a consequence, road blocks and security checkpoints across the West Bank have been progressively lifted by Israel, enabling greater Palestinian freedom of movement. This has had the additional benefit of significantly improving the Palestinian economy. When combined with the actions of interim Palestinian PM and ex-World Bank official Salam Fayyad, who has dramatically reduced Palestinian corruption and built much needed infrastructure throughout the West Bank, the past few years have seen the West Bank prospering economically.
Hopefully, it has been demonstrated to Palestinians that when they pursue peace with Israel, their economy, freedom of movement and wellbeing improve rapidly. And, indeed, recent Palestinian polls show increasing openness to compromise (see pp. 17-18). Meanwhile, Israelis can today have some confidence that PA security can act more effectively to prevent anti-Israel terror.
Admittedly, it is hard to envisage a deal on all the elements of what a final peace would require – especially Jerusalem, refugees, and recognition of Israel as the state of the Jewish people. On the other hand, some sort of incremental agreement on West Bank borders and security arrangements looks plausible, according to most experts.
The key to a more optimistic outlook on the renewed talks is for the parties and Washington to exploit the positives. The talks cannot be an all-or-nothing effort to reach a final deal – they must break the problem up into “bite-size pieces”. For instance, there are certainly synergies between Netanyahu’s ideas about building peace “from the bottom up”, Fayyad’s efforts at state-building and the 2003 roadmap for peace identifying a transitional stage involving a “Palestinian state with provisional borders”.
Despite the formidable obstacles, there is a great deal that can be discussed constructively – provided the mistakes of the past are not repeated and ambition does not run ahead of a balanced, realistic assessment of the needs and limitations of both parties.