The Age online – November 13, 2015
Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met with United States President Barack Obama on November 9 following a year of tension between the two leaders, particularly over Netanyahu’s vocal criticism of the Iran nuclear deal. Differences over Iran were largely put aside as the meeting focused on Israel’s security needs and how it will stabilise relations with the Palestinians. Instead of bickering, the leaders emphasised their countries’ shared interests.
Netanyahu reiterated his support for a two-state solution. “I want to make it clear that we have not given up our hope for peace … I remain committed to a vision of peace of two states for two peoples, a demilitarised Palestinian state that recognises the Jewish state.”
After the meeting, however, the White House said it was unlikely that an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal would be achieved, or peace talks renewed, in the remaining 14 months of Obama’s term.
Obama is not the first US president to contemplate making Israeli-Palestinian peace as their legacy, only to end up putting it in the too-hard basket. Most famously, Bill Clinton invested significantly in two-state negotiations, only to have PLO chairman Yasser Arafat reject generous offers to create a Palestinian state, first by then Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak at Camp David and then a subsequent US proposal.
The Obama administration has had to recognise that trying to prevent a slide into intensified Israeli-Palestinian violence appears to be more important at the minute than to pursue an unlikely peace breakthrough.
The Palestinian leadership has repeatedly rejected calls to resume peace talks halted last year, and over the past month Israel has experienced a wave of Palestinian terror attacks that have killed 12 Israelis. Israelis have been stabbed and shot on buses, in shopping centres, and as they walk in their neighbourhoods, and run down at public transport stops by Palestinian drivers, in hundreds of such attacks. About 72 Palestinians have also been killed, including 43 reported assailants, and others killed in violent clashes with Israel’s Defence Forces.
This recent wave of terror attacks must be seen in the context of rampant Palestinian incitement, particularly with regard to conspiracy theories being circulated about Israeli intentions regarding Jerusalem’s Temple Mount/Al-Aqsa mosque compound. Palestinian discontent with their own leadership is also clearly part of the explanation.
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has refused to condemn the stabbing attacks on Israeli civilians and made public statements fuelling the incitement concerning the Temple Mount/Al Aqsa mosque. In September he said, “Every drop of blood spilled in Jerusalem is pure, every martyr will reach paradise, and every injured person will be rewarded by God.” He added, “The Al-Aqsa Mosque is ours … They have no right to desecrate the mosque with their dirty feet.”
Israel has repeatedly said it will not change the Temple Mount status quo – which allows only Muslims to pray at the holy site, while non-Muslims may visit at restricted times – and reached a US-mediated agreement with Jordan two weeks ago to safeguard those arrangements.
Meanwhile, according to a September public opinion poll by the Palestinian Centre for Policy and Survey Research, 57 per cent of Palestinians surveyed support a return to an armed intifada, a sharp rise from a couple of months previously. Yet, according to the same poll, only 28 per cent believe the most serious problem confronting Palestinian society today is the continuation of occupation and settlement activities, while 26 per cent say it is poverty and unemployment; and 24 per cent say it is the spread of corruption. Meanwhile, 65 per cent of Palestinians surveyed demanded Abbas resign.
What has Abbas achieved in his 10 years as President for the Palestinian people? He claims to support a two-state outcome, and yet has twice walked away from peace negotiations with Israel – first from former Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert’s offer in 2008 of a Palestinian state on about 97 per cent of the West Bank and east Jerusalem plus Gaza and land swaps. Then in 2014, the Palestinian Authority decided to discontinue negotiations with Israel and instead join a unity deal with the rejectionist and Islamist Hamas – despite agreement from Israel’s Netanyahu government to accept parameters for peace “in the zone of agreement”, according to US mediators.
Even if Abbas decided to sign a peace deal, he is now 80 years old and considered too weak and unpopular to be able to implement such an agreement. In the absence of reliable Palestinian leadership – which remains divided between Hamas in Gaza, and the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, some commentators suggest Israel should unilaterally withdraw to the pre-1967 lines.
However, Israel tried this in Gaza in 2005 and it has resulted in thousands of unprovoked rocket attacks on Israel, leading to bloody conflicts with Hamas in 2009, 2012 and 2014. Given this experience – the much greater danger to Israel from similar attacks emanating from the West Bank, and the reality that Islamic extremists such as Islamic State are taking advantage of any power vacuum across the region – Israel needs a stable, reliable partner to even contemplate a withdrawal from the West Bank.
Yet polls show a majority of Israelis continue to support a two-state resolution in exchange for peace.
Since that dream currently appears distant, the US is right to refocus on encouraging Israeli and Palestinian leaders to look to interim arrangements that will bring this two-state goal closer.
Sharyn Mittelman is a senior policy analyst at the Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council.