At best, a year of reassessment

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The year 2012 will almost certainly not witness any progress toward agreement between Israelis and Palestinians. We’ll be lucky if there is no serious backsliding in the form of violence or formal withdrawal from negotiating frameworks. Meanwhile, however, we can and should be making good use of this year to reassess the entire peace process and find ways to reconstitute it in a more useful format.

There are multiple reasons for a pessimistic prognosis regarding the year ahead.

First and foremost, neither the Netanyahu government in Israel nor the Palestine Liberation Organization under Mahmoud Abbas is interested in pursuing a final status agreement under the Oslo framework, with all the concessions this would entail. Netanyahu’s coalition does not want to give up the West Bank and East Jerusalem. On the contrary, it is exploiting this US election year to expand settlements. Abbas and the PLO cannot give up the right of return or recognize Jewish historical and religious rights on the Temple Mount. As long as Oslo with its "nothing is agreed until everything is agreed" credo is the official basis for negotiations, these two leaders are not candidates for an agreement.

Then there are internal political factors. Netanyahu is contemplating elections in 2012 in order to fortify his status in the event US President Barack Obama is reelected. Abbas has agreed to an Egyptian-sponsored reconciliation process with Hamas that could lead to new Palestinian elections and major changes in the Palestinian political alignment, with Hamas in some way joining the PLO–hardly a congenial backdrop for serious peace negotiations based on the Oslo framework.

Mention of an Egyptian role introduces the external Arab political scene. Unfinished revolutions in Egypt and Syria and unrest in Jordan pose the prospect of Israel being surrounded by regimes based on political Islam. This in turn is unfortunately understood by Netanyahu as a mandate for caution rather than initiative. For his part, Abbas seemingly fears he may remain the only secular ruler in the neighborhood, hence his drive to accommodate Hamas.

Moving to the international scene, Obama has clearly decided to place the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on the back burner until after America’s November elections, lest risk-taking and failure in the Middle East hurt his reelection chances. The Europeans, while definitely not in danger of becoming irrelevant as Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman threatened, are nevertheless divided and preoccupied with their financial crisis.

If there is little or no chance of a peace process in 2012, what can we do to ensure a better prospect for 2013 and beyond? After more than 18 years of the Oslo process and two attempts at the summit level (Camp David in 2000 and Olmert-Abbas in 2008) to resolve all final status issues, this year offers a good opportunity to reassess where the process went wrong or was misconceived and to formulate a more useful paradigm for the future.

Whether intentionally or not, Abbas has shown us a possible way forward by turning to the United Nations. The PLO’s UN initiative seeks recognition of the territorial and sovereign components of a Palestinian state–the "1967 issues" of contention. In so doing, it relegates the pre-1967 issues, the right of return and holy places, which have proven much more difficult to solve, to later negotiation between a Palestinian state and Israel. Accordingly, the UN initiative breaks the Oslo mold in two ways.

First, no longer is nothing agreed until everything is agreed. Now, a partial, territorial settlement becomes possible. And second, the PLO UN initiative, by creating a Palestinian state, moves the conflict and its resolution to a state-to-state basis, where it should be easier to resolve and less dangerous even if the pre-1967 issues remain unresolved. When Abbas or his successor returns to the negotiating table as president of a state of Palestine whose territory and population are clearly defined rather than as chairman of the PLO with its large diaspora constituency, the conflict should be easier to manage, to the benefit of both sides.

Undoubtedly, additional and alternative lessons can also be gleaned from a serious reassessment of nearly two decades of Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts. But equally as important as the need for a fundamental reassessment is the question of who engages in it and who can benefit from it. Here again, we can expect little from either Netanyahu or Abbas in the months ahead. Nor are our Arab neighbors, Egypt and Jordan, in a position to do much more than initiate, respectively, Palestinian reconciliation talks in Cairo and sterile "pre-negotiation" talks in Amman.

Only in Washington can a reassessment of the Oslo process, its failings and the lessons to be learned have potentially serious influence–if it is directed at the next administration. Washington will then still have to deal with problematic Israeli and Palestinian leaders and political realities. But it could have a better chance to register progress and move us away from a bi-national disaster.

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