The process will resume, but why

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sraeli-Palestinian final status talks will be renewed because the international community–particularly the United States but also the moderate Arab states–wants this to happen. Probably sooner rather than later a formula will be found for sitting the two sides’ negotiating teams down with US envoy George Mitchell.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, currently the reluctant partner, will bow to the American and Arab will once he has extracted maximum preliminary concessions from Israeli PM Binyamin Netanyahu and US President Barack Obama. And Netanyahu obviously concluded some time ago that entering final status negotiations was the best way to avoid isolation: to maintain close Israeli-American strategic coordination regarding Iran as well as a modicum of coordination with Egypt and the moderate Arab bloc while keeping most of the Israeli public behind him.

The real question should be not whether the talks will be renewed, but rather, why? Why do the US, Egypt and Saudi Arabia want negotiations to resume when they are doomed to failure and when failure, meaning a new crisis, could significantly worsen the situation? Why insist on negotiations rather than face up to the strategic realities?

The first and most obvious of these is the three-state reality. There is little near-term prospect that Abbas will succeed in bringing Gaza and Hamas back into the fold of a single Palestinian partner for Israel. Hence he can negotiate only on behalf of the West Bank. But Gaza won’t go away: Hamas can easily sabotage an Abbas-Netanyahu peace process with a few sustained rocket barrages, while neither Egypt nor Israel appears to have a viable strategy for dealing with it.

The second reality is that, when he does negotiate, Abbas is certain to table a set of demands on issues like refugees, Jerusalem and borders that Netanyahu cannot and will not meet. Back in late 2008, then-PM Ehud Olmert’s very far-reaching proposals for final status were turned down by Abbas; Netanyahu is hardly likely to match even that abortive peace plan.

The third reality is that the Palestinians are currently embarked on their most, indeed only, successful state-building enterprise since the Oslo process began in 1993, and it is largely a unilateral process: building, with international help, security, economic and governance institutions on the West Bank. In the course of the past year, we have seen that negotiations–particularly frustrating and fruitless negotiations–are not necessary to sustain a positive state-building process that in fact dovetails to some extent with Netanyahu’s "economic peace" approach. This is especially so, given that the state-building process is spearheaded by PM Salam Fayyad, an independent, while negotiations would be with the PLO, which doesn’t represent Fayyad.

The fourth reality is that Netanyahu is hardly an enthusiastic candidate for negotiating a two-state solution. Ehud Olmert was eager and generous in his proposals, for all the good it did him. Netanyahu has grudgingly embraced the two-state solution and will offer no concessions on Jerusalem. His governing coalition has numerous strong ties to the settler movement. And he is offering little of substance to persuade Kadima to join him in a more moderate coalition. He seems to be counting on the Palestinians to disappoint everyone; or on the Americans to become so deeply embroiled elsewhere in the region that they’ll abandon the process; or on his own limitless aspiration to manipulate everyone all of the time. Netanyahu is the quintessential politician who lives from day to day: every day celebrated without getting hopelessly entangled in a peace process that damages his welcome in Washington and with his own constituency is a victory; nothing else is important.

So if final status talks, once renewed, have little prospect of success, where might the efforts of supporters of the process be invested with a better chance of success? Certainly, backing the state-building efforts of PM Fayyad is one area of endeavor. Regardless of whether the end-result is a unilateral, bilateral or multilateral process, without a functioning Palestinian state apparatus there can be no two-state solution. Another worthwhile direction is to work out a better form of coexistence between Gaza and its neighbors, Egypt and Israel, one that generates enough stability to reduce the likelihood that Hamas will spoil the emergence of a state on the West Bank.

Finally, renewal of the peace process between Israel and Syria deserves more and better attention from the US and the moderate Arab states. Unlike in the Palestinian arena, here the parameters of a process are clear, most of the negotiating has already been done and Syrian President Bashar Assad is able to deliver. Obviously, success in the Israeli-Syrian arena is not guaranteed. But if achieved it would reduce Iran’s regional influence and weaken Hamas, thereby improving the chances for fruitful Israeli-Palestinian negotiations–when circumstances are more favorable than today.

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