What Comes After the Israeli-Palestinian Peace Process?

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Israeli and Palestinians take part in a rally, calling for Palestinian independence, outside Jaffa Gate in Jerusalem's Old City July 15, 2011. (Photo: Amir Cohen - Reuters)

An Italian philosopher once remarked that moments when “the old is dying and the new cannot be born” are marked by a “great variety of morbid symptoms”. Watching the machinations of the Obama Administration and its allies, the Palestinian leadership and its rivals, and the Israeli government ahead of a planned U.N. vote on Palestinian statehood in September, it appears that which is dying in the Middle East is the peace process. As for the unborn “new” — well, none of the players appears to have the foggiest idea what comes after the peace process. And the morbid symptoms? Those are plain to see: All of the main players are pursuing strategies incapable of yielding their desired results, yet none appears to have anything resembling a Plan B.

Although historians may quibble over the date of its demise, the moment has clearly passed in which it could be reasonably imagined that bilateral negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian leadership will result in an agreement to share the Holy Land by dividing it into two states. Twenty years after the “peace process” began, at the 1991 Madrid Conference called by the first Bush Administration, neither side believes talks between them will resolve the conflict, even if they believe the wider diplomatic context behooves that they profess a willingness to negotiate, if only to blame the other side for the impasse and seek international backing for their own position.

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The frantic but vain efforts of the Obama Administration and the European Union, egged on by Israel and its supporters, to revive talks between the two parties has had a more immediate purpose — to prevent the Palestinians seeking U.N. recognition for a Palestinian state based on Israel’s 1967 borders in September. Of course, U.S. veto power in the Security Council is enough to prevent Palestine being admitted as the 194th member state of the United Nations, but using its veto to nix the wishes of the vast majority of the international community is not a comfortable position for the U.S.

That’s why Washington has with increasing urgency been threatening and cajoling the Palestinian leadership to withdraw the U.N. initiative, insisting that talks with Israel are the only way for the Palestinians to pursue their freedom. It’s a difficult argument to sustain in the face of 20 years of failure, and the current Israeli government’s positions on the terms for peace which are plainly at odds with the international consensus.

Indeed, the U.S. and its allies have failed to agree even among themselves, for the very same reason that talks between Israel and the Palestinians have stalled — the two sides’ bottom lines are simply incompatible. Parameters demanded by the Palestinians are no acceptable to Israel; parameters demanded by Israel are not acceptable to the Palestinians.

Even if the Obama Administration managed to revive talks, now, there’s little reason to believe they’d succeed — or even be sustained beyond a few weeks.

When a key meeting of the Mideast Quartet — the U.S., the European Union, Russia and the U.N. — in Washington nine days ago aimed at setting out parameters for new talks failed to yield any statement at all, the Palestinians took that as a sign that there would be no eleventh-hour pressure on Israel to yield to more of their terms for a two-state peace. And that, in turn, spurred their determination to go to the U.N. — a decision backed on Saturday by the Arab League.

Except, of course, the Palestinian Authority leadership under President Mahmoud Abbas is so existentially tied to the peace process and U.S. diplomatic and financial backing, that it appears unwilling to break decisively with Washington. Rather than court a U.S. veto — which the Obama Administration has promised would be its response to a Security Council bid for membership of the international body — there are growing signs that Abbas may confine the effort to the General Assembly.

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In that body, the U.S. has no veto and such a resolution would pass by an overwhelming margin. That would constitute a moral victory for the Palestinians — and also, in the minds of their leaders, affirm the legitimacy of the Palestinians’ claim to all of the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem as a starting point in any negotiations, regardless of any promises made to the Israelis by the Americans. Still, the  threat by the U.S. Congress to withdraw donor aid to the Palestinian Authority, by far the largest employer in the West Bank, may give further pause when it comes to the wording of what the Palestinians ask of the U.N.

EU foreign policy chief Dame Catherine Ashton has on a number of occasions in recent weeks indicated that the Europeans are unsure of how they will vote in the General Assembly, because they don’t know what they’ll be asked to vote on.

“It will depend very much on what the resolution says as to how the international community in general, and the EU in particular, votes,” she said three weeks ago. “It is quite possible that that there could be a vote at the UN where the European Union has no difficulty in voting for that,”

Given their positions until now, most EU countries would be comfortable voting for a resolution that demanded the creation of a Palestinian state at peace with Israel on its 1967 borders, with agreed upon land swaps, a capital in East Jerusalem and a just and agreed upon solution to the Palestinian refugee issue — even if such language would cause a cadenza in Washington, where Israel’s positions enjoy far greater favor than those of the Palestinians.

But just as Washington appears to be clutching at straws with its efforts to promote new negotiations between parties that simply can’t agree — and the Israelis confine themselves negotiating with Capitol Hill with the aim of relieving diplomatic pressure, even as their government drifts to the right — the Palestinian strategy, also, appears to be heading down a cul-de-sac.

President Abbas seems to imagine he can simply pocket any U.N. vote to strengthen his leverage in negotiations with the U.S. and Israel, still hoping against hope that the peace process to which he has committed his career will yield an acceptable outcome.

Yet, there’s scant reason to believe a U.N. vote opposed by the U.S. would change Israeli calculations or behavior. And those in the Palestinian ranks skeptical of Abbas’ move offer no clear alternative. On the one hand, Prime Minister Salaam Fayyad has warned against confrontation at the U.N., believing his incremental construction of Palestinian administrative — but not political — institutions will be rewarded by the West conferring statehood. But as longtime observers of the peace process Rob Malley and Hussein Agha point out, “Fayyad hopes that … Palestinian accomplishments will provide the momentum for a forceful international effort to resolve all remaining issues. But history is not in the habit of rewarding good behavior; it is a struggle, not a beauty contest.”

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Hamas, for its part, supposedly due to share power with Abbas in a unity government agreed on in principle two months ago but stalled in implementation, is skeptical of the U.N. effort, but has agreed not to oppose it. The Islamists say simply that they believe it won’t get the Palestinians their rights — a point on which they agree with the Israelis and Americans. Nor are they particularly fazed by the failure of the unity process so far. Hamas imagines itself playing the long game, based on the assumption that its rivals’ strategies will fail and that failure will ultimately sweep them from the stage. Rather than committing itself to any clear plan of action, then, Hamas appears to be simply waiting.

And the Palestinian public? While much has been made of the idea that disappointment over a setback at the U.N. would trigger a third intifada uprising, that may be missing the point: There may well be a new wave of protest action, but it will more likely be spurred by conditions on the ground and a struggle for Palestinian rights rather than by a U.N. vote on statehood.

As Adam Shatz recently noted,

“as the prospect of a genuine – a sovereign and independent – Palestinian state has receded, another discourse has returned, one with much deeper roots in the Palestinian political imagination than talk of statehood, and much closer to the ideas that inspired the Arab uprisings. It’s often forgotten that until the mid-1970s, Palestinians were looking not to establish a state but to achieve ‘national liberation’, to restore their rights in the land from which they had been driven – beginning with the right of return. Palestinians rarely talk about statehood, but they often talk about their rights; statehood is viewed, at best, as a means to achieve them. And because they don’t often talk about statehood, it seems unlikely that the failure to win recognition at the UN would be enough to spark an uprising. Any sign of serious unrest, moreover, would not be viewed kindly by the PA, which would do everything in its power to prevent a third intifada that might sweep it away.”

So, as September draws ever closer, the morbid symptoms multiply. What seems increasingly clear is that come October, whether there’s been a U.N. vote or the umpteenth revival of Israeli-Palestinian talks — or neither or both — the situation on the ground will remain unchanged, with none of the main players offering a recipe for changing it. For the past two decades, it’s been an article of faith in Western capitals that an Israeli-Palestinian peace process is a vital strategic interest of all the region’s major players. That proposition may soon be put to the test, as it becomes increasingly difficult to sustain the illusion that there is any “process” underway to settle the conflict.