The Illusion of Progress: 9 Reasons Why Israel-Palestinian Talks May Fail

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A Palestinian man works at a smuggling tunnel which connects the Gaza Strip and Egypt in Rafah, southern Gaza Strip, July 19, 2013.

It’s almost too easy to be pessimistic about prospects for the talks U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry finally coaxed Israel and the Palestinians to the cusp of last weekend. But it’s a pessimism born on one hand of hard experience – 20 years of previous talks, and still no hint of a resolution — and on the other of circumstances, the kind that stack easy and fast against the hope that naturally rises when opponents agree to sit down together, no matter the odds. No one knows what will come from closed-door sessions, if they actually begin, as Kerry proposed, in Washington this month. But what follows are nine factors hedging hard against success.

1. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s vow to submit any agreement to a referendum. Bibi’s promise, made Sunday at the start of his weekly cabinet meeting, brought cries that he was shirking the leadership role required of a statesman, though acting consistent with his reputation for governing by poll. In any event, an Israeli plebiscite would likely sound the death knell for an agreement based – as any to emerge from Kerry’s planned talks would have to be – upon the Oslo Accords, the 1994 framework for a Palestinian state that, as a candidate, Netanyahu used to burn in effigy, marching beside a coffin labeled “Oslo.”  Polls consistently show most Israelis want a peace agreement but do not believe one will come, one reason surely being that most Israelis reject the specific concessions a deal almost certainly would entail. To take only one issue: Two out of three centrist Israelis in one recent poll refuse to divide Jerusalem, the city Palestinians insist must also serve as their capital. And this week, even in the absence of any specifics at all, only 55 percent of Israelis said they were inclined to support an agreement Netanyahu might present.

(MORE: Israel and Palestine Agree to Peace Talks, but With Reluctance)

2. The make-up of Netanyahu’s coalition.   Never mind that a majority of the Likud Party that Netanyahu leads strongly supports the West Bank settlers who reject a Palestinian state. Or that the settler-based Jewish Home party headed by Naftali Bennett campaigned on the notion of simply annexing most of the West Bank. If push came to shove, Jewish Home’s place in the coalition can be taken by the Labor Party, which has signaled it would join the government to support peace talks. But there’s no replacing Yesh Atid, the centrist party led by Yair Lapid, and the linchpin of Netanyahu’s government. The former anchorman says he wants talks, but perhaps only for the sake of talks: Lapid is among the centrists who is not willing to share Jerusalem. “Jerusalem is not a place,” he told the New York Times in May. “It’s an idea.”

3. The weakness of Mahmoud Abbas.  The president of the Palestinian Authority is a favorite of the diplomatic world and has done much in those circles to rebrand the Palestinian image from terrorists to well-behaved nationalists straining under military occupation. Sponsored by the Americans as an alternative to Yasser Arafat, Abbas is an ardent believer in ending the conflict with Israel through talks, advocating that position even in more militant times when saying so aloud could easily get you killed. But he has no popular following. In the words of Mohammed Shtayyeh, who ran his 1995 campaign: “He is popular, but not very popular.” Israel’s pending release of some 80 Palestinian prisoners – mostly older men, held since before Oslo was signed – as a good will gesture will give Abbas a boost, since prisoners are of huge importance in Palestinian society. But if past is prologue, Abbas will decline to embrace the acclaim, cultivate it, or have it in reserve when he most needs it — when coaxing Palestinians to swallow the unpopular compromises inevitable with any final agreement. As he told me, with a shrug, after his rapturously received 2011 UN speech: “I don’t want popularity.”

4. Hamas still has the Gaza Strip. Of the perhaps 4 million Palestinians who live in the territory militarily occupied by Israel after 1967, some 1.6 million are not even controlled by Abbas’ Palestinian National Authority. They reside in the Gaza Strip, a coastal enclave unconnected geographically to the West Bank, and governed by the militant Islamist group Hamas since 2007, when it took over Gaza militarily after winning territory-wide parliamentary elections the previous year. Hamas has divisions of its own, and the side favoring a more moderate and diplomatic approach appears to have won the upper hand lately. But the group continues to deny Israel’s right to exist, and in every way is a much harder nut to crack than Abbas’ Fateh faction when it comes to sealing what diplomats call a final-status agreement. The Islamic Resistance Movement, as its is formally known, still talks not in terms of a permanent peace but of a long-term ceasefire. And its mandate to govern – unchallenged, like that of Abbas, by elections since 2006 – gives the group de-facto veto power over any agreement Abbas might produce.

5. Where’s the buy-in? For both sides, the incentives to talk are far more apparent than any appetite to reach a solution. For Israel, even nonproductive talks serve to keep at bay the pressure of world opinion, which in the absence of formal negotiations tends to focus on Israel’s creeping takeover of the West Bank with its settlements, which is the kind of attention Israel dislikes. The same day Kerry announced a “framework for talks,” the European Union published rules barring EU funding to Israeli entities operating in the settlements. More alarming, September brings the annual convocation at the United Nations, where the Palestinians were preparing to exercise diplomatic and legal options aimed at dragging Israel before the International Criminal Court. “If Kerry does not come up with something that really meets our minimum, then we will move from negotiation strategy to confrontation strategy,” Shtayyeh, the close adviser to Abbas, told me last month. ”I don’t mean military,” he added, and pointed instead toward the UN, where Palestinian statehood was recognized last year. “That’s where our next confrontation with Israel is, I think.” Netanyahu insists his motives for talks are driven by the real need for peace. And a deal would have him remembered for something besides serving longer as prime minster than anyone since Israel’s founder, David Ben Gurion. But skeptics note that Netanyahu’s party’s charter calls for Israel to keep the West Bank, not make it part of a Palestinian state. “Netanyahu knows that without negotiations you can’t maintain the status quo,” says liberal parliamentarian Merav Michaeli, of the Labor Party. “What he wants is negotiations that don’t go anywhere and don’t change reality as we know it.” Michaeli spoke in late April, when the new Secretary of State had only been to the region a couple of times, trying to coax both sides into talks that neither seemed to want—a situation she called dangerous, give the letdown that usually follows a collapse. “It’s better not to start another round of hopelessness,” she said. Palestinian liberals understand the problem. “What happened is it looks like the peace process is a substitute for peace,” says Mustafa Bargouthi, a Ramallah physician and activist. “That’s not what we want. We need something that produces results.”

(MORE: After Peace-Process Stumble, Is John Kerry Wasting His Time in the Middle East?)

6. The Palestinian Stock Market.  It moved not a jot after Kerry took to the podium at a World Economic Fund conference at the Dead Sea in May, and with great pomp lifted the veil on a $4 billion plan to revitalize the Palestinian Territories through private investment.  Palestinian business leaders understood the market’s indifference as a confirmation that Kerry was building castles in the air. The reality on the ground, they say, is that Israel controls the Palestinian territory and, far from allowing new industries to build there, for decades has dispatched bulldozers to knock down certain structures not approved by the Israeli military, which approves very few.  The smart money was not on what Kerry said, but on what Israel does, and for 46 years, what Israel has done is invested billions in settlements, roads and industrial parks that signal an intention to retain the stunning Biblical landscape it calls Judea and Samaria. “A prosperous Palestine means losing control of the place,” says a downbeat Samir O. Hulileh, chief executive officer of Padico Holding, a major Palestinian private firm. “Occupation is control.”

7. Many Palestinians think Oslo is already dead. Israel’s most popular news channel last month floated an idea that’s already gained a firm foothold on the Palestinian side: The Two-State Solution envisioned by the Oslo Accords is already expired, and at this point talks are just something to keep everyone busy until another way forward emerges. Many Palestinians put their faith in demography — the population trends that suggest they will, in the next decade or two, clearly outnumber Jews between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River, and force Israel to either grant them democratic rights, or accept the pariah role of a state in which the minority population governs the majority, a prospective choice that pleases Palestinians searching for leverage over their occupiers. “As long as in this territory west of the Jordan river there is only one political entity called Israel it is going to be either non-Jewish, or non-democratic,” former prime minister and defense minister Ehud Barak famously warned in 2010. “If this bloc of millions of ­Palestinians cannot vote, that will be an apartheid state.”

8. There are signs Israelis do, too.  The Israeli government already argues that it no longer bears an occupying power’s responsibility for Gaza, which its troops and settlers left in 2005. Israel could unilaterally quit the West Bank as well and call it a day — though only after drawing the border to its liking. The boundary might take in Jewish settlements but exclude Palestinian cities, which would threaten the Jewish majority in the new, larger Israel. In the last year or so, the notion of simply annexing sections of the West Bank moved from the fringes of Israel’s right wing and emerged in the political mainstream. Consider the counsel of Amos Yadlin, who heads the Institute for National Security Studies, a deeply establishment think tank attached to Tel Aviv University but staffed heavily by former military and intelligence officials like Yadlin (who was the last head of Military Intelligence). The next round of negotiations, the retired general says, should be the last. “We have to submit a proposal to the Palestinians, a decent proposal, a fair proposal,” Yadlin told a group of foreign reporters in Februray. “If the Palestinians will accept it, it’s a win for peace. If they refuse — as we think they will — then at least we win the blame game and we can continue to shape our borders by ourselves without the need to wait for the Palestinians to agree.”

9.  The Americans are involved. Historically, this is simply not an encouraging indicator. All of the peace deals that have held up over the decades – the pacts with Egypt and Jordan, and the mutual recognition with Palestine Liberation Organization – began “behind the back of the respective American administrations,” notes Yedioth Ahronoth columnist Nahum Barnea. The United States got involved in the late stages to support and guarantee the pacts.  It’s had no luck, however, as an initiator. “Washington is a great place to celebrate an agreement in,” Barnea writes. “It’s a cemetery for negotiations.”

That said, when the subject is the Holy Land, people have been know to rise from the dead. But when they do, it’s what they call a miracle.

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