What Middle East Peace Process?
The so-called Middle East peace process has died a thousand deaths. The last one happened early in April, when Mahmoud Abbas signed several treaties with international agencies under the Palestinian Authority’s recently gained “observer State” status against the wishes of the United States and Israel. The move followed Tel Aviv’s decision to renege on its pledge to release dozens of prisoners held since before the Oslo accords. A somber John Kerry spoke of evaluating the U.S. role in the process.
Abbas’ argument for unilaterally reasserting statehood was a pretext. The real reason is that, since Obama launched his new Middle East initiative back in July, Israel has intensified its policy of building settlements on land conquered in 1967 in order to make a Palestinian state unviable.
In an ideal world, the end of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would hinge, not on a two-state solution, but on friendly coexistence under common rules based on property rights and individual liberties. In the real, messed-up world, the two-state solution in its prettiest form might at least do the Palestinians some justice and guarantee Israel its safety. The problem is that Benyamin Netanyahu, fully aware that the balance of power within Israeli society and politics favors his line, is working to make this impossible—to the delight of Arab radicals who want Abbas, the most reasonable Palestinian leader in a very long time, to fail.
Obama pushed for a negotiation during his first term, but it all ended in a fiasco when he and Netanyahu had a public spat in the White House. The U.S. president had made gestures to the Arab world, openly calling for a return to pre-1967 borders, which is anathema to most Israelis, and the freezing of Jewish settlements. Netanyahu appealed to the pro-Israel lobby in Washington and, as always, the issue became domestic for the United States. Obama pull backed and Abbas, under pressure from his own camp, pressed for statehood at the United Nations, obtaining an observer status that was symbolic in nature but politically effective at home and among his allies.
Once re-elected, Obama appointed Martin Indyk, a former ambassador in Israel and critic of his Administration, special envoy to the region and proposed a new phase in the peace process with much looser conditions (avoiding any explicit reference to pre-1967 borders and maintaining a vague language regarding the settlements). The idea was that this would help Netanyahu, who needed to please the far-right Jewish Home party, a member of his coalition, engage in real negotiations.
Israel, however, pushed ahead with the consolidation and expansion of the settlements. More than ten thousand new housing units have obtained a green light since July, and the construction permits just keep coming. In addition, Netanyahu reneged on Israel’s promise to free a group of long-held prisoners under the pretext that Abbas was not giving assurances that he would negotiate beyond an end-of-April deadline. (Netanyahu broke the promise even though Kerry had signaled a willingness to sweeten the deal by freeing Jonathan Pollard, currently in jail in the United States for spying for Israel.)
Abbas, who has been unable to prevent the growing split between Fatah and Hamas over all of this, decided a few days ago to resume his campaign for recognition of Palestine as a state by signing a bunch of treaties.
In 1993, the Oslo accords signed by Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat gave the world hope that a permanent solution was at hand. Two decades later, it is clear that what was left out—Israeli settlements, borders, and the status of Jerusalem—was more important than what was included. It is also clear that Rabin was the last Israeli primer minister truly interested in finding some kind of permanent solution. What Netanyahu cares about is remaining in power; he fully understands that, given the balance of power in his country, this goal is incompatible with working for a permanent solution.
In turn, Abbas has been willing to confront the radicals in his camp, to engage the Israelis, and to show some sensitivity for the dynamics that give any Israeli leader a very narrow space. But, given the prevailing conditions, he does not command the authority that the highly questionable Arafat commanded over the various factions and is losing control of his own camp.
Not a pretty scenario.