Israel poised precariously after peace talks collapse
Israeli prime minister Netanyahu faces strengthened Palestinian president Abbas
A Palestinian protester wearing a Guy Fawkes mask stands next to burning tyres during a weekly protest against the Jewish settlement of Qadomem, near the West Bank City of Nablus. Photograph: Reuters/Mohamad Torokman
Less than a month ago Israel was in US secretary of state John Kerry’s crosshairs, accused of sabotaging the peace process he had championed by continuing construction in West Bank settlements and balking on a promise to release long-serving Palestinian prisoners. But when Israel suspended the stalemated negotiations last Thursday it did so with Washington’s tacit blessing, providing a fractured government not fully committed to peace a low-risk exit strategy.
Frustrated by the impasse in the peace talks, President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority has recently played a variety of cards in the hope of improving his position in the negotiating room and on the street. He took steps to join 15 international conventions, threatened to dissolve his government and, finally, made a deal last week with Hamas, the militant Islamic group widely seen in the West as the devil.
The gambles drew repeated rebukes from Washington. If Abbas was trying to call Israel’s bluff and force it to yield concessions in the negotiating room, he may have unwittingly improved its hand instead.
“He did a huge favour to Bibi,” said Giora Eiland, a former Israeli national security adviser, using the nickname of Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu. “Since we are in this blame game now, it is easier for him to say: ‘This is not our fault, look at our potential partner.’”
Abbas, Eiland added, “by his own behaviour has pushed himself to be perceived as a very extreme person who will never be able to reach an agreement with us”.
Potential poison pill
The conundrum facing peacemakers now is that the reconciliation portends a Palestinian leadership, for the first time in years, able to speak in one voice and at least theoretically better positioned to win support for a deal with Israel in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. But Israel and the West’s shunning of Hamas makes any effort to bridge that divide – and possibly moderate Hamas’ positions – a potential poison pill.
In the short term, Netanyahu avoided a crisis in his governing coalition, whose various members had vowed to quit if he released more prisoners, froze settlement construction or walked away from the talks while any sliver of hope remained for progress. The deal with Hamas, which the US and Europe also outlaw as a terrorist organisation, allowed him to at least temporarily avoid international wrath, and he made the rounds of western television networks last week looking the victim.