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

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

Mon, Apr 28, 2014, 07:03

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.

But the collapse of negotiations that Kerry and others called the last chance for a two- state solution to the intractable conflict leaves Israel in a precarious position. The talks helped contain violence in the West Bank and hold back a mounting European boycott of Israeli goods and institutions.

Now Netanyahu faces a strengthened Palestinian president free to leverage his UN observer-state status to access more international institutions, including courts in which Israel could face charges of war crimes. The Palestinian Authority may well collapse if the US withdraws financial aid in response to such moves as well as the reconciliation with Hamas, leaving Israel responsible for its residents and sharpening criticism of its occupation.

Binational state
Without a peace process the threat of a binational state in which Arabs could soon outnumber Jews grows more potent.

“I don’t think the continuation of the status quo is an Israeli interest,” said Shlomo Brom, a retired general at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv.

“Netanyahu went to these negotiations not because he expected there would be results – he wanted release from potential pressure from the Americans and the Europeans,” Brom added. “He got this release for the last nine months. Now he will have to think about a new trick.”

Likewise Abbas. His embrace of Hamas is more pressure tactic than strategy shift, many Palestinian analysts said, and he figures that the deal will fall apart, as have three similar accords signed since the PLO-Hamas schism started seven years ago after a bloody battle in Gaza. Abbas now has five weeks to follow through with a government of so-called technocrats unaffiliated with any faction, and elections six months later.

Left unsaid in last week’s agreement is how Hamas and Fatah, the party that dominates the Palestine Liberation Organisation and the Palestinian Authority, would combine their security services in the West Bank and Gaza and otherwise redraw governance of the territories.

How will Hamas handle Abbas’s demands that the new government recognise Israel and renounce violence, tenets it rejects? Who will control the Rafah crossing between Gaza and Egypt? Is either party really ready to face its frustrated public in long-overdue balloting?

“It will be difficult for him to press Hamas on these issues,” Khalil Shikaki, a Palestinian political scientist, said of Abbas.

“Now reconciliation becomes his primary gain, and although he would still have to show the international community that he is still for peace I don’t think he will be trying to do it in a manner that forces Hamas to make a choice.”

Regional factors
There are also regional factors to consider: Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia, key Palestinian allies, all see the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas’s patron, as a threat in their battle for regional hegemony against the Iran-led Shia block.

“What you witness is realpolitik of the region as well as realpolitik of both parties,” said Mahdi Abdul Hadi, director of the Palestinian Academic Society for the Study of International Affairs. “They did not stand up as new heroes in the region but real politicians with a contract relationship for a transitional phase pending on many conditions and lots of contradictions.”

While Netanyahu pledged last Thursday that he would never negotiate with any government “backed by Hamas”, Palestinian leaders and some left-leaning Israeli politicians and analysts argued that reconciliation was a critical pathway to peace. They said Netanyahu was being hypocritical because his own government includes extremists who oppose the establishment of any Palestinian state, and because it had said the PLO-Hamas rift raised questions about Abbas’s ability to deliver Gaza, controlled by Hamas, for a potential deal.

But Palestinian analysts said the future path was more likely through demonstrations, boycotts and the United Nations than through yet another round of US-brokered talks with Israel.

“If this reconciliation works – and I’m hoping it does, though I’m pessimistic – then it can be an opportunity for Palestinians to regroup and think what the next steps will be and what the right strategy will be,” said Diana Buttu, a former adviser to the PLO. “I’m pretty confident the next steps will not be negotiations.”

Elegant way out
Daniel Levy, director of the Middle East and North Africa programme at the European Council on Foreign Relations, said the developments of recent days “may actually give everyone quite an elegant way out.” Netanyahu avoided a domestic political crisis, Abbas gained legitimacy with Palestinians who far prefer reconciliation to negotiations, and “it’s much more convenient for the Americans to pull back under these circumstances than under the circumstances where they simply couldn’t find a formula,” he said.

“The negotiations as constructed had, time and again, proved that they were not up to the task of doing anything positive,” Levy added. “So the argument that something has been lost by not continuing these same negotiations does not pass the laugh test.”

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