The Israeli-Palestinian peace process appears to be wallowing in a sort of doldrums. The following wind seems to have dropped, the ship to have become becalmed. Appearances are, however, deceptive. Activity below decks is more than frantic – it’s frenetic.
The reason? A tug-of-war between the practicalities governing the public stance adopted by Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and the principles that are apparently governing the position of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.
Netanyahu is juggling a genuine desire to maintain his commitment to the peace process with the political necessity of retaining his majority in the Knesset, Israel’s parliament. "We want the talks to continue,” he said recently, “and I want this. We have a mission of peace." But when the 10-month moratorium on construction in the West Bank settlements ran its course on 26 August, his right-wing supporters within the government were adamant that the freeze must end, and it was more than his premiership was worth to accede to world-wide requests to extend it.
For his part, Abbas and those who speak for him have appeared equally adamant that a cessation of settlement building was a sine qua non for continuing the face-to-face negotiations. After a meeting in Ramallah last week, Yasser Abed Rabbo, a senior Palestinian Liberation Organization official, reading from a statement, said: "The leadership confirms that the resumption of talks requires tangible steps, the first of them a freeze on settlements. The Palestinian leadership holds Israel responsible for obstructing the negotiations.” Nabil Abu Rdainah, a spokesman for President Abbas said: “There will be no negotiations in the shadow of continued settlement."
Sterling efforts over the past few days by US Middle East envoy, George Mitchell, to achieve some sort of compromise appear unavailing, so far. He spent last Friday (1 October) mediating between the sides in a last-ditch bid to avert a crisis. At the centre of the US-led diplomatic activity has been an intensive effort to secure Israel's support for a sixty-day moratorium extension. According to senior US officials, the administration's efforts culminated in a draft letter negotiated with Israeli defence minister Ehud Barak and chief Israeli peace negotiator Yitzhak Molcho, and ultimately sent from President Obama's desk to Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu.
The very existence of this letter, to say nothing of its controversial content, is befogged in mystery. Despite the apparent evidence to the contrary, last Thursday (30 September) the White House and a State Department official denied that President Obama had sent Israel a draft letter in which he offered security guarantees — including a continued Israeli military presence in the Jordan Valley after the creation of a Palestinian state, if Israel in exchange re-instituted the moratorium on new settlement construction for a 60-day period.
Netanyahu’s office had no comment on the issue of the letter, first reported by David Makovsky of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
Following the official US denial about the letter, and in view of the short period of time before the next scheduled meeting of the Arab League (then 4 October, but subsequently extended to the 6th), David Makovsky took the unusual step of publishing a full and detailed account of the letter and its contents on the website of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
"At its core,” he wrote, “the draft letter offers a string of assurances to Israel in return for a two-month moratorium extension. More specifically, US officials indicate that the document makes commitments on issues ranging from current peace and security matters to future weapons deliveries in the event that peace-related security arrangements are reached."
Makovksy said that early indications were that Netanyahu liked the “inducements” offered by Washington, but was not inclined to accept it, either because he was playing a game of brinkmanship regarding the terms, or to preserve his credibility. Makovksy asserts that Netanyahu has put forward three arguments defending his unwillingness to extend the moratorium.
“First, he says the original US idea to halt settlement activity in 2009 required reciprocal actions from Arab states, which were not forthcoming. Second, the Palestinians did not initially deem the moratorium as significant, wasting nine out of the moratorium's ten months by not opening direct talks. In Netanyahu's view, why would a matter originally deemed insignificant become suddenly indispensable? Finally, he argues that the focus on settlements is excessive, since the parties will be dealing with the far larger issue of reaching the contours of an overall territorial solution within the next year. Beyond these arguments, it is also clear that Netanyahu fears losing elements of his coalition over the moratorium issue.”
Whatever the underlying reasons, the fact remains that the flurry of diplomatic activity is intense in the days leading up to 6 October, the day the Arab League is scheduled to meet in order to discuss Mahmoud Abbas’s next step.
There are hopeful signs that some sort of compromise might indeed be possible between Netanyahu’s practical problems and Abbas’s principled position. Despite the apparent impasse, Defence Minister Ehud Barak said yesterday (Saturday, 2 October) that he retained hope of a compromise within the coming week to allow the month-old talks to continue, while in remarks published on Friday, Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit issued surprising criticism of the Palestinian position of making talks contingent on the settlement building restrictions, saying the sides should concentrate on drawing the borders of a Palestinian state. And despite all the stirring of the pot by President Ahmadinejad of Iran, President Bashar Assad of Syria, Hamas and Hezbollah, nothing so far said by Abbas or his officials has absolutely and completely ruled out a continuation of the direct talks (“The talks are only aimed at supporting Obama’s position inside the US,”Assad said yesterday, Saturday 2 October, during a one-day trip to Tehran.) Meeting Jewish-American leaders in New York recently, Abbas hinted that he would be willing to accept an American compromise even if it includes the continuation of limited settlement construction. Abbas had previously suggested that he will not insist on an official announcement on the renewal of the freeze, but will require a de facto curb of construction on the ground.
And that is probably precisely what Netanyahu can deliver. For several practical and political reasons a construction boom in the West Bank is unlikely. First, Defence Minister and Israel Labour leader Ehud Barak holds the power to block the approval process and prevent new construction from taking place, since any new West Bank building requires the approval of the Defence Ministry. Secondly, construction capacity has been limited by the Palestinian Authority's campaign to prevent Palestinians from working in the settlements. West Bank settlements have traditionally depended on Palestinian labour to carry out construction projects, and in their absence, building will slow significantly. In the third place, private investments in West Bank construction have declined in recent months due to the uncertainty about the future. Finally, in a statement last week, Housing Minister Eli Attais of the right-wing Shas party admitted that despite his support for the settlements, the events marking the end of the freeze were merely symbolic. "The real test is whether Defence Minister Barak will sign the building permits or not," he said.
Which more or less confirms the de facto continuation of the restraint policy even without official decisions passed in the cabinet.
Whether this will be enough to bridge the gap between the parties, or whether some additional US initiative is in the offing, the next few days will certainly reveal.