Monday, 28 January 2013
Post-election Israel and the peace process
Discount the immediate response of Palestinian Authority (PA) spokesmen to the outcome of Israel’s election: “nothing has changed”. Much has changed. It is pretty clear that Israel’s next government, whoever may lead it and whatever its final composition, will contain as a vital component the 19 elected members of Yesh Atid (There is a Future) − a party dedicated to negotiating a two-state solution with the PA. Its leader, Yair Lapid, has said specifically: “Yesh Atid will not join a government that will not conduct diplomatic negotiations.” Given Israel’s political realities, a coalition without Yesh Atid does not seem feasible.
For the past two years PA President Abbas has been demanding a freeze on construction in the West Bank as one precondition for resuming peace negotiations – one, it might be noted, among several which have varied from time to time. This building issue has been a useful red herring for Abbas, fearful of moving too far and too fast, doubtless mindful of the fate of a previous Arab leader who did just that – Egypt’s President Anwar Sadat. After all, who would willingly put their head on a chopping block?
The current political configuration bears a certain resemblance to that of four years ago. As now, in early 2009 both President Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu had just come into office. Then, in response to Obama’s urgent request, Netanyahu succeeded in persuading his newly formed right-wing coalition to agree a freeze on settlement construction in the West Bank. In the event a 10-month building moratorium began at the end of November 2009. Most of the subsequent ten months was spent in shilly-shallying by Abbas, who sought cover from the Arab League for every tiny step he took. Much of the time was wasted in so-called “proximity talks”, with President Obamas’s Middle East envoy, George Mitchell, scurrying from side to side, trying to build confidence between the parties.
When finally Abbas was persuaded to come to the negotiating table for direct face-to-face talks with Israel, all but three weeks of the 10-month building moratorium had been used up. To reach this point Abbas had required not only the good offices of the United States and the support of the Arab League, but also the physical presence at the table of Egypt’s President Hosni Mubarak and Jordan’s King Abdullah. Once there, optimism ran riot among all the participants. Extravagant claims were voiced on all sides of a final settlement of the Israel-Palestine dispute within twelve months.
It proved too much for Abbas. As the leader of Fatah, he was in principle dedicated to wresting back mandate Palestine in toto from Israel, but the party was also in bitter conflict with the extremist terrorist organisation, Hamas, that had seized power in Gaza and was battling with Fatah for the hearts and minds of the Palestinian people. Seizing the imminent end of Israel’s 10-month construction freeze as a handy excuse, Abbas demanded a resumption of the moratorium as a pre-condition for continuing the peace discussions. This was a price that Netanyahu’s coalition could not deliver. The result: a two-year stalemate in the peace process that only a radical change in the political landscape could alter.
Such a change has indeed taken place, and not only in Israel following the general election. Abbas himself is very differently placed from where he was in 2010. Under his belt he now has the endorsement of the UN General Assembly to his request that Palestine be considered a state with “non-member status.” He has, moreover, once again come to some sort of patched-up agreement with Hamas, brokered by Egypt’s President Mohamed Morsi, that will nominally lead to new PA elections covering Gaza, the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Whether this arrangement will indeed hold on this occasion is problematic, given the many previous attempts at healing the Fatah-Hamas rift that have failed. On this occasion, however, Hamas may feel that they would emerge from elections much strengthened, in view of their self-designated “victory” following Israel’s latest incursion into Gaza, Operation Pillar of Defense.
Some people know Mahmoud Abbas very well, following meetings, discussions and negotiations sometimes extending over years. Among such are Israel’s President, Shimon Peres, former foreign minister Tzipi Livni, and former prime minister, Ehud Olmert. When Abbas in a recent TV interview, said quite unequivocally, “I believe that the West Bank and Gaza is Palestine, and the other parts are Israel.” each of those who are very well acquainted with him welcomed the statement as a courageous act by a man they believed was a genuine partner for peace.
A new Israeli government with members dedicated to renewing negotiations with the PA (even, one supposes, if some sort of construction freeze were called for), a Mahmoud Abbas strengthened by both a UN triumph and a possible healing of the bitter internal Palestinian feud − from such disparate elements as these it may be possible to resurrect a peace process that, while guaranteeing Israel the security it must have, would lay the foundation for a peaceful future for all the inhabitants of this unsettled corner of the world.
Published in the on-line editions of the Jerusalem Post and the Jerusalem Report, 30 January 2013: