Neither of the principals in the Israeli-Palestinian peace initiative want the process to fail, and nor do the interested powers that back them. All parties are bending over backwards to try to ensure that the current fragile initiative does not founder, even though the principals are each constrained by their separate political imperatives.
Direct face-to-face discussions came to an end on 26 September with the ending of Israel’s temporary moratorium on building in the West Bank settlements. Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian Authority President, has committed himself to resuming the direct face-to-face talks only if Israel renews the temporary freeze on construction.
Quite why this issue has suddenly become a precondition for the Palestinian side recommencing the negotiation is difficult to understand. The building freeze was only ever a temporary measure, it never included East Jerusalem, and previous negotiations have been conducted without any reference to the matter.
In any event, given a successful outcome to the peace talks and a final accord, the larger West Bank settlements would by common consent remain in Israel’s hands, subject to some land swap arrangement, while the smaller ones would almost certainly be evacuated. So – presuming a successful outcome to the peace talks – any new build in the largest settlements is irrelevant to the Palestinian cause, while new housing or other buildings being constructed in those smaller settlement blocs earmarked for evacuation, would eventually fall into Palestinian hands. The whole construction issue seems largely an irrelevance.
As for Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s prime minister, he heads an unstable coalition and is heavily dependent on its right-wing members, especially Yisrael Beiteinu, to stay in power. They were quite insistent that the temporary construction moratorium end on the appointed day, and are opposed to its renewal. Even so, Netanyahu gained their support for offering the Palestinians a modest renewal of the building freeze, in return for recognition of Israel as a Jewish state. The offer was made - and rejected. Now, Middle East analyst Anshel Pfeffer reports, sources close to Mr Netanyahu have acknowledged that with the midterms in America over, Washington will increase its pressure and Israel will find it hard not to agree to a new settlement freeze in some form. Pfeffer himself is unequivocal: “According to sources close to Prime Minister Netanyahu, he will agree to a new form of building freeze in the settlements.”
Another source of pressure on Netanyahu is his left-wing coalition partner, the Labour Party. Senior figures in the party have been threatening to leave the coalition if peace talks are not resumed. Defence Minister Ehud Barak, the Labour leader, is Mr Netanyahu's closest ally within the cabinet, travelling to Washington every few weeks on the prime minister's behalf. Without Labour, Mr Netanyahu would be left with only right-wing parties opposed to any concessions to the Palestinians. It is perhaps significant that he has recently been in contact with Tzipi Livni, leader of the main opposition party, Kadima. The aim, one can only presume, is a possible coalition deal in which Kadima would enter the government in the place of right-wing parties.
The Arab League, in its meeting on 8 October, was so reluctant to pull the plug on the direct peace talks that they gave Washington a month’s grace to try to come up with a formula concerning West Bank construction that would be acceptable to both sides. They planned to meet again early in November to reassess the situation.
In the interim, diplomatic activity between the US and Israel has been intensive in the search for a way out of the dilemma. Netanyahu is tomorrow (Sunday 7 November) travelling to the States in order to determine whether a formula acceptable to Israel is on offer. President Obama is currently on a 10-day tour of the Far East, but Netanyahu is due to meet Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who said last Thursday (4 November) that she was working non-stop to try to find a way out of the impasse. "I am very involved in finding a way forward and I think we will be able to do so," Clinton told reporters in New Zealand, where she is on an official visit.
But Netanyahu is travelling on the very day that the Arab League’s month of grace expires. A problem? Not a bit of it, according to chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat. Following a meeting with US peace envoy George Mitchell in Washington last week, he told reporters: "They're saying that efforts may need two or three more weeks. If the Americans needed two more weeks they can have the two more weeks. We're waiting to hear from the Americans, and there is no reason to convene the Arab follow-up committee until we hear what the Americans have to offer. The key,” he added, “is in Netanyahu's hands. The choice is his: settlements or peace. He cannot have both."
Meanwhile, the Palestinian Authority is becoming ever more explicit in its threats to bypass the negotiations and establish an independent state unilaterally. In a meeting with the Egyptian Foreign Minister in Ramallah on 4 November, President Mahmoud Abbas said "we are prepared to return to the negotiating table the moment Israel freezes the settlements", but added that the Palestinians are also exploring other options including a request to the UN Security Council to recognise a unilateral declaration by the Palestinian Authority of an independent Palestinian state. He said that such a move could happen "in a matter of months".
Erekat also, in his interview with reporters in Washington, reiterated that the Palestinians were considering “other options” in the event of the process remaining frozen, mentioning the possibility of seeking both US and international recognition for a unilaterally declared Palestinian state. "I hope that the United States of America, when we go to the Security Council to seek a full membership for the State of Palestine, will not oppose us," he said.
Erekat did not give a timeline for this possible move, which the State Department said on Thursday would be an unwelcome complication. "We have made clear all along,” said State Department spokesman P J Crowley, “that unilateral steps, either by the Israelis or by the Palestinians, undermine the direct negotiation which is the only way to resolve the core issues, reach an agreement and end the conflict."
That happy outcome is undoubtedly in the balance. The peace process hangs on by its fingernails.