Middle East & North Africa

Is There a Future For Israeli-Palestinian Negotiations?

Hillary Clinton, Benjamin Netanyahu and Mahmoud Abbas


December 21, 2015 22:10 EDT

After two failures by the Obama administration to broker peace, will the Israelis and Palestinians go back to the bargaining table?

In early December, US Secretary of State John Kerry issued a stark warning to the leaderships of Israel and Palestine on the urgency of resuming face-to-face negotiations and reaching a final settlement. His comments came after recent visits to Ramallah and Jerusalem, and in an appearance before the Saban Forum in Washington, DC.

Kerry warned that the Palestinian Authority (PA) is under risk of collapse. Were that to occur, Israel would have to assume the responsibility of administering all of the West Bank and, in theory, Gaza; although Hamas presumably would make that problematic if not nearly impossible at the moment without provoking yet another violent clash between Israel and Hamas.

Collapse of the Palestinian Authority

Kerry is correct that without the PA, Israel would have to take on an enormous burden, no doubt costing billions of dollars and requiring the insertion of additional Israeli security forces as well as hundreds of administrators—from hospital supervisors to school principals to utilities authorities. And while Israel would likely resort to using many of the Palestinians already employed in these activities, the cost and supervisory administrative demands would be prohibitively high.

With the increased Israeli presence throughout the West Bank, one should also expect a commensurate increase in security incidents. The ongoing spree of knife attacks and related incidents have already taken the lives of more than 100 Palestinians and 20 Israelis. Expect those to skyrocket as frustrated and angry Palestinians resort to violence with the dissolution of the Palestinian Authority and the consequent ever diminishing hope of a Palestinian state.

Moreover, with closure of the PA, one is left wondering what would happen to Palestinian security forces. Despite all the failures and frustrations of Israeli-Palestinian relations, the Palestinian security forces have managed to become an effective and—especially important for Israel—cooperative security organization. Its operation is largely funded from the outside, principally by the United States. Would these forces continue as an organization? To whom would they report, Israeli Defense Force commanders? Who would fund their activities? Most importantly, if they were also dissolved, what would happen to the thousands of Palestinian police officers who have received excellent training—again from the US—in weapons and tactics? Would Israel really like these well-trained and disciplined policemen and women out in the street?

Dissolving the PA would also present grave risks to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, his party (Fatah) and the Palestinian people.

First, it would be tantamount to challenging Israel’s conservative government to move ever closer to a one-state solution. That would be terribly unwise for both sides. Even Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu isn’t prepared to move that far that quickly. But his right-wing governing coalition is. It would be an invitation to Israelis like Naftali Bennett, settlers and others to start moving, perhaps even provoking a call for new elections in Israel.

Even if their efforts were to fail initially, complete Israeli control of the West Bank would invite increased settler activity and settlement development and place the one-state solution firmly within the ambit of Israeli politics. That would be disastrous for Palestinian ambitions for their own state.

Second, throwing in the towel of self-governance in the Palestinian Territories would be an affirmation not only by Abbas, but also by his Fatah party and the Palestine Liberation Organization that they lack credibility among Palestinians.

In fact, Abbas’ weakened position in the West Bank is already all but transparent. Palestinians are fed up with his leadership, which has produced neither a Palestinians state nor even improved living conditions or a better economy. More than the aforementioned affirmation, it would be an admission of failure, opening the way for Hamas to move in to dominate the Palestinian political space, despite whatever obstacles Israel might present. That would be disastrous for Palestinians as well.

Finally, it is unlikely that the international community would step in to help the Israelis bear the financial burden of administering the West Bank. All that American and European largess that has come to the PA and eventually trickled down to every-day Palestinians—in subsidies, salaries and services—would quickly dry up. The already miserable state of their economy and living conditions would worsen.

So, what options are there?

It must be clearly stated that a return to any sort of meaningful negotiations is extraordinary unlikely if not impossible at the moment, despite the well-intentioned entreaties of Secretary Kerry. Neither Netanyahu nor Abbas possesses the stature or inclination to move into negotiations. Their respective political environments simply won’t allow it. This situation isn’t likely to change until one or preferably both of them leave their respective perches and are replaced with new leaders who can truly take charge of Israeli and Palestinian politics and become empowered to take bold action, both of which are indispensable for a return to meaningful negotiations.

Elections and Settlements

Perhaps the first place to start is Palestine. After nearly eight years, Abbas and his leadership institution have become ossified. It’s time for a shakeup. Working with the United Nations (UN), he should call for UN-assisted and supervised elections that would allow all parties and candidates who accept the Quartet Principles to run for office within the PA and the Palestinian Legislative Council. Elections would give Palestinians change and, thereby, hope for greater opportunity.

Israel should support and facilitate such elections, for instance, by allowing both UN and Palestinian election officials and candidates free access within the West Bank and ensuring that Palestinian media are also allowed to cover campaigns and the elections throughout the West Bank and Gaza. During the election and campaigning period, Israel should also consider suspending all new settlement activity.

Finally, once a new Palestinian governing authority is installed, Israel should begin opening up Area B to complete Palestinian supervision—security as well as administrative control—and Area C to Palestinian development and administration.

These actions still fall short of what most Palestinians want: their own state. But they would give hope that change is under way. And hope is needed at this time when, as Kerry effectively suggested, despair has begun to set in among the majority of Palestinians. Furthermore, such changes would also demonstrate to Israelis that Palestinians want to be the negotiating partner that Netanyahu now claims is absent.

Secretary Kerry asserts that negotiations must commence “the sooner the better.” However, that is not going to happen in the near-term. So, perhaps with the aforementioned recommendations, “better late than never” might also work.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

Photo Credit: US State Department

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