Netanyahu and Abbas: The Reluctant Partners

The moment for crucial, fateful decisions by Israelis and Palestinians has not come.

John Kerry celebrated a personal victory when announcing the resumption of direct peace talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, as he defied the predictions and cynicism of most Middle East observers in Washington and elsewhere, who poured cold water on his efforts. So, the secretary had his moment of glory, but historic context, as well as sober realization of Middle East realities, should lead to the conclusion that while talks will be, a peace treaty will not.

It was in August 2010, when then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, ceremoniously announced the resumption of Israeli-Palestinian talks, and that happened after 10 months in which Israel imposed a freeze on construction in the settlements. The talks? Well, they never took off the ground. Almost two years earlier, in Annapolis, Maryland, President George W. Bush, outflanked by Mahmoud Abbas and then-Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, announced exactly the same – resumption of direct Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. Then too, talks about talks did exist, but talks about peace, not really.

These examples – and there are many more – enable us to put things in historical context. It is clear that the resumption of talks, or announcements to that effect, can achieve some PR advantages to the Americans and the parties concerned. But to achieve a lasting, binding peace treaty, we need something else. Altogether, we do not only need American determination — although this is always an essential element in the search for peace — but also determination of the parties themselves, based on their understanding of their respective interests. We are not in that place.

Netanyahu: Limited Maneuverability

Let us start with Israel. When Benjamin Netanyahu, as well as the average Mr. Cohen in Jerusalem, and Mrs. Levi in Tel-Aviv watch their nightly news, they see mayhem in the streets of Cairo, a terrible civil war in Syria, beginnings of one in Lebanon, expectation of impending troubles in Jordan, a Hamas government in Gaza and, on top of all that, an Iranian relentless drive towards the bomb. Not a pretty sight, and one which fills Israelis with worry about deep instability on their doorstep; the type of situation which calls for caution.

Who will prevail in Egypt? Will Islamists take over Syria and open troubles along a border which was the most peaceful of all of Israel’s borders for the last four decades?

And what if sanctions against Iran do not work, and the new president there gains more time for the Iranian nuclear program and, in some time in the spring of 2014, Israelis wake up with the dreadful news that Iran has successfully completed its first nuclear test? Clearly, Israeli leaders have a full plate on their hands, and the prospect of talks with the Palestinians, which will inevitably lead to international pressure to make huge concessions, are not their most favorable political scenario.

Yet Netanyahu agreed to resume the talks. There are three possible reasons. First, exactly these events in the Middle East, described above, brought about a warming of relations between Israel and the US and between the two leaders, who during Barack Obama’s first term were chilly, if not outright cold. The Middle East is in turmoil, and Israel and the US need each other. So, Netanyahu realizes that he should not antagonize President Obama at this particular juncture, especially — and this is the second reason — when the two countries seem to close most of the gaps in their position about Iran. The official spin is that there is ongoing discussion about the Iranian threat, all options are on the table, and Iran should not and would not be allowed to possess the bomb. Netanyahu needs American support with regards to Iran, and he is, in fact, ready to pay back by showing flexibility regarding the Palestinian situation.

Then there is the sense in Israel that the deadlocked talks have led to growing criticism, even with Israel’s isolation in the international arena, which is mainly in Europe. Henceforth, a readiness for talks seems to be helpful in easing up these pressures, which also have the potential of damaging Israel’s economy. With all that in mind, Netanyahu voted for the resumption of the talks. However, he is not ready to get back to the pre-1967 lines; far from it, he has no desire to remove the lion’s share of the settlers, he objects to the ‘’right of return‘’ of Palestinian refugees and, surely, he is not going to be flexible about Jerusalem.

Even if by some miraculous development, Netanyahu personally underwent a metamorphosis and changed his positions, Avigdor Lieberman, Naftali Bennett and Likud’s own radical right-wingers did not, and they made their position very clear: They are ready for talks, but they are not ready for concessions.

Netanyahu, therefore, has a very limited scope for maneuverability. He has support from Yair Lapid, Tzipi Livni, and the Labor party, but he needs his own party. At the moment, he does not have its support. Likud initiated and supported the historic peace treaty with Egypt, but at that time it was under the charismatic leadership of Menachem Begin and Sinai is not Judea and Samaria, which for the Likudniks is the real thing. It follows, that altogether, the reasons which pushed Netanyahu into the talks will not be enough to push him into a conclusion of a treaty – two entirely different things.

Recently, Netanyahu got a clear indication of his problems within his own Likud bloc. Only half of his own party ministers voted in favor of releasing 104 Palestinian prisoners. Some of them have a lot of blood on their hands, a very sensitive point in Israel, and most of them are old, having been in jail for over 20 years. A majority of the Likud ministers reject the inclusion of Israeli Arab convicts in the list of those to be released. No doubt, we will witness the shape of things to come. It is evident though that Netanyahu has no mandate from his own party to make crucial concessions.

Mahmoud Abbas’ Calculations

Mahmoud Abbas also has his reasons to be worried. The Arab world is engulfed in a regional Sunni-Shi’ite conflict, and is not attuned to the problems of the Palestinians. The conflict, which once seemed to be the linchpin of regional politics, is very low on the current priority list of the Arab states. The Hamas government in Gaza continues to defy Abbas' authority, and the internal situation in the West Bank is on the verge of deterioration. The economy is doing worse than before, the well-respected Prime Minister Salam Fayyad resigned, and the last thing that the Palestinian president wants is another intifada. You know how something like this starts, you never know how it ends.

So, the Palestinian leader, weighing his options, voted for the resumption of talks. He can now mobilize Arab diplomatic support, as well as European. He is assured to get financial rewards from the latter, as well as American, and altogether he is gaining time. Abbas needs time before he can make his own substantial decisions.

He also looks around him, and sees mayhem in Syria, potential civil war in Egypt, dangers to the huge Palestinian community in Lebanon, and instability in Jordan. Under such circumstances, he prefers to wait and see, while in the meantime reaping whatever dividends he can. This is why Netanyahu's concession about prisoners is a significant net gain to him. He can also be encouraged by the debacle of Hamas in Egypt, as the coup there brings to the fore the tensions between the Egyptian military and the Gaza government. This is bad news for Hamas, but it is not clear how good the news is for the Palestinian Authority.

Yet like Netanyahu, Abbas did not change any of his basic positions, regarding borders, settlements, refugees and Jerusalem. He is not under any domestic pressure to do so. If at all, he is under pressure, and not just from Hamas, to further harden his policies.

That said, we are bound to be realistic about the new round of talks. It is always better to have talks, rather than not, but talks for the sake of talks have a limited time span. The moment for crucial, fateful decisions will come, but as things appear now, both leaders are unwilling and incapable of making them.

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

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