Peace Process Restarts, Harsh Realities Endure

Today’s guest author is Allison Good, an independent analyst and freelance journalist. She tweets @Allison_Good1 and currently resides in Israel.

Well, it’s official: the Israeli-Palestinian peace process will resume in Washington next week with talks between Israeli Minister of Justice Tzipi Livni and veteran Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat. Secretary Kerry’s framework, which does not involve preconditions on either side, is being hailed by many as a major breakthrough, as the last round of talks fizzled quickly in 2010. But while it is truly impressive that Kerry has managed the near-impossible feat of bringing Israelis and Palestinians to the negotiating table, the question of whether the talks will actually lead to anything of substance requires a more pragmatic approach, particularly when it comes to considering the patterns of Israel’s engagement in the Oslo Process over decades.

First, the negotiators themselves are not the ultimate decision-makers for their respective parties. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has never hidden his disdain for Livni, while Erekat does not have nearly as much political clout as he did during the Oslo Process in the 1990s. On the Israeli side, at least, Livni’s role gives Netanyahu someone in the center to blame if she fails. I would certainly expect Livni and Netanyahu to be constantly at odds while the former is working in Washington and there are factions within the Palestinian Authority that would rather see Erekat fail as well. Of course, it is impossible to tell right now what the dynamic between Erekat and Livni will be. They could end up being well-matched negotiating partners. But core issues like settlements, refugees, and Jerusalem could be their downfall–if they get that far.

This brings us to the second factor that needs a realistic examination. The core issues–Jerusalem, settlements, right of return of Palestinian refugees, and borders–have proven elusive for decades. While historically Israel and the Palestinians have been able to reach interim agreements, core issues have always been left on the back burner, only up for negotiation at the last possible minute. The Hebron Accords and Wye River both succeeded because it was stipulated that core issues would be debated at a later date, while President Clinton’s Camp David summit failed because of disagreement over core issues that were introduced, particularly the status of Jerusalem.

Although we do not know all the details of Kerry’s framework yet, it is highly unlikely that a hawk like Netanyahu would have agreed to it if Jerusalem was on the chopping block to start. Of course, Netanyahu did agree to a settlement freeze in 2009, but building in East Jerusalem and the West Bank has been pursued aggressively in the past few years. There may be more wiggle room on borders, but Netanyahu would have to give up most of Israel’s presence in the Jordan Valley, which he has always considered to be a strategic advantage.

Another issue that requires careful thought is Netanyahu and his coalition. After all, he was already skating on thin ice with the Hebron Accords in 1997 during his first term as Prime Minister, and his missteps at Wye caused his coalition to collapse, resulting in 1999 elections that replaced Netanyahu with Ehud Barak. Netanyahu’s now-famous speech at Bar Ilan University in 2009, in which he endorsed the two-state solution for the first time, was seen as a positive evolution, but regardless of whether he was sincere, he has clearly chosen to cater to his popular right-wing base rather than put his vision into action. Indeed, it is likely that Netanyahu will pull out of these negotiations if the Palestinians provoke an impasse by asking for what he considers to be too much.

On the Palestinian side, Abbas is also constrained by domestic politics. It must have taken some extreme wrangling to get the PLO and Fatah to agree that the time is ripe for talks. All it takes is one wrong move by Erekat–or one unreasonable Israeli demand–for Abbas to feel insecure enough about this position at home that he feels the need to break things off. This is not a case in which Abbas feels that he has nothing to lose, but there are limits to what they are likely willing to accept. The Palestinian Authority has sunken deeper into political and economic disarray in the past few years and Abbas and Erekat will have to tread very lightly. But attempting to please both the Israelis and the Palestinian public is a zero-sum game that automatically imposes consequences for pleasing one group or the other. Erekat’s challenge will be to strike a balance that mitigates any fallout on either side.

So why agree to negotiate at all? The answer is unclear at this moment. Perhaps Netanyahu is looking for talks to eventually collapse, hoping that such an exercise will help his political future by enabling him to blame the Palestinians, thus allowing him to push negotiations further down the road so he does not have to make concessions during his term in office. Maybe he will refuse to bow to pressure from fellow Likud politicos and HaBayit HaYehudi leader Naftali Bennett at the last minute, even though Bennett has already threatened to throw the coalition into crisis if Netanyahu agrees to negotiate based in the 1967 lines. More likely, though, he is moving on the peace process to please Secretary Kerry and the U.S., with no intention of signing any agreement whatsoever.

Abbas, on the other hand, knows his own political career is coming to an end. It is entirely possible that he believes he has nothing to lose, and that this is a legacy he wants to leave. But it is more plausible that he also wants something to show the Americans to prove that he is making an effort.

The U.S. will certainly offer packages of carrots to both sides during forthcoming talks that will entice each party. Unfortunately, history shows that these carrots cannot overcome the stalemate on final status issues. Netanyahu refused to move on implementing the Hebron Accords (the 1997 agreement that provided for Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank) even after Clinton offered him a bilateral defense treaty. Reassurances for the Palestinians will certainly take the form of increased aid, but Erekat knows there are concessions he cannot make, despite the Palestinian Authority’s desperate need for more cash.

There are way too many ifs to know how the talks will proceed and whether they will end with some sort of interim or comprehensive agreement. However, given the realities on the ground, all signs point to a repeat of 2010 and the further deterioration of the peace process, which many have declared dead for years. Kerry’s effort to take it off life support is bold and unexpected but applause and optimism are much too premature.

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