Processing Delay: The Arab-Israeli peace process has never been more irrelevant to developments in the Middle East.
June 15, 2012
Summer 2012. Israel’s elections have been delayed until late next year by the formation of a new coalition government. The “Arab Spring” is producing Muslim Brotherhood victories, Salafi gains, chaos in Syria, disorder in Egypt, tremors in Jordan. Iran’s nuclear program moves steadily forward despite tougher sanctions and ongoing negotiations between Iran and the world’s major powers. In the United States, Barack Obama and Mitt Romney begin to face off in the upcoming presidential election.
Amid these developments, the so-called “peace process” will enter its 46th year on June 10. For it was on that day in 1967 that a cease-fire in the Six-Day War was declared, leaving Israel in possession of the West Bank, Gaza, Sinai, the Golan Heights, and Jerusalem but divided over what to do with its newfound gains.
Israel withdrew from the Sinai in 1982 and from Gaza in 2007, and no one is discussing the Golan these days due to Syria’s internal crisis. But the future of Jerusalem and the West Bank remains a matter of intense international — including American — diplomatic effort. While professional peacemakers may want to get negotiations going again, the inconvenient truth is that none of the parties to this conflict have adequate incentives to take serious political risks right now. Forget about reaching a final settlement for the next year and likely far longer — neither the situation on the ground nor the politics in Israel and among the Palestinians makes it at all likely.
In the fall of 2003, Israel took the first steps to withdraw its forces and settlers from Palestinian territories. Despairing of any possibility for productive negotiations while Yasir Arafat led the PLO, but under heavy pressure to make some move, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon turned to Gaza, which the old general viewed as a military burden rather than as an Israeli asset. After a grueling political battle that extended through 2004 and half of 2005, a resolute Sharon carried out his plan to remove Israeli settlements and military bases from Gaza in August 2005, breaking up his own Likud party over it.
This political move, which resulted in the creation of the Kadima party, would hardly have made sense had Gaza been Sharon’s final plan. By late fall of 2005, Sharon had already fought and won in Likud for the Gaza disengagement. But he wanted, his closest collaborators believe, to go further — to set Israel’s borders in the West Bank more or less along the current fence line, taking in roughly 12 percent of the territory and protecting all the large settlements. In his view, that 12 percent would shrink in some future final status agreement with the Palestinians, but an interim move in the West Bank would provide defensible lines until then. It would also serve as the basis for a Palestinian state in the West Bank, thereby finally separating Israel from the Palestinians. It would allow Israel to act, not wait decade after decade hoping for the day when Palestinian moderation allowed the PLO’s leadership to sign a deal.
Sharon’s stroke in early 2006 did not kill that plan, and indeed, Ehud Olmert ran and won on something like it when he succeeded Sharon as leader of Kadima. Olmert called it hitkansut – translated as convergence, gathering, or rallying together. The idea was the same: pull back from isolated settlements and set Israel’s final borders.
Under pressure from U.S. President George W. Bush, Olmert agreed to wait and try to negotiate a deal with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. In Bush’s view, a negotiated deal would bring Israel the Palestinian commitments it needed, and bring Abbas the legitimacy he needed. Olmert, believing he had a full term of office before him, thought he could comply with Bush’s wish and move unilaterally later if no breakthrough was forthcoming. He never had the chance, however, falling victim to a combination of personal scandal and Israel’s disappointment with the outcome of the 2006 Lebanon war. Moreover, the June 2007 Hamas coup in Gaza left the Palestinian populace and leadership split, and it suggested to Israelis that withdrawal of any sort from the West Bank might permit the same sort of terrorist takeover that withdrawal had allowed in Gaza and in south Lebanon.
Now that former Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz — who had previously presented a peace plan that would result in the creation of a Palestinian state in 60 percent of the West Bank’s land — has won control of Kadima and joined the government, there has been some speculation about whether the “peace process” will soon be revived. It will not. There have been no negotiations for three and a half years, the result mostly of foolish and inept diplomacy by the Obama administration. By declaring that a freeze on construction in settlements and in Jerusalem was a prerequisite for negotiations, Obama and his envoys (led by George Mitchell) cornered Abbas — how could he appear less “Palestinian” than the Americans?
But the breakdown of negotiations presented Abbas with another problem. His greatest asset in his rivalry with Hamas was the claim that he could produce a state while Hamas could produce only violence. No negotiations, no state — so Abbas has been forced to look elsewhere for validation during the Obama years.
In the absence of negotiations, Abbas has grasped for a unity government with Hamas. Despite previous failed agreements, notably a pact mediated by the Saudi king in February 2007, Abbas is now trying this route again. Talks beginning on May 27 were to select a new cabinet within 10 days, and though they have been delayed, they may succeed by the end of June. The plan is for that new government to rule for six months and then hold elections, but neither Hamas nor Fatah wants to subject itself to the unpredictability of the polls. For Abbas, elections might end his years of happy globe-trotting. He claims that retirement is his fondest wish, but if the Palestinian population will put up with him for a few more years, he will put up with them.
Elections aren’t even the toughest challenge such a coalition would face. Security tops the list. Who would lead the Palestinian Authority’s various forces? Who can expect Hamas to disarm when it has never been defeated by Fatah, either in combat or at the ballot box? Because “national unity” is widely popular among Palestinians, Abbas and Hamas will keep at it and may even briefly achieve a “unity government” — but it won’t last…