It’s tempting to shelve efforts to revive Israeli-Palestinian talks while Egypt is in chaos and the Muslim holy month of Ramadan begins. But U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is undeterred and plans to return to the region. He should. Timing and uncertainty complicate matters, but that’s nothing new in this protracted conflict.
Just last month, Israel’s Central Command military chief warned that absent diplomatic progress, the West Bank may implode and Palestinian security forces (now Israel’s key partner in maintaining security) will reduce co-operation with his troops. That’s one good reason to get the parties to the table.
The gaps on substantive issues such as territory, security, refugees and Jerusalem remain huge, perhaps insurmountable. Even the prenegotiation stage is fraught. Mr. Abbas demands in advance that talks be held on the basis of 1967 borders and that settlement construction be frozen. Israel wants to start talking and then lay out its ideas. For credibility at home, Mr. Abbas demands the advance release of prisoners convicted before the 1993 Oslo Accords, while Mr. Netanyahu wants to do so in tranches, based on progress in the talks.
The publics know their leaders: In the latest poll jointly released by the Israeli Harry Truman Institute for the Advancement for Peace and the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, 68 per cent of Israelis and 69 per cent of Palestinians said the chances of establishing a Palestinian state alongside Israel in the next five years are low or non-existent. Similar percentages support the establishment of such a state, but past failures have lowered expectations and heightened fears.
Palestinian and Israeli leaders don’t want to make necessary concessions but both realize that time is running out. Mr. Abbas’s days are numbered and his steady commitment to a two-state solution and nonviolence may be lost on his successor. Mr. Netanyahu recently told a Knesset committee that while negotiations would be hard, he doesn’t want the alternative of a binational state. This is his clearest statement on the issue since 2009.
What’s changed? First, Mr. Abbas has an alternative. If no progress is made by September, he’ll likely return to the United Nations and seek membership in the International Criminal Court. Mr. Netanyahu knows that if Israel is blamed for failure in talks, it won’t be as easy to count on a U.S. veto for protection, while criticism and punitive measures by the European Union will increase.
Second, Mr. Netanyahu has lost control of his Likud Party, where top positions in central bodies were recently won by hard-liners openly opposed to two states and peace talks. Getting to the table will bolster the Prime Minister domestically and keep open the option of a fourth term.
Third, and unpredictably, Hamas is weakened by the ouster of its patron, Mohammed Morsi. With Israel’s encouragement, the Egyptian army is clamping down on jihadis in Sinai and closing tunnels used for Hamas arms transfers to Gaza. Saudi Arabia, now playing an active if quiet role to stabilize Egypt, is unlikely to give much rope to Hamas. For now, in the internecine world of Palestinian politics, Mr. Abbas’s position is strengthened.
Fourth, the Arab Peace Initiative, first proposed in 2002, still provides a critical umbrella for Mr. Kerry’s efforts. Instability in Syria and Egypt leaves its fate in the hands of Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf states, but they’ve always been its key backers. Mr. Netanyahu’s never been enthusiastic about the terms – a return to 1967 borders for the promise of normalization with all Arab states – but his response to a recent softening of the terms that includes land swaps on the territorial question indicates another subtle change in his position.
This might all add up to enough of a framework for Mr. Netanyahu and Mr. Abbas to begin talking.
Others already are. Last Sunday, under the auspices of the Geneva Initiative (an NGO dedicated to keeping the two-state option alive), an almost surreal encounter took place in Ramallah between more than 50 activists from Likud and Shas (Israel’s governing party and a right-wing opposition party) and Palestinian negotiators Nabil Shaath and Yasser Abed Rabbo. It was a very small step, but shouldn’t be overlooked. The majority of Israelis and Palestinians who simultaneously support two states and despair of a resolution are looking for leadership. Mr. Netanyahu will have his people’s support. If Mr. Abbas can’t deliver the same, the responsibility will be his.