Last chance at peace for Israel and Palestine?

Both sides remain skeptical that new talks will yield any final deal
WASHINGTON, DC - JULY 30: U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry (C) makes a statement with Israeli Justice Minister Tzipi Livni (L) and Palestinian chief negotiator Saeb Erekat (R) during a press conference on the Middle East Peace Process Talks at the Department of State on July 30, 2013 in Washington, DC. Israeli Justice Minister Tzipi Livni and Palestinian chief negotiator Saeb Erekat joined Kerry in some of the first direct talks in three years between Israel and Palestine. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)
Last chance at peace?
Win McNamee/Getty Images

“The purpose of the Jewish state,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told a pro-Israel lobby in Washington last year, “is to secure the Jewish future.”

Netanyahu was trying to drum up support for a hard line against Iran. In a martial speech that invoked the Holocaust, he argued that Israel must be able to defend itself, by itself, against any threat. During his 30-minute address, he did not so much as mention the Palestinians.

Why would he? Netanyahu comes from the Israeli political right and has never been a champion of Palestinian statehood. And Israel’s relations with the Palestinians had fallen from the political agenda of many Israelis. Peace talks had broken down with little fanfare in 2010. While Hamas and other militant groups in the Gaza Strip regularly sent crude rockets into Israel, the West Bank, controlled by the more moderate Fatah party, was quiet. There hadn’t been a suicide attack in Israel since 2008. Israelis spoke of “managing” the conflict, rather than solving it. The issue barely even came up during the 2013 general election.

Then, last month, the United States surprised the world by announcing that Israel and the Palestinians had agreed to resume talks aimed at reaching a “final status” agreement—a peace deal that would see the creation of an independent Palestinian state. Israeli Justice Minister Tzipi Livni and Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat flew to Washington to formally launch the process.

There are several reasons why negotiations are restarting now. It’s unlikely anything would have happened without intensive diplomatic efforts by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, who sees peace between Israel and the Palestinians as a key component in America’s efforts to build regional stability in the face of a potential showdown with Iran. But Netanyahu’s co-operation might also be explained by his assertion that Israel’s primary responsibility is to secure its Jewish future.

“What is necessary for Israel is a border,” says Yossi Beilin, a former Israeli politician. “Without a border, in a very few years we are going to be a minority of Jews dominating a majority of Palestinians, and this will not be tolerable—not for us, not for the Palestinians and not for the world. Those of us who believe in a Jewish democratic state—the Zionist ideal—cannot tolerate something like this.”

Beilin recognized the threat that Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza posed to the country’s Jewish and democratic character decades ago, and was in a position to do something about it.

As deputy foreign minister in the early 1990s, he was an architect of the Oslo Process—negotiations aimed at ending the conflict and establishing an interim Palestinian government before a “permanent status” agreement could be reached.

Accords were signed. But a final status agreement slipped away as Yitzhak Rabin, Israel’s prime minister, was assassinated by a Jewish radical, and Israel and the Palestinians suffered through the Second Intifada.

Beilin says that some right-wing Israeli politicians who initially opposed the Oslo Accords cynically came to see their utility as cover for avoiding a final deal, while continuing to expand Jewish settlements in the West Bank. “They made the interim agreement a permanent one,” he says. “We never thought about it lasting for 20 years.”

But over time a change happened among sections of Israel’s political right, including members of Netanyahu’s Likud Party. Leading politicians such as former prime ministers Ehud Olmert and Ariel Sharon—once a strong supporter of Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip—came to see those settlements as a liability rather than the vanguard of an expanding Jewish state. They understood, says Beilin, that “believing in the greater Israel ideal would actually end the future of the Zionist dream.”

It may be that Netanyahu now shares this opinion. Beilin speaks with the Israeli prime minister and says Netanyahu is “sincere” in his desire for a Palestinian state.

But Beilin fears Netanyahu’s idea of what that state would entail—one far smaller than the territory Israel captured in the 1967 war and that excludes all of east Jerusalem—would never be acceptable to the Palestinians.

Khaled Elgindy, a fellow at the Brookings Institution who advised the Palestinian leadership on negotiations with Israel during the 2000s, has similar concerns. “Behaviour on the ground is reflective of one’s intentions,” he says, noting the continued growth of Jewish settlements in the West Bank during Netanyahu’s premiership. “That doesn’t show movement toward the two states.”

Elgindy spoke to Maclean’s from Ramallah, the de facto capital of the Palestinian West Bank. Most residents there, he says, are indifferent or skeptical about the resumption of peace talks. “They’ve seen this movie before, and there’s nothing substantively different from past go-rounds that would make them think differently,” he says. “The Palestinian public in general has completely lost confidence in an American-led peace process in general, and they have less than zero faith in this particular Israeli government, which is seen as very pro-settlement, very right wing.”

Pessimism is always justified when it comes to this conflict. Netanyahu might genuinely believe a sovereign Palestinian state is in Israel’s best interests. He may also calculate that pretending he believes it is good enough.

“I think that both sides go through the motions,” says Efraim Inbar, director of the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies at Bar-Ilan University in Israel. “The Americans want negotiations. We cannot say no to America, so we go.

“Every Israeli government has a certain duty to prove to its people that it’s trying. It may not be enough for the Europeans or the Americans, but it has to convince the Israelis that it doesn’t miss an opportunity to make peace. Because after all, if we go to war afterwards, we want to have the feeling that this was a no-choice war, that it was a war imposed on us.”

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas enters these negotiations with a large slice of Palestinian territory—the Hamas-run Gaza Strip—beyond his authority. Any peace deal endorsed only by Abbas will therefore be incomplete.

“Hamas will continue to shoot at us,” says Inbar. “So why should we make a deal when they [Fatah] don’t control all the Palestinians?”

But Jonathan Fine, a lecturer at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, Israel, says a deal struck without Hamas could effectively sideline the more militant Palestinian movement, which is already weakened by a loss of support from regional allies, such as the recently ousted Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt. “It’s a wonderful opportunity for upgrading Fatah and putting [Abbas] back on the horse, if he has enough brains. And we can help him with that, if we have enough brains as well,” he says.

But a deal will be elusive. The opening positions of the two sides are far apart and perhaps unbridgeable.

Given this reality, says Shlomo Brom, a senior research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv, it’s important to have a Plan B in case negotiations are not successful. Absent a final deal, the two sides should reach for more modest goals to demonstrate that negotiations were not worthless—transferring more land in the West Bank to Palestinian control, for example.

But even then, keeping alive the idea of a negotiated two-state solution if these talks fail seems remote. Israeli settlement of the West Bank would likely accelerate, and the Palestinians would intensify efforts to get recognition at international bodies such as the United Nations. There is a sense this might really be the last chance the two sides have to amicably divide the land they now share.

“If this time it doesn’t work out, it’s hard to imagine a year from now, two years from now, five years from now, that they’d have another go at it. I don’t think anybody would be left to take it seriously,” says Elgindy.

Brom, a retired brigadier general, took part in peace talks during the 1990s. He says withdrawing from the West Bank would leave Israel more exposed to potential security threats. The territory, he says, is the “soft belly” of Israel.

But keeping it, he says, is also risky. Prolonging its conflict with the Palestinians harms Israel’s relations with its European and American allies. And holding the territory will inevitably result in the emergence of a single state in which Jews are not the majority.

“The first objective of Zionism is to have a sovereign Jewish state, so the risk of losing a sovereign Jewish state is a mega security threat,” he says. “In everything there are risks and opportunities. Here is the opportunity to build a peaceful relationship with a neighbouring Palestinian state, and to control security issues through co-operation with this state.”