Tel Aviv — The announcement by Israel’s pro-settler housing minister this week was provocative: a green light to market 1,200 housing units in Jewish communities over the Green Line just days before peace negotiations with the Palestinians are scheduled to take place for the first time in nearly five years.
The Palestinians were quick to denounce and threaten a boycott. A spokesman for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu defended it as nothing new. But despite the appearance of a crisis, the negotiations have not been upended as they had been in the past over Israeli building in east Jerusalem and the West Bank.
“This is a theater and there are actors on the stage, and every actor is playing their role as scripted. There are no surprises here,” said Gershon Baskin, a former director of the Israel Palestinian Center for Research and Information. Baskin and others said that both U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas were ready for such announcements, seen by many as a gesture by Netanyahu to hardliners in his government.
And so, despite all of the background noise and a high degree of pessimism among both the Israeli and Palestinian publics (as well as most political analysts) that the talks are doomed to fail, the direct peace negotiations will get off the ground this week.
How far they will get is another question. Most observers believe that the sides are simply too far apart on key issues like Jerusalem, refugees and borders to reach a permanent “end-of-conflict” agreement. And it doesn’t appear as if the trust is there either. But that doesn’t mean there are glimmers of optimism about the prospects for progress.
Dore Gold, a former foreign policy adviser to Netanyahu, said that the negotiations have value even if they fall short of a permanent-status agreement.
“Among professionals who have dealt with the peace process over the last 15 years, the general assessment is that the gap is too wide to reach a permanent-status agreement,” he said.
“Nevertheless, negotiations can be very important, especially if you look at alternative paths toward reaching an agreement, and to understand the limitations to an agreement. Only when you are in talks, you can get a better idea” of the possibilities.
Gold declined to go into what he meant by an “alternative” path toward an agreement. He’s not the only one. Some in the Israeli center, like Kadima party leader Shaul Mofaz, have suggested that Israelis and Palestinians should lower their sights and work toward a long-term interim agreement on boundaries and security, postponing more existential issues like Jerusalem and refugees for later.
The Palestinians have ruled this out because of the unfulfilled promise that the Oslo-era interim agreements would lead to a final deal 14 years ago. But that could theoretically change if the nine-month negotiations effort comes up short of an agreement and the Palestinian leadership believes that winning an Israeli withdrawal is better than no achievement, said Nathan Thrall, an analyst with the International Crisis Group.
“It’s a remote possibility, but it’s a more likely outcome than a final-status agreement,” he said. Outside the Palestinian leadership there might be more support for an interim deal. “Even a party like Hamas can talk about a long-term ‘hudna’ [Arabic for cease-fire] without an end of conflict or recognition, and there are sectors of the Israeli political spectrum that have come to this position.”
Thrall noted that this also would require a major shift by the U.S., which has never endorsed the idea of a new interim agreement. For the U.S. — and for Netanyahu — the very start of the peace talks are an achievement. Progress toward an interim agreement would likely reduce outside diplomatic intervention in the process from the European Union and the United Nations.
“Kerry has been pretty effective; he got the sides to sit down to talk, where they weren’t before,” said one U.S. official who is not authorized to speak to reporters and requested anonymity as a result.
The opening of the peace talks this week were preceded by Israel’s controversial release of 26 of some 100 Palestinian prisoners promised by Jerusalem as a confidence-building measure.
The release, which included many prisoners convicted of killing Israelis or of being accomplices, was challenged in the Israeli high court by victims’ relatives as a betrayal of justice; the appeal was rejected. Swapping convicted killers in return for the opening of negotiations was also criticized as a bad deal that would only boost terrorism.
Israel’s government reportedly decided to release the prisoners at midnight in order to avoid potentially embarrassing pictures of Palestinian victory celebrations. Baskin said that the decision to release the prisoners is a sign that Netanyahu is serious about the negotiations.
“If Netanyahu brought the prisoners deal to his government, and pushed through the release 100 prisoners with blood on their hands, it’s an indication that he’s serious,” said Baskin. “He knows what a negotiation means. … He’s knows that Israel is not going to remain with 50 percent of the West Bank.”
For the talks to succeed, the sides have to build up mutual trust and keep the content of the discussions out of the public domain, analysts say. That’s because no breakthroughs have ever been achieved in the glare of the media. If there’s constant leaks, it’s a sign the talks are going badly and are likely to collapse.
Another indication of whether the talks are progressing or not will be the volume level of opponents of an accord such as Hamas, on the Palestinian side, and the Jewish settlers on the Israeli side, wrote Aaron David Miller, a former peace process negotiator on the website of CNN. The louder the criticism, the more serious the talks are.
So far the settlers are keeping their criticism circumspect and aren’t leading any mass protests. Danny Dayan, the former chairman of the settlers’ council, said he is concerned about a possible Palestinian uprising after, what he believes, will be the collapse of the talks.
“They will inevitably fail,” Dayan said. “There is no chance for success. Abu Mazen rejected [former Prime Minister Ehud] Olmert’s peace offer and has not moderated since. When they fail, there is a possibility that they will explode, and cause a lot of violence.”
But even among the Palestinians — who have been suspicious of the Netanyahu government and supported Abbas’ resistance to negotiation — there is openness to talks. A recent poll by Arab World For Research and Development found Palestinian youths evenly divided in their support for the negotiations.
Many on the Palestinian side are willing to give talks a chance after years of armed uprising and efforts to pressure Israel in the international area have yielded few changes on the ground. They are even willing to forgive Abbas for dropping the demand for a settlement freeze, and look past building announcements.
“No one likes the status quo. People have seen the status quo isn’t delivering any positive outcomes,” said Bashar Azzeh, a Palestinian businessman. “Going to negotiations is better than doing nothing. Some people are saying the more we wait, the more settlements there will be.”