Unless Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has something up his sleeve, the collapse of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks last week has put the Palestinians on track to ask the United Nations for full recognition as a state in Gaza and the West Bank, and to ask the International Criminal Court to end Israeli settlement activity beyond Israel’s 1967 border.
That is the analysis of Gerald Steinberg, a political science professor at Bar-Ilan University, who said such moves would then allow Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to retire.
“This will be Abbas’ final act,” Steinberg said. “He wants to go into history as a successful leader for the Palestinian cause.”
Both Israel and the United States have consistently argued against granting the Palestinians full UN recognition as a state, insisting that statehood can only be achieved through direct bilateral negotiations. But after nine months of fruitless peace talks convened under the auspices of U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, the Palestinians are now in a position to say they tried but failed to reach an accord.
Recognition by the UN of Palestine as a full member state follows the UN General Assembly’s overwhelming vote in 2012 to grant Palestine non-member state status. Even before the peace talks officially broke down, the Palestine Liberation Organization’s central council adopted on April 1 a plan to pursue attempts to join 60 United Nations bodies and international agreements to further its drive towards legitimization.
That announcement caused Israel to momentarily halt the peace talks. But they quietly resumed only to be suspended by Netanyahu after Hamas and the PLO announced plans to form an interim unity government within the next five months, to be followed by elections next year. Hamas, which is deemed a terrorist organization by the U.S, the European Union and Israel, maintains control of the Gaza Strip after forcing out Abbas’ Fatah party in 2007. Fatah controls Palestinian areas of the West Bank.
Netanyahu’s suspension of the peace talks was nothing more than a “pretext” to end them, according to Ephraim Sneh, a former deputy defense minister who had served in the Knesset from 1992 until 2008 as a member of the Labor Party, which is now the opposition party.
“The government is using every pretext to condemn Abbas and portray him as a terrorist,” he said in a conference call arranged by the Israel Policy Forum. “He is not a terrorist; he is one of the most anti-terrorist leaders in the Palestinian leadership. … What you hear from our side is not across-the-aisle condemnation of the [Palestinian unity agreement]. It is the government of Netanyahu that uses this shallow, temporary agreement to portray Abbas as a Holocaust denier and terrorist.”
Asked about Israelis who disagree with Netanyahu’s assessment, Sneh replied: “In repeating one big lie time and time again, the people accept it as the truth. Israel is a free country but until now the opposition has not been very vocal. And until recently, the leaders of the Israeli parties have shied away from the Palestinian issue — ignoring and sweeping the basic issue of the Palestinians under the rug. … Since 1996 there were no Israeli general elections in which the issue at the center of the election was do we want a one- or two-state solution.”
Sneh said the Palestinians’ attempt to form a unity government should have been “ignored” by Israel because it will fail.
“There is a river of blood between them,” he explained, referring to Hamas and the Palestinian Authority, adding that each side came to the table from different positions.
“Hamas is weak and hated by most of the important governments,” he said. “It is isolated and lost its base in Damascus. It is at a point of extreme weakness and is trying to gain points with the Palestinian public, which always wants unity. What motivated Abbas was a desire to strengthen his position in the Gaza Strip. …Both sides will gain popularity by this move, but there will be no agreement.”
Although Abbas has said Fatah rules would apply in the interim unity government, Sneh said he does not believe Hamas will agree to the three conditions Israel and the U.S. have stipulated Hamas must agree to before joining a unity government: the recognition of Israel, acceptance of prior Palestinian agreements with Israel, and an end of all violence against Israel.
“I consider Hamas as a movement which is ideologically anti-Israeli and anti-Jewish, but fortunately today they are weaker and in this temporary partnership they are on the weak side,” Sneh added. “I’m not sure they will hold onto control of the Gaza Strip by the end of 2014.”
Steinberg said he too believes a unity government will not work and that if one is formed, it would only be a “façade.”
But any such unity government would not only be a “game changer” but a “game stopper,” according to Michael Oren, Israel’s former ambassador to the United States.
He told JTA that Israel’s next step should be to withdraw to borders it could live with, creating a de facto Palestinian state.
“What are the borders that give us the maximum amount of security and embrace the maximum number of Israelis?” Oren asked. “There are people on all sides of the Israeli political spectrum that have considered the necessity of taking our destiny into our own hands.”
But Sneh dismissed that suggestion, saying: “The amount of political will required to take unilateral steps is the same required for a negotiated agreement. You will still need to evacuate all the settlements that are outside the security barrier. The one who has the courage to do that will have an agreement with the Palestinians. Why go at it unilaterally? There is no gentle way to withdraw unilaterally; you would have the same confrontation with the settlers as you would in an agreement, so go for the real thing.”
Sneh stressed, however, that he believes peace talks “with the current Israeli government are a waste of time because two-thirds of the coalition is politically and ideologically committed to the idea of a greater Israel and expanding the settlements.”
“The problem is that there are 42 members of the Knesset who are very determined, relentless and ruthless in achieving their goals and … who hold the country by the throat,” he said. “They hold all the important positions in the Knesset and the government in their hands and dictate what goes on. In the nine months of negotiations, 14,000 apartments were started that are in various stages of construction and there were 70,000 more settlers. What is the purpose of the negotiations if the map you are discussing is so dramatically changed?”
Sneh added that he believes “that sooner or later the Israeli opposition will come up with guidelines of its own — an outline of a solution. … I hope the peace camp can now gain more courage.”
But Steinberg insisted, “There is no real peace camp in Israel. Sixty percent of Israelis say they believe there can be peace, but they also believe the Palestinians are not interested. And that has not changed.”