Amid mixed signals from Palestinian leaders about the prospects of reaching a peace agreement with Israel in the next year, Israeli analysts were generally pessimistic as the talks were set to resume Tuesday in Egypt.
“To my mind, the necessary conditions for success are not on the ground yet,” said Yoram Meital, chairman of the Chaim Herzog Center for Middle East Studies and Diplomacy at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. “On the one hand we should support any effort to renew the discussions, but at the same time it would be extremely naïve to think that it could result in any success.”
He recalled that the collapse of peace talks at Camp David in 2000 “led to the renewal of violence.”
“This is unfortunately our experience when conditions are not [ripe] on the ground for final status negotiations,” Meital added. “These talks were arranged by the White House for obvious political reasons — declining public support for President [Barack] Obama and a lot of criticism of his policies, including the Middle East. And it’s a bit problematic for the parties to get into peace negotiations when their main objective is to just survive Sept. 26.”
That is the deadline for the end of a 10-month partial building freeze Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu imposed unilaterally in an effort to jumpstart peace talks. Although Netanyahu has not said whether he would extend the freeze, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas was quoted Monday as saying he feared “the freeze will be cancelled and they resume settlement [construction] everywhere.”
The word “everywhere” leaves some wiggle room, however, and Gerald Steinberg, a political science professor at Bar-Ilan University, said he expects Netanyahu to announce a continuation of the freeze in 80 to 85 percent of the territories. That would allow building to resume in the major settlement blocs that Israel expects to retain.
“If the Obama administration didn’t already have a package for how to deal with Sept. 26, it was foolish to have this meeting in the first place,” he said, referring to last week’s White House summit. “There must have been an agreeable package … otherwise they wouldn’t have done all this.”
Steinberg added that he would “not be surprised to see a crisis on the 26th, but it may be a theatrical crisis in which Abbas stages a walkout but he has already told the Americans he would come back if Netanyahu would say OK to the freeze for a little longer.”
Yossi Alpher, an Israeli political analyst and a co-editor of BitterLemons.org, an Israeli-Palestinian political dialogue website, said he is not so sure that the two leaders have worked out a solution to the construction freeze issue.
“Clearly if they don’t find a solution there will be no negotiations,” he said.
Asked about reports the two sides have agreed to negotiate a settlement taking one issue at a time rather than trying to formulate a comprehensive deal all at once, Alpher said they first have to deal with the freeze issue.
“It seems more than obvious to me that even if the two leaders find a way around the settlement issue that there is very little basis for a complete agreement between them,” he added. “I argue that the negotiations are bound to fail. I would be delighted to be proven wrong, but the objective conditions are such that very little progress can be made. Both of their ideological beliefs mitigate against it — Netanyahu regarding the future of Jerusalem and Abbas on the Palestinian right of return.”
Alpher said he believes the two sides would be better off narrowing the talks to the broad territorial issue and “put aside core issues like the holy places of Jerusalem and the refugees. That would give them some chance for success. But the [White House] invitation called for the parties to solve all issues within a year — which is preposterous.”
The issue of territorial compromise was discussed a decade ago at the Camp David summit and, “according to all accounts, the Palestinians agreed that Israel would maintain settlement blocs within the framework of a final agreement,” noted Ido Aharoni, Israel’s acting consul general here.
“That means settlements may not be a make-it or break-it situation,” he said.
Aharoni said the two Palestinian terrorist attacks in the West Bank that left four Israelis dead and one injured within 48 hours of the Washington talks “only emphasized the need to reinvigorate the discussion about Israel’s security needs.”
“In the last 10 years, Iran has deepened its influence in the region and is using Hamas, Islamic Jihad and Hezbollah” as its proxies, he said. “Iran has more influence today in south Lebanon, Judea and Samaria [the West Bank], and Gaza than it did 10 years ago. It is providing [its proxies] with weapons, knowledge and religious fervor, and with technical, financial and spiritual aid they are becoming more sophisticated militarily … and have put Tel Aviv in range both from Lebanon and Gaza.”
“We have no intention of allowing the new security reality on the ground to predetermine the outcome of negotiations,” Aharoni added.
Steinberg said the security arrangement Israel is looking for would allow it to “maintain some sort of serious presence over the boundary. The area around the Jordan Valley is also an important part of the dominant Israeli security package.”
But Abbas was quoted this week as saying that once a treaty is reached, Palestinians would not “accept any Israeli presence, whether civilian or military, on the Palestinian territories.”
Other Palestinian officials sent mixed signals in recent days about prospects for the talks’ success. For instance, Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator, was quoted as saying that Netanyahu was not serious about peace but later said his words had been taken out of context. Another Palestinian official told the Arab media that he was pessimistic about the talks, but another official voiced optimism.
Shaul Goldstein, mayor of the regional council of Gush Etzion, whose settlements south of Jerusalem are virtually all on the Israeli side of the separation barrier, said he too is pessimistic of a breakthrough in the talks.
“Both sides understand and know we want peace and no more terror and no more war, but they can’t agree,” he said. “Unfortunately, the Palestinians are still inciting against Israel on the TV and in their schools.”
A more upbeat note was sounded by Ziad Asali, president of the Washington-based American Task Force on Palestine, who said he believes it is “likely that they will complete a framework” for peace.
“They said they would work on a framework that would define the broad understandings of a resolution on the final status issues,” he said. “That is to be followed by a more comprehensive, elaborate agreement worked out by the technocrats.”
“What happened in the last week was positive and necessary,” he said, referring to the summit. “But the work ahead is still very challenging.”
“There has to be more discipline in public messages and the usual rhetoric has to be more disciplined than before,” Asali stressed.
He did not say whom he was referring to, but Netanyahu spoke in recent days of being prepared to make an “historic compromise,” while Abbas was quoted as saying he would not concede to Israel on any of the core issues separating the two sides. He said that if forced to make compromises on the refugees or borders he would pack his “bags and leave.” And he flatly rejected a demand by Netanyahu that the Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state.
Stephen P. Cohen, author of the book, “Beyond America’s Grasp, a Century of Failed Diplomacy in the Middle East,” said he has room for hope that the negotiations will succeed “because of the different pressures on Netanyahu that might move him forward.”
Abbas will continue with the talks, Cohen said, only if there are “no further embarrassments — he has to make sure that something happens.”
Asked what might propel Netanyahu forward, Cohen said he believes that Netanyahu will come under attack by the settlers no matter how small a compromise he makes.
“He will try to please them by taking minor steps, but if they rebel and treat him like a traitor, he will be pushed to go further,” he said.