With the September target for Palestinian statehood action at the United Nations looming ever larger and new border clashes hinting of a change in Palestinian tactics, the pace of diplomacy aimed at restarting stalled Israeli-Palestinian negotiations picked up this week.
On Monday Israeli and Palestinian negotiators were in Washington for separate talks with U.S. officials in a last-ditch effort to find a formula for resuming direct negotiations before a UN vote officials here fear will further isolate Israel and undermine U.S. interests.
There were indications that Obama administration efforts to head off European support for that bid are beginning to pay off. One sign: this week’s proposal by France to resume direct peace talks without some of the preconditions the government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu regards as deal breakers.
“The French proposal represents a new European willingness to work to avert the September UN action,” said David Makovsky, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “The reason that is so important: Europe is the main battleground this summer.”
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas can count on more than 100 countries supporting a UN declaration, he said. But without strong European backing the resolution will have no more impact than a similar action by the international body in 1988.
While some analysts continue to warn of a possible third intifada, particularly if Palestinian expectations of a statehood breakthrough in September are not fulfilled, others argue that a younger generation of activists has learned from the “Arab Spring” protests that produced radical change in Egypt and Tunisia and are seeking nonviolent strategies to mobilize world opinion against Israel.
Judith Kipper, director of Middle East programs at the Institute of World Affairs, agreed that last weekend’s Golan Heights border clashes may have been provoked by Syrian leaders as a way of deflecting world attention from their brutal repression of dissent, but argued that earlier incidents in Gaza and the West Bank may be harbingers of a new tactic based on nonviolent protest.
“Younger Palestinians, who are better educated and who see the peaceful demonstrations through the Arab world, are definitely learning new techniques to press their case,” she said. “It is a strong weapon they haven’t used before. And in combination with the September effort at the UN, it’s very bad news for the Israelis, because this prime minister and this government are absolutely committed to the status quo. And it will put strong new pressure on the administration here.”
While the signs are mixed, recent developments hint that younger Palestinians may be moving toward mass nonviolent protest, she said — and that the Palestinian Authority may be trying to get in front of the trend.
Three weeks after major policy speeches by President Barack Obama roiled the pro-Israel community — and after the president reaffirmed U.S. opposition to any unilateral statehood action — the administration has picked up the pace of Middle East diplomacy, albeit at a low level.
On Monday U.S. officials held separate talks with Israeli special envoy Isaac Molho and longtime Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat in Washington, according to reports in the Israeli press.
The Washington Institute’s David Makovsky said the talks represent an effort to see if there is any possibility of resumed negotiations before the implementation of a Palestinian unity government that includes Hamas makes direct talks even more difficult.
“Each side wants to know what the Obama speech means for them, and whether there’s any way talks might be possible,” he said. “The timing is critical; something has to happen before a unity government comes together, at which point it becomes much more complicated for the Israelis.”
The administration, too, is seeking a better read on where the parties are and whether they would be willing to restart negotiations based on the principles Obama laid out in his May 19 State Department speech.
The French proposal for a peace conference in Paris came in response to mounting U.S. pressure on European leaders to shun the Palestinian UN statehood move in September.
U.S. officials are said to be cool to the French offer and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, while saying his government will “study the proposal,” is unlikely to accept it.
But with no hints of progress on other diplomatic tracks, Israel could be forced to seriously consider it if it hopes to keep critical European nations from supporting the Palestinian effort in the General Assembly in September.
“There’s an implicit, and maybe not so implicit, threat that if Israel does not accept the French proposal, the French may line up behind the Palestinian bid at the UN,” said a veteran pro-Israel lobbyist here who asked not to be named, “and that would be a disaster for Israel in terms of world opinion. It puts Israel in a real bind.”
Aaron David Miller, a longtime U.S. peace process official and now a scholar at the Wilson Center in Washington, said he “understands the intentions and motivations” behind the French proposal as “people look for ways to pre-empt the September effort and create a level of confidence between the parties, which can be done only if they find a joint project to cooperate on.”
But he also sees danger in a proposal created in an absence of any real movement by the parties.
“Right now we have a virtual [Fatah-Hamas] unity agreement, a virtual statehood effort and now an effort to create a virtual peace process in Paris,” he said. “It’s a profound misreading of the current situation to create this kind of high-level proposal at this stage.”
Miller said the kind of indirect talks that took place in Washington this week might be the only viable option for averting UN action in September and European support for it.
“Quiet contacts, unilateral instead of bilateral, is what makes sense now, in an effort to see of there’s anything there,” he said.
But this week’s talks may have been at too low a diplomatic level to have much impact, he said.
Meanwhile, the Palestinians continue to explore different tactics for putting international pressure on the Jewish state — including the possibility of mass nonviolent protests.
Recent border clashes may be a “dress rehearsal” for tactics that could pose a major dilemma for the Netanyahu government, Miller said.
“If this were translatable into a disciplined and organized movement — if you could mobilize hundreds of thousands of unarmed Palestinians, including women and children, to march for peace and press against the checkpoints — that could combine with a celebratory statehood announcement in September to have an impact.”
But such an effort would also “confront the Israelis with a terrible predicament and open up the potential for very dangerous confrontation and violence,” Miller said.
Shoshana Bryen, senior director for security policy at the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs (JINSA), said that “some Palestinians” are starting to understand the advantages of a nonviolent approach, but that their leaders remain too susceptible to manipulation by outside forces with very different agendas — starting with the Assad regime in Syria.
And attempts to penetrate Israel’s borders are unlikely to have a positive impact on their goals, she said.
“I don’t see it as a strategy,” she said. “Israel has said — rightfully — that its borders can’t be breached. This is not a strategy of nonviolent protest; it’s saying, how far can we go before someone bites us back? And can we control the publicity that attends to what we did?”
That may reinforce the views of Israel’s strongest critics, she said, but it’s unlikely to advance the statehood cause.