by Dr. David Aikman
September 28, 2010
Now that the Israelis have decided not to extend their voluntary, ten-month construction freeze within the West Bank settlements they control, U.S., European and Arab diplomats are holding their breath to see how Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas will respond. He says he will delay making an official response until he has attended a meeting of the Arab League on October 4. This leaves the Israeli-Palestinian “peace process” in perhaps its most delicate position since the U.S. nudged Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu to take up serious talks with Abbas several weeks ago.
Hoping that the current climate offered an unusually promising opportunity for success, President Obama in early September pushed for the resumption of direct talks between Netanyahu and Abbas. After months of prevarication and refusals to deal one-on-one with any Israeli leader, Abbas had decided to re-engage with Israel. Netanyahu has matured as a leader and is, indeed, more popular as Israeli’s prime minister than during his first time in office in the 1990’s. The U.S. helped to clear the air further by backing off its freeze-out approach toward Israel and has apparently made clear to the Palestinians that it is prepared to open its checkbook if a final agreement seems within reach.
The situation nonetheless remains precarious. Abbas is probably in a weaker political position with ordinary Palestinians than Netanhayu is with Israelis, and there is widespread cynicism about the talks on the Palestinian “street” in the West Bank, which is under the control of the Palestinian Authority. Vehement opposition to the talks, moreover, pervades Hamas-controlled Gaza, where about 40% of the 2.5 million Palestinians live. The Islamist Hamas is dedicated to the total elimination of Israel and has attempted to sabotage the peace talks by murdering four Israeli civilians, including a pregnant mother, as they were driving on a road in the West Bank. Fortunately, Netanyahu resisted suggestions to react to the outrage with military toughness, a move that might have torpedoed the talks altogether. Abbas badly needs this diplomatic cover to stay in the talks after threatening to quit if the construction freeze was withdrawn. American and European diplomats, meanwhile, hope that the Arab League will publicly encourage Abbas to stay in the negotiations and thus keep the flimsy Israeli-Palestinian diplomacy alive.
But if Abbas is politically vulnerable, so is Netanyahu. His own Foreign Minister, Avigdor Lieberman, a pugnacious, Russian-born Jew, has declared that an Israeli-Palestinian peace is “unachievable within the next generation.” Lieberman heads a significant party component of Netanyahu’s government, the Yisrael Beitenu (“Israel Our Home”), with 15 seats in the Knesset. As Israel’s third-largest party, it could bring down the government by simply quitting Netanyahu’s coalition. Lieberman has long insisted that Israel’s 10-month suspension of new Israeli apartment construction in Jerusalem should end after its September 26 expiration. By contrast, in his speech to the U.N. a few days ago, President Obama publicly called on the Israelis to extend the construction freeze. Everyone is now waiting upon Abbas.
On balance, Abbas faces the bigger risk. Israel and the Palestinians were within a hair’s breadth of a peace agreement in 2000. That’s when Israel’s then prime minister Ehud Barak (now defense minister in the Netanyahu administration) offered to return to the Palestinians about 93% of the West Bank that had come under Israeli control after the Six-Day War of June 1967. But Yassir Arafat, the Palestinian president at the time, rejected the offer, and within a couple of months had launched the most vicious new intifadeh (literally “shaking off” or rebellion) to that date against the Israelis. Arafat hinted that his reason for not accepting the Barak offer was his fear of assassination by fellow-Palestinians. Abbas, already age 75, may not have similar worries about his mortality, but he surely faces greater political challenges than Arafat. How, for instance, would terms of an agreement be imposed on fellow-Palestinians in the West Bank, let alone in Gaza?
Israel’s bottom-line condition for any ultimate agreement with the Palestinians is that it be recognized as a “Jewish state,” not a multi-cultural state. The Palestinian bottom-line used to be “the right of return,” namely consent by Israel to permit the return to Israel of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians displaced by the 1948 creation of the Jewish nation. It’s now possible that a secret US-Israeli financial package may have diluted Palestinian demands over the “right of return,” but the bottom-line for Abbas appears to be the actual borders of a future, presumed Palestinian state: how much, and what actual West Bank land, in effect, would the Palestinians be able to control after an agreement?
For Obama to engage directly in the talks is a high-stakes risk. His American Middle East envoy, George Mitchell, has carried on a sort of permanent shuttle diplomacy to keep the talks alive, and Secretary of State Clinton demonstrated her zeal for diplomatic success by flying to Sharm-el-Sheikh in Egypt on September 14. Clinton seems willing, in fact, to travel anywhere in order to keep both sides engaged. If the talks break down, perhaps due to Abbas’s inability to justify resuming negotiations once Israeli West Bank construction continues, the blame-game will be immediate. Obama will be criticized for raising hopes of diplomatic success that many have said were impossible in the first place; Abbas may have to step down, and Netanyahu’s government itself could fall. But if the talks, against all odds, lead to a plausible and workable Israeli-Palestinian agreement on a two-state solution for the conflict, the risks will be seen to have been worth it. When you take very high-stakes risks, the rewards often outweigh the cost of failure.
A version of this column appeared originally at OneNewsNow.com.
For 23 years Dr. David Aikman was a foreign correspondent and senior correspondent for Time magazine. A former foreign policy consultant in Washington D.C., he is a current senior fellow of the Trinity Forum.