Hopes are high following US Secretary of State John Kerry’s announcement that
Israelis and Palestinians have agreed to resume peace talks, but expectations
remain low in view of the scant confidence most people have in the ability of
the leaders on both sides to rise to the occasion.
Binyamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas have an
opportunity to make history in the face of dire predictions that the proverbial
window of opportunity for peace is slamming shut, but they are hobbled by
reputations as weak and cautious leaders rather than creative thinkers willing
to take risks.
Their negotiators, who are expected in Washington shortly,
aren’t really coming to talk peace but to discuss the “shape of the
[negotiating] table,” said Howard Sumka, former director of the USAID mission to
the West Bank and Gaza. In other words, they’ll be talking about talking, not
about core issues.
The fact that they’ve even come this far is a tribute
to Kerry’s tenacity. Six trips in six months seemed to produce only scorn for
what the conventional wisdom considered a waste of time as long as Netanyahu and
Abbas were around.
He was tight-lipped about the details of his
conversations with the two leaders, notorious leakers, but they largely kept
quiet as well, surprising everyone with last Friday’s
Long-time Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat will be
meeting with two Israelis he’s known and dealt with for years, Justice Minister
Tzipi Livni, a former foreign minister who is Netanyahu’s designated negotiator,
and Yitzhak Molcho, her minder, who is the prime minister’s personal
representative at all talks.
WHATEVER THE parties agreed upon in advance
– regarding prisoners, settlements, maps – are closely guarded secrets not only
from the public but, apparently, from each other. Only Kerry knows for sure, and
he wants to keep it vague to minimize the domestic pressures on each
Kerry believes that “the best way to give these negotiations a
chance is to keep them private.” Secrecy will also help Abbas and Netanyahu keep
their political coalitions together; each is packed with ministers who want to
see the two-state solution fail.
Kerry’s secret weapon is fear. Fear can
be a great motivator; what he’s counting on is both leaders’ fear of failure and
the judgment of history if they let pass what may be a vanishing
There is no sign of real change on either side; their
acceptance of Kerry’s invitation appears motivated more by wanting to protect
their relations with Washington – a vital national interest for both – rather
than a desire to make history by making peace.
threatened to cut off American aid and publicly blame the Palestinian leader for
the failure to resume negotiations if he continued erecting obstacles to new
talks. Abbas knows that for all the sympathy he gets from the rest of the
international community, only the United States has any clout with Israel, and
he needs that.
But who does Abbas speak for? Not Hamas, the terror
organization that controls Gaza and opposes the Kerry agreement. Hamas insists
Abbas has no authority to negotiate and rejects any peace with Israel, which it
wants eradicated. So if the Palestinians can’t make peace with each other, how
are they to make peace with Israel? Israelis appear content with the status quo,
but the Palestinians are a different story. They want an end to the occupation
and the statehood their leaders have promised but never produced; if Abbas can’t
deliver he could be in trouble and “Ramallah’s Manara Square could easily become
Tahrir,” wrote Haaretz’s Jack Khoury.
What scares Netanyahu, the prime
minister admits, is that failure of the two-state solution could lead to a
bi-national state that would mean the demise of the Jewish nation state. But
often he seems even more frightened about the increasingly vocal elements of his
own Likud party that do not support two-state negotiations and want to continue
the occupation of the West Bank.
Netanyahu made peace with President
Barack Obama a few months ago after four fractious years.
He’d lost the
leverage he thought he had by meddling in last year’s election, and now he needs
the president’s backing. Netanyahu is less worried about losing US aid than
about losing Obama’s leadership in the campaign to block Iran’s nuclear
ambitions and protect Israel’s relationship with an unsettled Egypt.
decision by the EU, Israel’s vital trading partner, to boycott Israeli
settlements was also a motivator.
Giving the talks a chance over the next
nine to 12 months also means Abbas won’t be going to the World Court or to UN
agencies to pursue actions against Israel, as he keeps threatening.
the two leaders are truly interested in making peace, they have some cards they
can play against their domestic opponents. Both have powerful foreign allies who
want them to succeed and domestic allies who want them to fail. They also know
that polls show both their respective publics support the two-state
Netanyahu faces strident opposition not only in his coalition
but also in his own Likud party, but, with no real rivals in any direction, he
can form a new government with the center-left Labor, because it wants peace,
and with some of the ultra-religious parties, because they’re for sale to the
highest bidder. Most important, he knows he can go to voters for a propeace
Netanyahu, the first Likud leader to endorse land for peace, to
recognize the PLO and to support Palestinian statehood, now has a chance to make
history. If he wants to.
The big question hanging over both Netanyahu and
Abbas is whether they are in for peace or process. That remains a closely
guarded secret. And that’s the reason hopes may be high but expectations are low
that these two men are up to the job.