How will the talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, slated to kick off at a festive summit in Washington on Wednesday, end?
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If a simulation game played on Sunday by a group of former IDF brass is any guide, the chances for success are not great and the key ultimately rests in the hands of one man – US President Barack Obama.
convened on Sunday a group of former top IDF officers currently affiliated with the Council for Security and Peace, an association of national security experts, to play the roles of key players in the peace process and examine what the chances are for success or failure.
Brig.-Gen. (res.) Shlomo Brom, a former deputy head of the National Security Council, played the role of Obama; the council president, Maj.-Gen. (res.) Nati Sharoni, played Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu; retired Col. Shaul Arieli, head of the peace administration (its mandate was to produce working papers on permanent-status issues and act as something of a database for the negotiators) under Ehud Barak during the Camp David talks in 2000, played the role of PA President Mahmoud Abbas; and Brig.- Gen. (res.) Gadi Zohar, former head of the IDF’s civil administration in the West Bank, played the Arab world, primarily Egypt and Jordan, whose leaders will be present at Wednesday’s summit.
The two main conclusions from the simulation were first, that the level of mistrust between Israel and the PA is deep and profound, serving as an obstacle in and of itself without even considering the domestic political challenges each side faces.
Second, the player with the most influence on the outcome of the talks is the United States, which will need to decide, sooner rather than later, how aggressive it wants to be in keeping the sides at the negotiating table and enforcing a peace treaty.
Each player framed his strategies realistically. Obama, according to Brom, is bringing the sides together in an effort to reach an agreement for two primary reasons: first, since in his world view the Israel- PA conflict has a “negative effect on overall stability in the Middle East, from Morocco to Afghanistan” and second as a way to increase the chance of a Democratic victory at the polls in November.
The obstacles to the success of the talks were presented to all of the sides: what Israel will decide regarding the pending expiration of the freeze on settlement construction; Hamas’s potential destabilizing role in Gaza; and Iran’s reaction to success, including the possibility that it will advance with its nuclear program and put Israel before a difficult decision – either attack Iran and knowingly torpedo the talks or continue the talks and allow Iran to go nuclear.
Obama will demand as early as their meeting on Wednesday, according to Brom, that Netanyahu extend the freeze on construction in the West Bank.
Sharoni, a former head of the IDF Planning Branch, who was playing Israel, said that Netanyahu was likely to agree to a continuation of the freeze within the isolated settlements but to lift it within the settlement blocs, in places like Ma’aleh Adumim and Gush Etzion.
A continuation of the talks, Netanyahu will also likely argue, will enable him to make greater concessions and minimize domestic political risks that could affect his coalition.
The PA and Abbas – played by Arieli – said they would not accept any continuation of building, even within the settlement blocs or east Jerusalem.
“This is not something we will be able to live with,” he said.
As for the crisis that will come up as early as September 26, when the freeze ends, all sides looked to the US for direction.
Brom, playing Obama, stepped up to the task and did his best to convince Abbas to stay at the negotiation table, pointing out that the US’s original moratorium proposal was for Israel to freeze construction only in isolated settlements and not in the blocs. Netanyahu was the one who had rejected this idea, not wanting to seemingly make a distinction at the time between types of settlements.
In addition, Obama will be able to promise Abbas that he will firstly hold Netanyahu to a strict timetable for the talks – around a year – and will also, if the talks falter, be prepared to make his own recommendations and proposals to solve disagreements that will naturally be closer to the Palestinian position.
“We will promise real US involvement, including proposing ideas how to bridge gaps,” Obama will say.
Even with such aggressive US intervention in the talks, it is not clear that Abbas will be able to deliver, due to his weak political standing in the PA. Last week, for example, Abbas failed to convene the PLO executive committee and has weak support within his own Fatah party. As a result, part of Abbas’s strategy, as presented by Arieli, will be to show Netanyahu’s true face as the side unwilling to abide by international agreements and guidelines, and then call upon the UN Security Council to take up the Israel- Palestinian issue.
Assuming the sides are able to overcome the moratorium obstacle, other challenges that awaits them are the right of return, Jerusalem, final borders and of course, the Gaza Strip and Hamas’s control over the territory.
Regarding Gaza, Egypt and Jordan, played by Zohar, both expressed willingness to accept a recommendation made by the US player and establish a pan-Arab military force that will deploy in Gaza and the West Bank to firstly provide Israel with a sense of security and secondly to enforce PA rule in the territories.
“This is possible for Egypt if we receive assurances that Gaza will not become part of Egypt,” Zohar said in his role as President Hosni Mubarak.
Hamas, however, will not agree to such a deployment and will challenge the force, understanding that it could lead to the end of its rule over Gaza. At the same time, though, Hamas will be reluctant to launch a large-scale offensive against Israel, so as not to be blamed for derailing the talks by forcing Israel’s hand.
Iran will likely behave the same way, but could decide to activate its proxies – Hizbullah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza – if it feels that a deal is in the works that would strengthen the Sunni and moderate alliance that it is challenging for regional dominance.
Netanyahu could also find himself in a dilemma if intelligence assessments change and indicate that Iran has gone for the breakout stage and is enriching uranium to military-grade levels.
Will he order an attack against Iran’s nuclear facilities, which will
likely lead to a collapse in talks, or will he continue talking and
count on the US to deal with Iran, as Obama has assured Israel it will
do? Neither player could provide a clear answer as to what Netanyahu
would do in such a case.
An observer would have dully noted that the simulation could have
carried on for hours, as each member of the council played his role
impressively, at times even using rhetoric similar to that used by the
leaders scheduled to meet in Washington on Wednesday.
Ultimately, however, the question of sincerity is something that cannot
be simulated. Questions such as “Has Netanyahu crossed the Rubicon?” and
“Is Abbas capable of implementing a deal?” could not be easily answered
by the players.
With talks scheduled to begin Wednesday, the answers will likely be