Middle East diplomacy: More of the same

In the heat of the moment, Hamas-Fatah reconciliation and a missed negotiation deadline seems so dramatic, but we’ve all "been there, done that"; yet the "process" carries on; Why? Because all have an interest in a "process."

Netanyahu and Abbas (photo credit: REUTERS)
Netanyahu and Abbas
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Covering the Middle East peace process for years engenders a certain feeling of dealing with the “same old, same old.”
Indeed, at times there is a sense that if you change some of the names of the key players, and alter the words just a bit, a story written a couple of years ago could be dusted off and reprinted with a few slight modifications tomorrow.
Sometimes you don’t even have to change the name of the actors, or even alter their words all that much.
Consider this: “Hamas is a terrorist organization that strives to destroy Israel, and which is supported by Iran,” Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu said. “I have said many times in the past that the Palestinian Authority must choose between an alliance with Hamas and peace with Israel. Hamas and peace do not go together… I say to Abu Mazen [Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas]: You cannot hold the stick by both ends. It is either peace with Hamas or peace with Israel; you cannot have it both ways.”
Sound familiar? Isn’t that what the television and radio news broadcast quoted Netanyahu as saying Wednesday to visiting Austrian Foreign Minister Sebastian Kurz about the announcement this week that Fatah and Hamas had reached a unity accord? No, not exactly. This was Netanyahu’s precise quote to his Austrian guest: “Instead of moving into peace with Israel, he [Abbas] is moving into peace with Hamas. He has to choose. Does he want peace with Hamas or peace with Israel? You can have one, but not the other.”
The earlier quote – the one about not holding the stick at both ends – was culled from a statement the Prime Minister’s Office issued over two years ago, in February 2012.
That statement was made at a time when Israeli and Palestinian officials had just concluded a half-dozen sessions of talks in Amman, and were discussing ways to keep the talks going. The Palestinians wanted an Israeli declaration of a complete settlement freeze, a commitment that the talks would continue on the basis of an Israeli withdrawal to the 1967 lines, and an Israeli release of Palestinian prisoners as a goodwill gesture. Israel was offering an economic package instead.
And then, like a thunderbolt, just as it seemed that some headway was being made, Fatah and Hamas announced they had come to an agreement under the auspices of Qatar. This was the Doha Agreement, and it was to that agreement that Netanyahu responded forcefully at the time, saying Abbas had to choose: peace with Israel, or peace with Hamas. And it was also that agreement that pretty much put an end to the Amman channel.
Sound like today’s news? What this shows, again, is that we’ve all been there, done that – to an uncanny degree. In fact, to the degree that you could pull out a statement Netanyahu made over two years ago, and have it perfectly fit the situation today. In drafting the prime minister’s response to this week’s developments, Netanyahu’s speech writers needed to do no more than look in their files under the heading, “Fatah-Hamas reconciliation while ways are sought to extend negotiations.”
These similarities, however, do more than just provide another déjà vu moment. They also provide an instructive moment, a moment that can shed some light on what is likely in the near future. What happened after the Amman talks shattered on the shoals of a Hamas-Fatah “agreement” in 2012 can give insight into what may happen if the current talks shatter on those same shoals in 2014.
What did happen the last time around? First, the Hamas-Fatah agreement was not implemented. Second, Abbas went on a full-court press to the international community seeking recognition, culminating in acceptance in November 2012 as a non-member state in the UN. Third, negotiations were restarted under US auspices in July 2013.
Is there any reason to believe a similar trajectory will not be followed again this time as well? Have things changed so greatly – the actors, their positions, their interests? While, of course, nobody can look into the future, it seems a pretty safe bet that despite all the current political and diplomatic drama, and all the histrionics, and all the threats, and all the doomsday scenarios, we are now on the cusp of a similar path to what we saw in 2012: the end of the current talks, Palestinian efforts in the international arena, and then – at one point or another – a return to another round of US-brokered talks.
It’s 2012 all over again. No, wait, it’s 2010 all over again, when a month of talks broke down over an Israeli refusal to extend a nine-month settlement freezes.
No, wait, it’s 2008 all over again, following the inconclusive talks that followed the Annapolis Conference.
If Israel’s refusal to release 26 Palestinian security prisoners on March 29, followed by the announcement of the building of 700 units in Jerusalem’s Gilo neighborhood, was for US Secretary of State John Kerry the “poof” moment when all his efforts of the last year seemed to go up in smoke, then this week’s Hamas-Fatah reconciliation had to be a massive explosion.
A massive explosion that may bury this particular round of talks – the ones set to expire on April 29 – but not all rounds of talks. Too often politicians and diplomats and pundits speak of final windows and doors in the Middle East peace process, as if the lapse of one deadline means that all windows and doors will be forever sealed shut. But then new doors and windows appear, as if by magic. But it’s not magic. It is interests, and all the sides have an interest in a process, some kind of process, continuing.
There is an old adage that says the Palestinians want peace without a process and that the Israelis want the process without peace. Not true. Both sides want a process, as does the US and the international community. No one has an interest in the process completely collapsing. (It is also wildly inaccurate to say the Palestinians want peace but the Israelis don’t.) Inside the Prime Minister’s Office, Abbas’s falling into the arms of Hamas this week was seen as the repetition of an old Abbas pattern – running away when the time comes when he will have to make concessions.
The concessions Netanyahu is demanding of Abbas are not ones that he can deliver: both because he doesn’t have the authority, nor the will, to do so.
And what are those concessions? Giving up on Palestinian refugee “right of return.” Recognizing Israel’s inherent, historic right to be here, anywhere.
Those are issues that touch on the core of the Palestinian narrative, on how they view themselves. Abbas is nearly 80 years old; no Palestinian leader of his generation will give up on the ethos upon which they were raised and formed. Perhaps a new generation of Palestinian leadership, one that grew up post-1967, may be able to do so one day.
But not the old guard.
But Abbas wants a process. A process guarantees billions of dollars of aid; a process ensures his status and entry into the world’s capitals; a process also keeps a lid on violence – a violence that once unleashed, could lead not only to the suffering of his own people, but also to unforeseen consequences such as perhaps the eventual takeover by Hamas of the West Bank.
He wants a process, but he wants a process on better terms, and the reconciliation gambit with Hamas is a lastditch effort to improve those terms.
The Americans, too, want a process.
For all the recent talk of Washington turning its back on the conflict here, and dealing with other issues and crises elsewhere, any chance of that happening is slim. Kerry and US President Barack Obama have already pumped too much time, energy and prestige into this conflict to simply walk away and declare failure.
The US also understands that if it walks away, others will try to walk in, not something that serves its interests.
(Notice the recent resurgence of US interest in selling military equipment to Egypt, after reports of imminent Russian- Egyptian arms deals.) And superpowers don’t just walk away from problems, not – at least – if they want to retain their superpower status.
And Netanyahu, too, wants a process.
A process reduces the heat on Israel in key foreign capitals, keeps players out of the arena – such as the Europeans – whom he would rather not see sitting squarely around the table, and keeps his coalition together.
Abbas’s move was – to some degree – a gift to Netanyahu. First, it will go a long way toward shifting the blame for the breakdown of the talks from Netanyahu to Abbas, for – as State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said on Wednesday – how could Israel be expected to “negotiate with a government that does not believe in its right to exist?” It also buys him “industrial quiet.”
Indeed, after hearing the news of the Hamas-Fatah reconciliation, Netanyahu could have been excused for whispering to himself, “Well, at least the coalition is safe.”
And his coalition is safe. Bayit Yehudi’s Naftali Bennett, who said he would leave the government if Jerusalem freed Israeli-Arab terrorists to keep the talks going, need not worry now that this is going to happen anytime soon. And Yesh Atid’s Yair Lapid, who threatened to bolt if Netanyahu was the one responsible for the breakdown of the talks, now can justifiably blame the Hamas-Fatah reconciliation for the impasse.
And then, in a few weeks – or perhaps months – either the Hamas-Fatah reconciliation will fail to hold, or formulas and frameworks and mechanisms will be introduced that will downplay Hamas’s involvement in Abbas’s government, and the process will be “relaunched.”
And if you don’t believe it, just take a look at the past 10 years.