After Israeli elections, Palestine issue to once again take center stage

Tension between Jerusalem and Washington over an Iran deal may be felt after the election – when the US, Israel and the world again take up the Palestinian issue.

A protester holds a placard as she stands next to Israeli soldiers during a protest against Israeli settlements in Beit Fajjar town south of the West Bank city of Bethlehem (photo credit: REUTERS)
A protester holds a placard as she stands next to Israeli soldiers during a protest against Israeli settlements in Beit Fajjar town south of the West Bank city of Bethlehem
(photo credit: REUTERS)
When the early election was announced in December, it reflexively triggered talk about how fateful it would be – how it would be nothing less than a battle for Israel’s soul.
With less than a month before the polls, a look at the issues that have dominated the campaign renders those early predictions vacuous. What are we discussing? Bottle deposits, hidden kitchens, US House Speaker John Boehner, Ambassador to the US Ron Dermer, garden furniture.
To paraphrase Winston Churchill: Some fateful election. Some soul.
(Churchill, in a 1941 speech to the Canadian Parliament that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would do well to study before speaking before the US Congress next month, responded to French assertions that if the British stood alone against the Nazis they would have their neck wrung like a chicken. His memorable answer: “Some chicken.Some neck.”)
The empty nature of Israel’s election campaign was not lost this week on Martin Indyk, the perpetual US “peace processor” who stepped down as the US’s Middle East envoy last summer after the Israeli-Palestinian talks he shepherded fell apart.
Speaking at the annual conference of the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv, Indyk – addressing the diplomatic process – said one of the key problems was that “both sides lack a mandate to pursue negotiations.”
The Palestinian Authority lacks a mandate because there has not been a presidential election there for 10 years, or a parliamentary one since 2006, “and there is a real question about the legitimacy of the leadership as it contemplates making peace with Israel,” he said.
Then he added something somewhat surprising: “I fear this will also be true on the Israeli side. Since there is no discussion of Palestinian issues in this election, it is difficult to see what mandate an Israeli government – whatever shape it takes – could claim from the Israeli people in pursuing the negotiations.”
And his observation is correct: The Palestinians have been completely absent from the election campaign. Iran has been a tangential topic, only as it relates to Netanyahu’s controversial trip to address Congress. But the Palestinians? What Palestinians?
YET THE ABSENCE of the Palestinians in the campaign should fool no one.
The situation on the ground, one hears in briefing after briefing, is percolating, and the lull in international pressure on Israel is not because the world has suddenly realized there are greater sources of instability in the region than the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Rather, the world is waiting until after the election. Once the election is over, rest assured this issue will return to the top of everyone’s agenda.
Both Israeli security officials and diplomatic sources are warning that the current situation in Judea and Samaria is explosive – both because of a lack of any diplomatic movement, and because Israel, as a reaction to the PA’s move at the International Criminal Court and the UN Security Council, has held up the transfer of hundreds of millions of dollars in PA tax revenue.
Though Israeli officials say 60 percent of PA salaries are still being paid, there is concern that as more and more salaries are not paid, security officials – those tasked with both maintaining quiet in Palestinian cities and security cooperation with Israel – will simply not come to work. Not out of ideological reasons, but because people generally don’t work if they don’t get paid.
These concerns are not only being expressed by foreign diplomats, but also by Israeli security officials anxious about the tensions.
Israel has withheld some $100 million a month in tax revenue for the first two months of the year, and it is not expected that at the beginning of March – just two weeks before elections – the next tranche will be delivered. While there is a degree of understanding abroad that Israel cannot be expected to leave Palestinian moves on the international stage without a reaction, this particular step is seen by some as cutting off one’s nose to spite one’s face.
Indyk said this situation is not just another case of the PA threatening, yet again, to “throw the keys over the fence,” and let Israel take full control of the territories – something it is loathe to do. “It is simply running out of money” to pay the salaries of those in charge of security, he asserted.
In addition, he said, “Palestinian banks are balking at loaning the PA money to keep it alive, because they have no guarantee those loans will be repaid.”
He also said that the US Congress is not moving with its commitments toward the PA, and that neither other Arab countries nor the EU are willing to bail out the PA – because they consider Israel responsible for the situation, since it is withholding the tax revenue.
And meanwhile, in Israel, Indyk bemoaned, the county “is preoccupied with the elections, and nobody is paying attention.”
Which is not entirely accurate. There are those paying attention, but their conclusions are different than Indyk’s.
Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon, in a taped interview aired at the INSS conference, pooh-poohed the notion that the PA was on the verge of collapse. “I don’t see them falling apart so fast,” he said. “There is a strength to [the PA’s] continuing to functioning coming from the bottom [the masses].”
Another Israeli official said the government is looking at these predictions and threats as another case of Palestinian brinkmanship.
“The Palestinians have, over the years, consistently used the tactic of saying that they will ‘jump off the cliff’ unless they get what they want,” he said. “This is a consistent Palestinian negotiation tactic.”
Or not.
There are those in Washington who believe the Palestinians are beyond negotiating, that PA President Mahmoud Abbas has had a shift in his mindset and is intent on pursuing his goals in the international arena, and not around the table with Israel. Therefore, this would not be a negotiating tactic.
And if that is indeed the direction where Washington feels Abbas is headed, the US may – in order to keep the process on the rails and keep the Palestinians believing that a negotiated solution is still viable – offer up its parameters of how a final agreement should work.
These parameters could come, as Indyk hinted, in the form of a UN Security Council resolution put forward not by the Palestinians, but rather by all five permanent members of the body, including the US.
“If there is a government in Israel after these elections that decides to pursue a two-state solution, then there is a way forward,” Indyk said.
“It begins with coordinating an initiative with the US and then, together with the US, looking to Egypt and Jordan and the resurrection of the Arab Peace Initiative – to find a way to provide the Palestinians both with an Egyptian-Jordanian anchor, and the political cover of the Arab Peace Initiative.”
But, he said, “if there is no initiative on the Israeli side, and especially if there is a government that opposes a two-state solution, then the alternative that will be pursued – against Israel’s will, I expect – will be international actions, not so much by the Palestinians, but by the international community.”
These measures, Indyk predicted, will not necessarily be in terms of a Palestinian Security Council resolution, as was witnessed at the end of last year, but rather a Security Council resolution “introduced by some – if not all – of the permanent members, designed to lay out the principles of a two-state solution, [or] at least to preserve it for the future.”
In another speech at the conference, Indyk said that one of the reasons the last negotiations fell apart was because there were no “terms of reference.” This type of Security Council resolution would – it appears – serve the purpose of setting up internationally accepted terms of reference; an updated version of the 48-year-old UN Security Council Resolution 242.
And this is where Israel may feel the aftertaste of the bitterness left in the White House’s mouth as a result of Netanyahu’s planned speech to Congress; with the Obama administration feeling that the way the speech idea was conceived and is being implemented is something – as the British famously say – “simply not done.”
For years, two central principles have underpinned US-Israel ties.
The first is “no surprises,” that the sides do not “pull a fast one” on the other. And the second – a less hard-and-fast rule, and one not always adhered to but an unstated principle nonetheless – is not interfering in the other side’s politics.
In the White House view, both those principles have now been trampled upon. And because real people are involved – not robots, but people with grudges and emotions and resentment and pride – the stepping on those principles will be felt down the line.
For instance, the degree to which the White House may be open to input from Israel regarding parameters it may put forward on the Palestinian issue, or regarding a Security Council resolution, will surely not be the same as it was before the brouhaha over the speech.
This does not mean the fundamentals of the US-Israel special relationship are in danger; they are not. But it does mean that the perception of deep insult inside the White House will linger, and that the fallout will be felt during US President Barack Obama’s remaining 23 months in the Oval Office in different ways – most likely, first and foremost, on the Palestinian track.