The only game in town

In light of the Egypt catastrophe, securing an Israeli-Palestinian agreement looks even more attractive than before.

Israelis, Palestinians meeting for resumption of talks 521 (photo credit: REUTERS/Yuri Gripas)
Israelis, Palestinians meeting for resumption of talks 521
(photo credit: REUTERS/Yuri Gripas)
FOR A few short days, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was basking in the glow of international approval for deciding to renew peace negotiations with the Palestinians and his decision to release 104 long-term convicted Palestinian terrorists as a goodwill gesture.
Then, the settlements returned to the headlines.
First, Israel’s Civil Administration approved construction of hundreds of housing units in remote settlements – ones that would need to be dismantled in the event of a peace agreement with the Palestinians.
Days later, the Housing Ministry said it had started marketing 1,200 housing units in East Jerusalem and the settlement blocs around the capital.
One day after that, the government approved construction of another 900 apartments across the Green Line, the 1967 border.
US Secretary of State John Kerry could have been excused for asking himself whether the Israelis were deliberately trying to sabotage the peace talks before they could even get going.
Kerry is certainly well aware that there is a considerable bloc within Israel’s governing coalition whose members want to keep the West Bank in perpetuity, regardless of the political, moral and economic costs. Announcing new building projects serves a dual purpose. These announcements make it harder for Israel to agree to territorial compromises – but they also make it harder for the Palestinians to compromise too.
They embarrass Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas, making him look weak, and give ammunition to Palestinians and others who simply do not believe that Netanyahu is serious about making peace.
Interestingly, the release of convicted murderers, it could be argued, also serves to weaken support for the negotiations precisely among segments of the Israeli public that ought to support it. The wave of revulsion in Israel was shared by the entire population, who legitimately asked, “What are we getting for this?” Had Netanyahu opted instead to freeze the settlements, the outrage would have been felt mainly by the settler community, which despises the peace talks anyway and wants them to fail. But by releasing prisoners, Netanyahu has merely deepened skepticism in Israel about whether the talks are worth having at all.
The first official negotiating session in Jerusalem, when it eventually happened, was completely overshadowed in Washington by the horrific explosion of violence in Egypt. Senior Republican Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida, the former chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, chose that moment to launch what will probably be the first of many attacks on Kerry from the right, rebuking him for spending too much time on the Israelis and Palestinians, when Egypt and Syria were engulfed in violence and Iran was working to acquire nuclear weapons.
Of course, it’s not an either/or situation.
Pursuing one set of policies does not mean neglecting others. Both Kerry and US President Barack Obama are quite capable of handling multiple issues simultaneously – as indeed they must. Notably, Ros-Lehtinen’s statement did not suggest what the United States should actually do in Syria or Egypt, where US options and influence are both extremely limited.
In light of the Egypt catastrophe, securing an Israeli-Palestinian agreement looks even more attractive than before to an administration that seems powerless to affect events in the Middle East. At least there would be one island of stability in that troubled region if peace could somehow be secured – one model of coexistence to sell to the Arab world, one success story to tout to the media.
Conversely, failure of the talks would create the threat of yet more violence, especially if the West Bank economy were to melt down, or if the PA were to unravel.
Worst of all is the prospect of Egypt becoming a failed state with all that that would entail.
The Obama Administration does not seem to have ready answers to any of these challenges. In the face of such impotence, its first instinct may well be to double down on what it does know how to do – carry on negotiating an Israel-Palestinian peace deal.
The writer is Communications Director of the left-leaning Jewish American advocacy group J Street.