Post-election Israel and the peace process

Changes in both Palestinian and Israeli governance since the last impasse in negotiations mean that it's time to try again.

Abdullah, Abbas walk in West Bank 370 (photo credit: REUTERS/Mohamad Torokman)
Abdullah, Abbas walk in West Bank 370
(photo credit: REUTERS/Mohamad Torokman)
The PA's response to the recent Israeli elections that "nothing has changed" should be dismissed. Much has changed – and also from the PA's perspective. It is pretty clear that Israel’s next government, whatever its final composition, will contain the 19 elected members of Yesh Atid − a party dedicated to negotiating a two-state solution. Its leader, Yair Lapid, has said specifically: “Yesh Atid will not join a government that will not conduct diplomatic negotiations.” 
For the past two years, PA President Mahmoud Abbas has been demanding a freeze on construction in the West Bank as one of the (sometimes fluctuating) preconditions for resuming negotiations.  This issue has proved to be a useful red herring for Abbas, fearful of moving too far and too fast, doubtless mindful of the fate of a previous Arab leader who did just that – former Egyptian president Anwar Sadat.  After all, who would willingly put their head on the chopping block?     
The current political configuration bears a certain resemblance to that of four years ago.  In early 2009, both US President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu had just come into office. In response to Obama’s urgent request, Netanyahu succeeded in persuading his newly formed rightwing coalition to agree to a construction freeze in the West Bank. As a result, a ten month moratorium began at the end of November 2009.  Most of the subsequent months were wasted in so-called “proximity talks,” with Obama’s Middle East envoy, George Mitchell, scurrying from side to side in a desperate attempt to build confidence between the parties.
When Abbas was finally persuaded to come to the negotiating table for direct face-to-face talks with Israel, all but three weeks of the moratorium had elapsed. To reach this point, Abbas required not only the good offices of the US and the support of the Arab League, but also the physical presence at the table of Egypt’s deposed president Hosni Mubarak and Jordan’s King Abdullah. Once they got there, optimism ran riot among all the participants and extravagant claims were voiced on all sides heralding a final settlement of the Israel-Palestine dispute within twelve months.
It proved too much for Abbas.  As the leader of Fatah, he was in principle dedicated to wresting back mandate Palestine in toto from Israel, but the party was also in bitter conflict with Hamas who was also battling for the hearts and minds of the Palestinian people. Seizing the imminent end of Israel’s construction freeze as a handy excuse, Abbas once again demanded a resumption of the moratorium as a precondition for continuing the peace discussions. This was a price that Netanyahu’s coalition could not deliver. The result? A two year stalemate in the peace process that only a radical change in the political landscape could alter.
Yet such a change has since taken place, both in Israel and on the Palestinian front.  Abbas himself is in a very different position than where he was in 2010.  He now has the endorsement of the UN and Palestine's non-member status under his belt. There is a kind of patched-up agreement with Hamas, brokered by Egypt’s President Mohammed Morsi, that will nominally lead to new PA elections covering Gaza, the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Whether this arrangement will indeed last this time is anyone's guess. On this occasion, however, Hamas feels that in view of their self-designated “victory” following Operation Pillar of Defense, they would likely emerge victorious from elections too. 
The people that know Abbas best, namely those who were involved in negotiations and meetings - including President Shimon Peres, Hatnua leader Tzipi Livni and former prime minister Ehud Olmert, have all expressed the opinion that Abbas is a genuine partner for peace. This came about as a result of Abbas' interview on Channel 2 in which he stated unequivocally, “I believe that the West Bank and Gaza is Palestine, and the other parts are Israel.”
A new government with members dedicated to renewing negotiations with the PA (even if some sort of construction freeze were called for), an Abbas strengthened by both a UN triumph and a possible healing of the bitter internal Palestinian feud are all elements which may bode well for a future peace process.
The writer is the author of “One Year in the History of Israel and Palestine” (2011) and writes the blog “A Mid-East Journal” (