Opening Lines: Waiting for Godot

While everyone looks to everyone else, nothing good happens.

Netanyahu Clinton Abbas laughing 311 (photo credit: AP)
Netanyahu Clinton Abbas laughing 311
(photo credit: AP)
Pity we have to wait for things to play out in America before Israelis and Palestinians can reengage. Pity neither side of the conflict here seems to want peace like a desert wants the rain. If they did, they would talk, and ask the Americans to bridge differences from time to time. As of this writing, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu is waiting for Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to climb down from his tree; Abbas is waiting for US President Barack Obama and the Arab League to help him down the tree or push him further up it; and Obama is waiting for Netanyahu to give him just two more months of settlement freeze.
In the meantime, there are no direct talks. If the peace process for the negotiated two-state solution doesn’t go forward, it doesn’t stand still either; it slips backward and all sorts of other ideas get thrown into the mix. Someone suggested this week that Israel lease land from the Palestinians, so somebody else said they should lease land from us – so that idea will get mired too. Someone even suggested that Palestinians and Israelis be allowed to live anywhere they wanted to between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River, but vote for their respective parliaments. Creative, but not likely.
Jerusalem is miffed that the PA continues to delegitimize it at every international organization and forum it can find (UN, ICC, OECD), even while it is supposedly at or hovering near the negotiating table. The PA is miffed that settlement construction has restarted. To inject a sense of urgency into the issue, it has threatened to petition the UN Security Council to recognize a unilateral declaration of Palestinian statehood on the June 4, 1967, borders.
If the Security Council rejects this motion, as is deemed likely by a US veto, the PA has threatened to invoke Resolution 337, known as the “uniting for peace” resolution. This resolution, passed in 1950, states that, in cases where the Security Council fails to act to maintain international peace and security, due to deadlock among its five permanent members, the matter should be addressed by the General Assembly in an “emergency special session.”
Resolution 377 was originally introduced by the US as a means of circumventing Soviet vetoes during the Korean War. The General Assembly has convened emergency special sessions 10 times in its history. While some officials in Jerusalem see this as “background noise” and “an empty threat” not to be taken too seriously, other Western diplomatic officials monitoring the peace process have cautioned Israel not to take its growing international isolation too lightly. They argue that today’s globalized, coordinated campaign against Israel’s legitimacy dovetails with international law in many places, and that increasingly, Israel is being pushed into corners it will find it hard to get out of. More and more, Israel is being painted as today’s apartheid South Africa, with all the diplomatic consequences that can derive from that.
INCREASINGLY, THE international community is losing interest in Israel’s positions, and Israeli diplomatic and hasbara efforts to paint itself as a legitimate holder of historical rights in Judea and Samaria and not as a colonial occupier, in a postcolonial world, are not making much headway. Similarly, Israel’s oftrepeated contention that settlement building is not the main obstacle to peace talks, and never was, has not been accepted by the international community, which has, by and large, bought into the Palestinian narrative that settlements obstruct talks. How could they not, when Obama himself said that settlements should be completely halted.
These and other similar statements have pushed Abbas up a tall tree from which he is finding it hard to descend. The thinking in Jerusalem is that the Palestinians believe they can eventually get what they want through international pressure instead of negotiations, so why should they negotiate?
Despite believing that the negotiated two-state solution is the only real game in town and pointing to a lack of international momentum for any other formula, officials here have threatened unilateral measures that Israel could take in response to a unilateral declaration of Palestinian statehood, even though they haven’t spelled them out on the record. It is believed that if push came to shove, Israel could unilaterally annex settlement areas, revoke the Oslo Accords and discontinue security coordination with the PA. The latter two measures would nullify the PA and leave Fatah in a death struggle with Hamas, whose outcome is by no means assured. Neither Israel nor the PA, certainly not the PA, is interested in this scenario.
Defense officials say that it is unrealistic to assert that the Palestinians are ready for a state because security in the West Bank has improved and the territory is seeing significant economic growth. While PA security forces have improved, Israeli officials believe it is only the IDF’s presence in the West Bank which is consistently and effectively limiting Hamas’s power. The PA certainly doesn’t really want to be dissolved, despite Abbas’s threats. For one thing, it needs to stay intact to receive its annual massive international aid. In the meantime, behind-the-scenes talks are trying to find appropriate language to bring both sides back to the table in the coming weeks.
POLITICALLY, NETANYAHU has almost no support for a continued settlement freeze within his coalition (apart from the quickly disintegrating Labor Party). He has been careful to keep settlement construction in the West Bank at a controlled and tempered pace.
There is no massive building, and several of the largest settlements, as first reported by this paper’s Tovah Lazaroff, are quickly running out of building permits.
Netanyahu’s government feels it is being responsible on settlements, which makes the singling out of that issue so galling. In effect, the PA has created a bottleneck through which other final-status issues cannot be pushed. And there is significant international sympathy for the singling out of the settlements.
Netanyahu may have made a strategic blunder here.
For argument’s sake, he could have faced his critics on the Right, bitten the bullet and given Obama two more months of freeze. In other words, he could have called the Palestinians’ bluff. Had they still not agreed to resume talks, he could have placed the blame on them and said that it was now clear that the settlement issue is not what’s keeping them from the negotiating table.
Doubtful the PA would have handed that little gem to Netanyahu on a silver platter though, but even for them entering actual talks is not easy. Abbas seems unable or unwilling to sell a deal to his people. The refrain in Jerusalem is that since Abbas continues to seek the support of the Arab League for any move he makes, he is politically unable to forge a deal on his own. And if he can’t be responsible for his own camp, what’s the point of signing a deal with him? Leaving Gaza aside (and that’s a big aside), Abbas’s constant pilgrimage to the Arab League shows that he doesn’t have sufficient support within his own Fatah party to make peace. When Abbas signs on the dotted line, whom does he really speak for, they ask in Jerusalem. So if Abbas can’t really deliver, what would Netanyahu have to lose by publicly giving him the chance to miss another opportunity?