Diplomacy: Pulling in different directions

As the new government gets started, the main actors in the Mideast diplomatic drama are all pulling in very different directions.

A Palestinian carries a burning tire during clashes with Israeli troops following the funeral of Palestinian Mahmoud Adwan at Qalandia checkpoint near the West Bank city of Ramallah (photo credit: REUTERS)
A Palestinian carries a burning tire during clashes with Israeli troops following the funeral of Palestinian Mahmoud Adwan at Qalandia checkpoint near the West Bank city of Ramallah
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The underlying premise of Israeli-Palestinian talks for more than two decades has been direct negotiations toward a two-state solution.
The two sides would sit and thrash out the issues, with US mediation, until the gaps were narrowed and an agreement reached.
That was the basic architecture of the process. But it didn’t work: Oslo I. Oslo II. Camp David. The road map to peace. Annapolis, The Kerry talks. It all ended in failure.
As a result, the landscape has significantly shifted.
The Palestinians have changed tactics. The US is adopting a different approach. The Europeans want to become more involved. Israel is sending mixed messages.
As the new government gets on its way, it is instructive to look at where the major players now stand.
The Palestinians The PLO has broadly defined its goals since the start of the Oslo process as a Palestinian state within the pre- 1967 lines, with east Jerusalem as its capital and a “right of return” for the 1948 refugees and their descendants.
Over the ensuing close to 25 years, the goals have remained the same; only the tactics have changed. At first the tactic was negotiations, which was the heyday of the Oslo process. The Palestinians would negotiate with the Israelis, talk to them, hoping Jerusalem would give them what they wanted.
So the two sides talked and talked, until they met at Camp David in 2000. There Yasser Arafat saw that the most he could get from a left-wing Israeli prime minister – Ehud Barak – would only get him so far. There were still significant gaps.
The Palestinians were at a crossroads: Either compromise on the goals, or try a new tactic. Arafat, not exactly remembered as the “great compromiser,” opted for a new tactic. A month after the breakdown of Camp David, the second intifada began.
But Israel defeated the second intifada, bringing the Palestinians back to square one. Negotiations didn’t provide what they wanted, nor did blowing up city buses. After another stab at negotiations – Annapolis in 2007 – proved to the Palestinians again that talks would only take them so far, they have now adopted a new tactic: Internationalizing the conflict, getting the world to step in and impose a solution on Israel.
Because if you can’t get what you want through talks or through terror, turn to the UN, the EU, the ICC, the FIFA world football association, and get them to impose a solution.
Which is where the Palestinians are today. They are not interested in resuming talks, and comments made by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas this week made that clear. Speaking in Ramallah last Friday, he set clear preconditions for talks: A halt to all settlement construction, the release of Palestinian prisoners who were scheduled to be released in 2014, and agreement that any talks would go on for a minimum of a year, during which the sides would agree on a timetable for an Israeli withdrawal by 2017.
Abbas knows full well that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would never agree to these preconditions, and presenting them indicates he doesn’t want talks.
Even former US envoy Martin Indyk – special envoy during the 10 months of talks led by Secretary of State John Kerry in 2013-2014, who has not been shy about placing much of the blame for those talks’ failure on Netanyahu’s shoulders and on settlement construction – said this week that Abbas is uninterested in negotiations.
During a Council on Foreign Relations panel discussion in New York this week, Indyk said neither side wants to enter direct negotiations toward two states.
“There is neither the politics nor the commitment of the leadership on either side for that,” he asserted.
“What we discovered during the 10 months of the negotiations is that the parties really didn’t want to be there, and were further away at the end of the negotiations than at the beginning.”
Having not held an election since 2005, Abbas – Indyk said – very strongly feels a lack of legitimacy, and that he does not have a mandate from the Palestinian people for the compromises that would be involved in any negotiated deal. “So he is paralyzed by that.”
This being the case, the internationalization of the conflict suits Abbas just fine. Rather than talks, which would at some point necessitate compromise, he prefers to isolate Israel, go to the international organizations and let them do the work. And for this tactic, the current Israeli government is a godsend – because its right-wing composition makes it easy for the Palestinians to say Israel does not want peace, and the world must step in and save the two-state solution.
Israel Netanyahu divides the current reality into two parts: Iran and everything else. His main focus, his main concern and preoccupation, is Iran – everything else can wait.
But it won’t. Following the June 30 deadline for an Iranian nuclear agreement, all eyes will be on the UN General Assembly in September, whether the French will bring a Mideast solution to the Security Council, and how the US will react.
Netanyahu is in a bind. His comment before the election that a Palestinian state would not emerge under his watch continues to reverberate, and comes up continuously in conversation with foreign diplomats – regardless of whether they are from the US, Europe or Asia.
Netanyahu has tried to walk back that sentiment a number of times, but much of the world is not buying it – and that in itself is telling. When Netanyahu says that he is still committed to a two-state solution, no one believes him. But when he says in one sentence that he is not, that is regarded as the incontrovertible truth.
There are many reasons for this, one being that in the eyes of many of his international critics, Netanyahu’s actions don’t match his words. The world heard his Bar-Ilan speech in 2009 about a two-state solution, but then also heard announcements of settlement construction, and were struck by the disconnect.
“If he wants two states, why is he building in areas that will be part of the Palestinian state?” goes the chorus.
And here is where Netanyahu’s job will now be more difficult. During the last round of negotiations, according to David Makovsky, who was on Kerry’s team, fully 98 percent of all the tenders for new housing that were publicly announced by Israel beyond the Green Line – tenders that drove the Palestinians wild – were for communities inside the security barrier.
Fully 62% of the tenders were on the 1.9% of territory that Abbas reportedly told then-premier Ehud Olmert during their discussions would remain a part of Israel.
But that was not the impression in the world. Rather, the impression was that while the negotiations were under way Israel was gobbling up land that would be part of a future Palestinian state. Netanyahu could have trumpeted that the vast majority of the tenders was on land even Abbas acknowledged would be part of Israel, but he didn’t.
He was constrained because of political considerations, not wanting to admit – for fear of antagonizing the right-wing of his government – that settlement construction was not taking place everywhere.
If those constraints were in place during the last government, how much more so will they will be in place in the current government, which is more right-wing than the previous one.
The US and Europe are going to want to see actions to correspond with Netanyahu’s words that show he is committed to two states; even if Netanyahu takes such actions, he will be hesitant to make them too public because of what that might do to his narrow coalition.
Indyk said there were certain steps Israel could take, such as limiting construction to the settlement blocs, or letting the Palestinians build in Area C next to large Palestinian cities. But these moves would cause difficulty for Netanyahu – both with his coalition partner, Bayit Yehudi, and also inside the Likud.
Netanyahu is now head of a right-wing government that will be hesitant to allow him to make gestures, at a time when much of the world – prodded on by the Palestinians – is saying, “Take significant steps, or we will step in.”
The Europeans The player most keen on stepping in at this time is the EU. This is apparent with the visit on Wednesday by EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini.
She explained her visit now, so soon after the establishment of the new government, as designed to send a message that the EU is “ready and willing to play a major role in relaunching the peace process on the basis of the two-state solution.”
Inside the EU, the French are showing an eagerness to take the lead. This eagerness stems from many different considerations: Disillusionment with US policy throughout the Mideast, an interest in further deepening the burgeoning French alliance with the Gulf states, and French domestic politics.
In 2012, French President François Hollande vowed to bring a resolution to the Security Council that would say “very clearly what we expect from the [peace] process and what the solution to the conflict must be.” Doing so now would help Hollande among certain constituencies before the scheduled April 2017 presidential election.
“France wants the new government to actually implement peace,” a French Foreign Ministry statement said this week. “It calls on both parties to finally conclude a comprehensive and final agreement, establishing a viable and sovereign State of Palestine alongside Israel. The two-state solution must be preserved on the ground.”
The United States As the French indicate determination to “finally” get a full deal, the US – judging by recent comments from President Barack Obama – is scaling back ambitions.
Obama gave voice to this new approach in an interview last weekend with Al-Arabiya: “What I think at this point, realistically, we can do is to try to rebuild trust – not through a big overarching deal, which I don’t think is probably possible in the next year, given the makeup of the Netanyahu government, given the challenges I think that exist for President Abbas – but if we can start building some trust around... if we can slowly rebuild that kind of trust, then I continue to believe that the logic of a two-state solution will reassert itself.”
This is not an inconsequential change – the US moving from “swinging for the fences,” going all out for that one big comprehensive deal, to a more incremental approach.
It is obvious this change of tone is connected with the upcoming June 30 deadline on the Iran deal and with the US administration facing an uphill battle with Congress over the deal, having no interest in opening up a second front against Netanyahu.
But June 30 will come and go, and the French will move forward – and then the question will be: What will the US do? As Indyk said, it is not really the French resolution itself that is critical, but “whether that forces the hand of the Obama administration and they decide to move ahead with a resolution with the British that would encapsulate the basic principles of a two-state solution.”
The reason the administration might now be willing to do so, he reasoned, is because there are no negotiations, no prospects for negotiations, and no alternative on the ground. “Then the question is: How do you preserve the two-state solution in an environment in which other things are happening on the ground that are undermining it? And so, in the context of Obama’s legacy, you could see a move forward.”
Not only would Israel have a problem with this, he maintained, but so too would the Palestinians, because it would mean they would have to compromise on issues such as Israel’s security concerns and recognizing Israel as a Jewish state.
As to what the US should do if both parties rejected such a resolution, Indyk’s advice – and the direction the administration may very well be headed in – is to just “let it sit.”
“It would be the next administration’s job,” he said. “But it would basically be up to the parties to wrestle with it. When the parties are ready to come back to the negotiation, we would have terms of reference.
“We had no terms of reference. None. This would represent the terms of reference.”