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Picture of Binyamin Netanyahu, John Kerry and Mahmoud Abbas.

Israeli – Palestinian Peace Talks Announced

On July 19, 2013, US Secretary of State John Kerry announced a tentative agreement for the resumption of direct Israeli – Palestinian peace talks; slated to begin by the end of the month in Washington, D.C.  Conventional wisdom suggests that simply striking an agreement to begin talks was an achievement in and of itself; the arduous task of meaningful negotiations and difficult compromises will start as representatives of Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas meet in Washington.

That is if one believes reaching a final status peace deal is the principle goal for Netanyahu and Abbas.

Alternatively, these talks could simply be a high-stakes public relations game performed to assign blame for the eventual failure of the negotiations. Each leader will attempt to demonstrate to the United States and international community that they are prepared to make painful concessions in order to reach a negotiated settlement, but they were thwarted by their counterpart’s unwillingness or inability to reciprocate. Using intermediaries, unnamed sources and leaked materials, both Netanyahu and Abbas will seek to burnish their image as earnest and stalwart peacemakers while excoriating the other as an obstacle to peace. In essence, the game that will soon begin is not designed to achieve a lasting peace for millions of Palestinians and Israelis who have suffered decades of despair, destruction and death. Rather, the true “game within the game” is for each side to simultaneously assign and deflect blame for the preordained collapse of peace talks.

For the Palestinians, placing the fault for failed talks on Israeli intransigence provides ample justification to resume their efforts to bring Israeli officials before the International Criminal Court, to expand its membership in United Nations bodies and renew its push for increased recognition at the United Nations.

For the Israelis, placing the fault for failed talks on Palestinian intransigence provides ample justification to continue unabated settlement construction in East Jerusalem and the West Bank, to replace the two-state solution with “economic peace” and to rehabilitate Israel’s image on the international stage.

This is not to diminish Kerry’s achievement of getting Israeli and Palestinian leaders to sit across from each other at a table and at least talk about peace. Kerry’s efforts were initially met with derision by commentators and pundits who suggested that the naïve Secretary of State would fail in his attempts to restart talks. To be fair, Kerry proved his critics wrong and should be given ample credit for creating the conditions – with European Union help – by which Israeli and Palestinian leaders felt compelled to talk. Whether or not the talks are successful, simply getting the talks started is an accomplishment that few thought possible. Yet despite Kerry’s efforts, a sober assessment of the political landscape in Israel and Palestine does not offer much hope for successful negotiations.

 

Peace Talks & Israel’s Political Reality

Regardless whether Netanyahu has experienced some sort of Road to Damascus moment where he has abandoned his long held views on territorial concessions and the possibility of peace with the Palestinians, the realities of his current ruling coalition suggests that, even if he were able to secure a deal, it would be unlikely that he would be able to maintain his premiership.

Currently, Netanyahu has cobbled together a coalition of 68 seats in the 120 seat Knesset consisting of the joint right-wing Likud-Yisrael Beiteinu list (31 seats), the centrist Yesh Atid party (19 seats), the right-wing HaBayit HaYehudi party (12 seats), the centrist Hatnuah party (6 seats). Naftali Bennett, leader of the HaBayit HaYehudi party, has already threatened to leave the coalition over the prospect of territorial concessions to the Palestinians. Should Bennett bolt from the coalition, Netanyahu could easily secure a governing coalition with the assistance of the left-wing Labor party (15 seats), whose leader Shelly Yachimovich has indicated that Labor would prevent the fall of Netanyahu’s government in order to advance peace talks. It is quite likely that Netanyahu could also draw in the centrist Kadima party (2 seats) in response to the HaBayit HaYehudi defection. If this scenario played out, Netanyahu would increase his coalition to a comfortable 73 seats; however, this only works if he is able to avoid a rebellion of MKs from his joint Likud-Yisrael Beiteinu list.

If Netanyahu was able to secure an agreement with the Palestinians that involved territorial concessions or the partition of Jerusalem, then it is a near certainty that Likud-Yisrael Beiteinu MKs would bolt. The most likely rebels include Danny Danon, Ze’ev Elkin, Tzipi Hotovely, Yariv Levin, Miri Regev, Moshe Feiglin and Ofir Akunis. Other possible Likud rebels include Gideon Sa’ar, Silvan Shalom, Limor Livnat and Yisrael Katz. In addition, Yisrael Beiteinu could also see a rebellion from Uzi Landau and Faina Kirschenbaum. If these MKs leave the coalition, the addition of Labor and Kadima becomes moot and the crisis facing Netanyahu becomes almost unmanageable.

It is unlikely that Netanyahu would be able to bring the religiously oriented parties of Shas (11 seats) or United Torah Judaism (7 seats) into the government after having shunned them after the January 2013 elections. Similarly, it is unlikely that the United Arab List – Ta’al (4 seats) and Balad (3 seats) parties would be interested or desirable additions to Netanyahu government. This leaves Netanyahu with finding protection from a Likud-Yisrael Beiteinu rebellion in the left-wing Meretz (6 seats) and Hadash (4 seats) parties that, like the Arab parties, are unattractive options to Netanyahu. In the end, if Netanyahu might be able to maintain a ruling coalition, however, he will do so from a severely weakened position and quite possibly leading a far more centrist or left-wing government.

 

Peace Talks & Palestine’s Political Reality

While not rooted in the mechanics of representative democracy, Abbas faces a similar set of internal political challenges over the prospects of a final status agreement with the Israelis. Though Abbas does not need to worry about the breakdown of a governing coalition, he does need to be mindful of how Hamas will respond to a potential settlement. The long standing conflict and political turmoil between Abbas’ secular-nationalist Fatah party and the Islamic-oriented Hamas party has created a fully dysfunctional system of government in the Palestine where Abbas rules as an effectively unchecked executive and the Hamas-dominated legislature is essentially dissolved. An agreement with the Israelis could serve as an opportunity for Hamas to reassert itself in the Palestinian political arena and dislodge a weakened Abbas from the presidency. With a relatively thin pool of possible successors to Abbas in the Fatah party, his exit from the political scene could easily usher in a government more directly controlled by Hamas. While a Hamas government in and of itself is not necessarily problematic within a Palestinian political context, the demands of a peace agreement with Israel that requires recognition and normalization may prove ideologically crippling to elements within the Hamas organization.

In addition, Abbas will likely experience more widespread political resistance over the issue of Palestinian refugees right of return to their historic homes in Israel. Long believed to be a bargaining chip that would be negotiated away in a final status agreement with Israel, the denial of return for refugees will cause a significant public and political outcry that the establishment of an independent Palestine is unlikely to assuage. Given that Abbas has made it clear through his actions – specifically the recent resignation of Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah – that he intends to maintain control of the Palestinian Authority, it is difficult to envision a scenario where Abbas would be able to remain in power after final status negotiations are concluded.

 

The Road Ahead

Given these prevailing internal political factors as well as the prospective benefits from a failure of peace negotiations, the reality of the situation is that Israeli and Palestinian political leaders have far more to lose from successful negotiations and far more to gain from failed negotiations. If this is the case, it is unlikely the upcoming Israeli-Palestinian talks will produce any meaningful results and the game becomes how to scuttle the talks without suffering the blame for their failure.

But bear in mind, should, by some miracle, a peace agreement be signed despite the best efforts of each leader, both Netanyahu and Abbas have stated that they will submit the peace agreement to their respective publics for a referendum – where they hope millions of Israelis and Palestinians will do what they were unable to do: deny a lasting peace in Israel and Palestine.

Despite this pessimistic prediction, I continue to believe that the citizens of Israel and Palestine are more eager for peace than their leaders given them credit for and, given the choice between peace with compromise and conflict with dogmatism, Israelis and Palestinians will chose peace.

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