Hard Questions, Tough Answers with Yossi Alpher: April 28, 2014

This week, Alpher offers an assessment of where the American-brokered Israeli-Palestinian peace process stands now, with the nine-month period allotted for the process expiring officially this Tuesday and what next; what happens if there is Palestinian success at forming a unity government; or if there is not; What sort of unilateral move might Israel now invoke; will there be another American initiative; and what kind of unexpected possibilities should we expect?

Q. The American-brokered Israeli-Palestinian peace process has undergone a bewildering series of crises since you last wrote before the Pesach holiday. Perhaps you could begin by assessing where we stand now, with the nine-month period allotted for the process expiring officially this Tuesday.

A. President Obama has spoken of the need for a pause, Secretary of State Kerry is busy elsewhere, and special envoy Martin Indyk has reportedly returned to the United States. Israel has suspended participation in negotiations due to the decision by Fateh and Hamas to form a unity government and reunite the West Bank and Gaza. Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) has given himself five weeks to form that government, which he says will be an apolitical technocrat body, and six months to negotiate new elections. It would thus appear that this round of two-state negotiations is over, with nothing to show for the effort.

With a bit of perspective, it is clear that the negotiations were doomed from the outset. Neither PM Netanyahu nor Abbas had the ideological disposition or the political stability needed to make progress. Kerry apparently believed he could overcome that obstacle through the force of his personality and a fairly benign set of American and European sticks and carrots. He insisted, wrongly in my view, on replicating the Oslo framework for negotiations that had failed in the course of 20 years even when engaged in by more powerful and/or more dedicated Israeli and Palestinian leaders.

The ultimate tripwires or provocations that ended this episode--backtracking on prisoner release and expanding settlements by Netanyahu, signing on to international conventions, mounting new conditions, threatening to dismantle the Palestinian Authority, and ultimately opting for a unity move with Hamas on Abbas' part--were inevitable, given the obvious absence of light at the end of the negotiating tunnel. More difficult to assess is the effect on decision-making by Abbas and Netanyahu of the perception that the Obama administration is withdrawing from active global involvement on several fronts and therefore no longer has to be "counted". Here the Crimea/Ukraine crisis may have proven crucial.

Q. What next?

A. A rather large number of scenarios suggest themselves for the coming months: Palestinian success at forming a unity government; Palestinian failure; unilateral Israeli moves; another American initiative; attacks by Palestinian extremists from Gaza; and of course--the unexpected.

Q. Let's start with success at forming a unity government.

A. Assuming that, as advertised, this will be an apolitical body somewhat similar to one formed after the last Palestinian elections (won by Hamas) in 2006, two critical issues will immediately surface: security, and renewed negotiations.

First, are the Fateh-dominated security services of the West Bank-based PA and the 20,000-strong Izz a-din al-Qassam brigades that answer to Hamas in Gaza merging in any way--an obvious criterion for assessing whether unity is genuine? If they are, then Israel will assume that Fateh's relatively successful suppression of Hamas in the West Bank will not be sustained, and the IDF is liable to invoke emergency security measures that call into question the very survival of the PA. This is because, even if the apolitical technocrats accept the international community's demands to recognize Israel, accept existing (Oslo) agreements and reject violence--as Abbas reassured us they would in a statement on Sunday--it's quite clear that Hamas is not about to do so.

This brings us to the second critical issue. Both the US and the European Union are likely to line up behind a pledge by the new government to accept their conditions. Accordingly, they will call upon Israel to renew, at the very least, the kind of "negotiations about negotiations" that characterized the past few weeks. Here two new questions arise.

First, will Netanyahu agree to renew contacts, and based on what conditions? He has stated that the very fact of Hamas' involvement in forming a unity government renders talks impossible. The PA, acting as a UN-recognized state, is also continuing to apply to join international conventions--another deal breaker in both Netanyahu's and Kerry's book. Yet under this scenario it's entirely possible that a newly confident Abbas will waive many of his own demands in order to back Netanyahu into a corner: a unified Palestinian government is prepared to talk without preconditions. Abbas' firm and unusual condemnation of the Holocaust on the occasion of Israel's Holocaust Memorial Day may be a preview of a coming PR campaign aimed at the Israeli public.

All this could sharpen what is already the most objectively penetrating criticism leveled at Netanyahu's response to the Palestinian unity move: until now he frequently criticized Abbas for negotiating while not representing the Gaza Strip, so why should he reject Abbas when he does. Besides, Netanyahu has even negotiated indirectly with Hamas more than his predecessors: to free Gilad Shalit, for example, and to reach ceasefires.

Q. And if the Palestinian unity process goes up in smoke, as has happened so often in the past?

A. This is a very likely possibility. By the most minimalist count, at least six unity initiatives have been declared and then failed since 2006. Abbas' behavior in recent weeks--pulling a new and unexpected rabbit out of his hat every few days at a pace that confused even his closest supporters in the West Bank--certainly does not appear to reflect a measured, calculated decision-making process on his part. Why, for example, threaten one day to dismantle the PA and "return the keys" to Israel, and the next day opt to expand the PA back into Gaza?

The most persuasive explanation for this sudden move to unity is the weakness of both Palestinian sides--which is also why they are likely to fail. Hamas has lost any vestige of sympathy and support in Egypt and Saudi Arabia through its association with the Muslim Brotherhood. Gaza's economic situation is worse than ever. Abbas, for his part, lacks a mandate at home where he faces open political attack from within Fateh, and is isolated regionally by the Arab revolutionary dynamic. Yet, from positions of weakness, how can either side give up its territorial base and control over the security forces that keep it in power?

Ghassan Khatib, former PA government spokesman (and my former bitterlemons.net partner), appears to have gotten it right when he told the New York Times: "The sides may be in need of a reconciliation, but neither side can afford success." Independent scholar Khalil Shikaki added that a unity government is a tactical move that neither side intends to fulfill. These are the Palestinians' two best and most independent political analysts. If they are right, we'll be back to square one within a few weeks. That means that if Kerry is still willing, the two sides could rejoin "talks about talks".

But it could also mean renewed threats by Abu Mazen to dismantle the PA and in effect invite Israel to reoccupy the West Bank, a "Samson scenario" that would end Palestinian autonomy but expose Jerusalem to huge international pressures and criticism. Abu Mazen has in recent weeks displayed an inclination for which he has become well known: to flee from situations where he really has to bite the bullet.

Q. What sort of unilateral move might Israel now invoke?

A. Both Gilad Erdan, a Likud minister close to Netanyahu, and Naftali Bennett, who heads the Israel Home party in the coalition and is a political rival, have proposed that Israel now unilaterally annex all of Area C, which comprises the 60 percent of the West Bank still under direct IDF rule. Bennett added that Israel should now recognize that the Oslo era has ended.

Netanyahu will almost certainly resist these calls for an extreme response. He too is well known for avoiding tough decisions. It may be a bit more intriguing to speculate whether he will now reconsider some sort of unilateral Israeli withdrawal from a portion of Area C not populated by settlers and not particularly sensitive from a security standpoint. He reportedly discussed such an option with the EU several years ago; at a minimum, this would gain him time to continue pursuing what are apparently his two primary political goals: rebuffing international economic and political pressures to isolate Israel, while moving ahead with settlement proliferation designed to tighten Israel's grip on the rest of Area C or about 40 percent of the West Bank, particularly an expanded Jordan Valley and the greater Jerusalem area.

Certainly Netanyahu is now likely to invoke a variety of economic sanctions against the PA. But absent an initiative of some sort to keep alive hopes for a two-state solution--a "Plan B"--he may now face domestic political unrest: Tzipi Livni's HaTnua movement joined the coalition solely for the purpose of advancing a peace process; there is similar sentiment within Yair Lapid's much larger Yesh Atid party. While many Israeli observers proclaim that the end or at least suspension of the peace process means that Israel Home on the far right of the coalition now has no reason to leave the government, they may have ignored the possibly of unrest on the left and center.

If that happens, Netanyahu may quickly regret his Cabinet's ill-considered knee-jerk response to the Fateh-Hamas unity agreement: suspending talks. Why couldn't Israel be the side that continues to be ready to meet, given that nothing has really happened yet on the Palestinian side?

Q. And an American initiative?

A. Judging by Obama's remarks during his Asia trip, the US may in any case now opt for a pause. Kerry, on the other hand, appears as determined and dedicated as ever. Most recently, he warned that Israel risks becoming "an apartheid state . . . . Because a unitary state winds up either being an apartheid state with second class citizens--or it ends up being a state that destroys the capacity of Israel to be a Jewish state. Once you put that frame in your mind, that reality, which is the bottom line, you understand how imperative it is to get to the two-state solution, which both leaders, even yesterday, said they remain deeply committed to.”

At the operative level, Kerry hinted that he might unveil his own peace proposal and tell both sides to either “take it or leave it.” And he criticized both Netanyahu and Abbas by suggesting that a change in the leadership of either Israel or the Palestinians could help facilitate a breakthrough.

Note that the path pursued by Kerry over the past nine months had produced no substantive results even before the current crisis. Now assume a scenario in which the Palestinians wish to continue negotiating, with or without a unity government, yet continue to pile on new conditions, while Netanyahu refuses, citing those new conditions, PA UN initiatives, etc. Sometime a month or two from now would then appear to be the likely timing for Kerry to confront both sides with the ultimatum of a fairly detailed US-sponsored framework agreement.

And if that happens (and without knowing what the contents will be, but drawing on experience), it's likely that Netanyahu will respond with a tactical "yes"--based on his proven capacity to dilute or derail any unwanted demands--and Abbas, preferring the tried-and-true victim role, with a tactical "no". Kerry will then, not for the first time, have to figure out what they mean.

Q. Finally, the unpredictable: spoiler attacks by Palestinian extremists, or the just plain unexpected.

A. Something along these lines almost always happens at a time of uncertainty like this. The consequences are as unpredictable as the act itself. One particularly critical place to watch is the Temple Mount, where tensions are growing between Muslim and Jewish extremists. That's where the second intifada broke out in 2000.

Yet if I were an Islamist extremist in Gaza who is bent on Israel's ultimate destruction, I would wait for a unity government to be formed, then launch a major rocket attack on Israel. The IDF's inevitable heavy military response against the Strip would then, from a legal-technical standpoint, be an attack on the state of Palestine, thereby seriously setting back the cause of a two-state solution. That, unfortunately, is the brutal logic of the current situation.