At last it is happening. U.S. President Barack Obama has opened direct talks between Israelis and Palestinians. All American presidents since Carter have tried for peace and failed, each failure resulting in blood. Responsibility is heavy therefore on the shoulders of the leaders, whether or not they feel its weight.
It is the first time in the thirty years of negotiations that a solid consensus has formed concerning the likely fate of the talks: all parties expect failure. It will be nothing short of a miracle if Obama succeeds in bridging the gaps between a right-leaning Israeli government and a Palestinian delegation under heavy pressure from Islamist opponents. Israeli PM Bibi Netanyahu refuses to commit on continuing the construction freeze in the settlements, and there is no indication that he has made a specific proposal concerning future borders. It is hard to imagine that the Palestinians will manage to wrest from him, Mr. Greater Israel, what they could not get from the Ehuds, Barak and Olmert.
Despite the near hopelessness of achieving peace, the region’s leaders swarm to Washington in their umpteenth attempt to square the circle. The reason is simple. The consensus on the probability of failure sits in uneasy company with another consensus, held by the same parties, namely, that the status quo must not be allowed to continue. In the present alignment of forces, time appears to be on the side of the radical elements, especially the Islamists, who, from Iraq to Afghanistan, are waging a war-to-the-finish against America. These elements also support Hamas in its struggle against Fatah. There is the deep conviction among the so-called “moderate” Arab states, as well as Israel and America, that the old order is in danger as never before, and that all stops must be pulled to stem the extremist tide.
The events surrounding the Turkish flotilla led Israel to ease up on its effort to isolate Gaza. Ironically, however, they were also a spur to opening the present talks, aimed at easing the wider isolation of Israel. The world is fed up with the occupation and demands a solution at last.
The biggest obstacle is the settlements. Around this topic another consensus has formed, namely that in any agreement, the settlements located in the heart of the West Bank—not those in the blocs near the Green Line—will be slated for evacuation. Despite this consensus, however, no Israeli government has ever been capable of dismantling the heartland settlements. The price would be civil war. This prospect too has become part of the unwritten Israeli consensus. Yitzhak Rabin, for instance, heeded the danger when he refused to include the issue of settlements in the Oslo Agreement. Netanyahu, in his first term, sanctified the principle. Ehud Barak reinforced it by expanding settlement construction. Ariel Sharon may seem to have ignored it by unilaterally dismantling the settlements in Gaza, but not so: the threat of civil war comes from the West Bank, where he strengthened Israel’s grip. Is it credible that Bibi Netanyahu, in his second term, might contemplate doing what no one before him dared?
The settlements have become the litmus test regarding Israel’s intentions. That is why the Palestinians, and with them the Americans, last year conditioned the indirect talks on a settlement freeze. They got one (more or less) lasting ten months, till September 26, 2010. The eyes are now focused on that date. Obama was able to drag the Palestinians into direct talks, in fact, by persuading them that these would make it easier for him to pressure Netanyahu into an extension of the freeze. In effect, the talks have become a sort of political maneuver, intended to put Netanyahu to the test: Does he want a peace agreement or does be prefer to keep his right-wing coalition?
Statements by Egypt’s Foreign Minister, Ahmed Aboul Gheit, leave no room for doubt: “The European Union and the United States demanded that the Palestinians take part in direct negotiations in order to keep the Israeli side from continuing construction in the settlements.” He added that the Palestinians decided to participate in order to place Israel before a dilemma: If it decides to extend the freeze, the talks will continue, but if it decides to build, the talks will lose all significance (Al-Hayat, September 9). At the same time, Netanyahu’s coalition ally, Labor Party head Ehud Barak, came out with a statement in an interview with Ari Shavit of Haaretz (September 9). He outlined with precision the parameters of a possible agreement with the Palestinians on all the major issues: borders, settlements, refugees, security and the future of Jerusalem. But the single most important remark was the following: “If the government in its present form isn’t able to do this, I will demand its expansion. A peace agreement is more important than the composition of the government.” Here, it would seem, lies Netanyahu’s real problem: If the talks collapse because he refuses to continue the settlement freeze, will Ehud Barak and Labor stay in the government?
During the last two decades, Israeli prime ministers have known well enough how to get into negotiations, but no one could ever predict the outcome, political or otherwise. No one predicted that an Israeli PM would be assassinated as a result of his signature on an agreement. Three years later, in 1998, Netanyahu lost his first government after signing at the Wye Plantation. Barak lost his after the failure of Camp David in July 2000. Only Olmert did not quite manage to fail, forced out prematurely because of corruption. Now it’s Netanyahu’s second turn. He will have to decide what he wants: (1) to continue the alliance with the far right, which will mean getting in hot water with Obama and losing the Labor Party, or (2) to bring Kadima into his coalition and advance toward an agreement according to the parameters sketched by Ehud Barak.
It’s clear which alternative Obama prefers. He has long been pushing for political change in Israel, and it seems fair to say that he has no scruples about how to bring it about. He will scold or hug. Lately he’s been hugging.
However, the path to a coalition change is hardly strewn with roses. Netanyahu may wind up paying politically. If he abandons his rightwing partners, bringing in Kadima instead, this is likely to weaken him. He will be completely dependent on rivals to his left. The entry of Kadima, with American-backed Livni at its head, will make her a strong opponent in the next elections. The big question, though, is what will be left of Likud ideology if its leader negotiates on the basis of Labor and Kadima positions. What then will be the difference between Likud and Kadima? It is clear that Likud now stands before a dismal choice: to lose its ideological assets or be shunted to the hazy margins of Israeli politics.
It does not appear that Bibi Netanyahu is ready for an about-face. For now he is acting like the average politician trying to keep power. Beyond him and his narrow considerations, however, Israeli society as a whole stands before a challenge of no mean size: To what extent is it ready, once and for all, to get free of the occupation and take off its gloves in the clash with the settlers? We had a foretaste this past week: actors, playwrights and directors signed a refusal, on grounds of conscience, to perform in the occupied West Bank (specifically in the settlement of Ariel); they were met by a storm of negative reaction in the popular press. The problem, then, is not just Bibi. The Israeli public still isn’t ready psychologically to pay the price of peace, even though this price is tiny indeed when compared to the gains to be had.