Talks began this week between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) President Mahmoud Abbas regarding reaching a final agreement on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The punditry has expressed pessimism in the lead up to negotiations, but has tempered this outlook upon the release of positive statements by both leaders. Netanyahu was quoted as stating, “We don’t seek a brief interlude between two wars. We don’t seek a temporary respite between outbursts of terror. We seek a peace that will end the conflict once and for all. We seek a peace that will last for generations.” Abbas similarly characterised the talks as a “sincere opportunity to make peace…It is time to put an end to the struggle in the Middle East. Let us sign a final agreement and put an end to a very long period of struggle.” However, this new optimism cannot be accepted a priori. The Likud party (to which Netanyahu belongs) is notoriously hawkish on a Palestinian state and the highly factionalised nature of contemporary Palestinian politics implies continuing hostilities even in the event of an agreement with the PLO.
“The issue of Palestinian refugees
would remain under the aegis of a
hypothetical Palestinian state.
What is the rationale behind
this shift in policy?”
Netanyahu has, throughout his career, exhibited a decidedly realist approach to politics and negotiations. During his first prime ministership, he was patently aware of potential prisoner’s dilemma-esque defections and free-riding on the part of Arafat’s PLO. Furthermore, he viewed faith-building minor concessions with disdain, believing that they served only to encourage extremist factions to become more brazen in their demands. Pursuant to this policy, he demanded Palestinian progress on the recognition of Israel in the PLO’s covenant, prior to progressing towards the Israeli commitments in the Oslo Accords. As late as June 2009 he was unremittent on the status of Jerusalem, asserting that it “must remain the united capital of Israel.” He was similarly obstinate on the issue of Israeli construction in the West Bank.
(Image [Top to Bottom]: CIA-World Factbook; LookLex)
The current negotiating parameters are much more conciliatory; Barak, the de facto foreign minister of Netanyahu, has outlined a proposal where Jerusalem is divided according to ethnicity, the Old City independently administered according to “some special agreement”. Only border-settlements on the West Bank are to be retained, conceding Jewish settlements as far into the territory as Hebron. The issue of Palestinian refugees would remain under the aegis of a hypothetical Palestinian state. What is the rationale behind this shift in policy?
“the current lull in violence
is more likely a result of regrouping
than a concerted winding
down of aggression.”
The answer lies in the closing window of opportunity available to Israel to secure a two state solution. Firstly, the PLO has been unusually compliant in the West Bank. There has been no rocket fire in the north since the 2006 Lebanon war, and no suicide bombings in Israel-proper from West Bank origin. Moreover, institution-building and administration in the province has been handled competently by PLO-supported Prime Minister Salam Fayyad. Such cooperation is predicated upon progress in negotiations on a Palestinian state. Israel claims that the reduced violence is a result of tightened Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) security on the border. The PLO contends that illegal cross-border movements are common, and that it has been Palestinian restraint which has facilitated the improvements. In any event, PLO patience is wearing thin. Secondly, whilst Hezbollah and Hamas have similarly scaled back hostilities recently, such a fortuitous disengagement is unlikely to last. Iran supports both organisations in terms of weapons and training, and the current lull in violence is more likely a result of regrouping than a concerted winding down of aggression. Securing an agreement with the PLO will undermine the capacity of Hamas to wage war effectively. Lastly, long-term demographic trends in Israel mean that within a few decades the Jewish population will find itself a minority in its own state. The Jewish population will have to either cede sovereignty or enforce apartheid.
The Palestinian situation complicates this logic. Abbas was the US choice for Palestinian Prime Ministership in 2003, based upon the pragmatism in his diplomacy. He is recognised as a genuinely progressive element in Palestinian politics. He established this reputation early in his career; he was sent as envoy to Saudi Arabia to amend for PLO support of Iraq in the Gulf War of ’92. As Prime Minister he often disagreed with the more hardline Arafat, and resigned from his Ministership as a result of this internal disagreement. Upon his rise to Presidency in 2005, he was instrumental in ending the second intifada against Israel. His attitude to the current round of negotiations has been described as “cordial”.
“Netanyahu may be employing the strategy
of negotiating whilst advancing.”
The salient issue lies not in the intentions of the President, but his legitimacy as representative of the Palestinian people. Since 2006, the militant Islamist organisation Hamas has enjoyed a majority in Parliament, and has condemned what it views as a castrated PLO. Abbas has been embroiled in electoral controversy, utilising his executive prerogative to extend his Presidency a year further than the four-year limit. The move is regarded by most as illegal, since it does not have the backing of the Hamas-led parliament.
Hamas presents a more serious problem than a nagging legal dispute. Upon the formation of the Hamas parliament, violence between Fatah and the organisation has run rampant. In internecine conflicts since 2007 over six hundred Palestinians have perished, with the military superiority of PLO forces challenged fundamentally. Whilst Hamas has been excluded from the West Bank, it retains control over all of Gaza and has appointed its own Prime Minister in the area. The power-locus contention Hamas raises with regards to the negotiations is exacerbated by the ideological bent of the organisation. The Hamas Charter 1988 completely excludes recognition of Israel as a state and calls for the complete expulsion of Jews from the Middle East. Hamas’ leader, Ismail Haniyeh delineates the scope of Hamas’ commitment; “We will never recognize the usurper Zionist government and will continue our jihad-like movement until the liberation of Jerusalem.”
The juxtaposition of Hamas’ growing power with its uncompromising stance on “the Jewish question” implies contradiction in that its presence at negotiations is both required and impossible. The conditions for presence at the negotiating table run counter to fundamental axioms of Hamas’ mission statement: a ceasefire, recognising Israel and abiding by previous agreements signed between Israel and the Palestinians. The upshot of this is that any agreement signed with the PLO may well be an ersatz agreement, absent of support from the majority of Palestinians.
Of course, Israel is aware of this. Netanyahu may be employing the strategy of negotiating whilst advancing. He is more strident in his opposition to Hamas than the PLO, opposing the 2008 ceasefire on the grounds that it was, “not a relaxation. It [was] an Israeli agreement to the rearming of Hamas.” The crux of his 2009 Prime Ministership campaign was a commitment to the overthrow of Hamas: “Israel must achieve a decisive victory against Hamas, a victory that will fundamentally damage its ability to launch terror attacks against Israel…Hamas must ultimately be removed from Gaza.” As such, the current talks present a unique opportunity to shore up stability with the PLO dominated West Bank. In the event that talks are successful, a threat is neutralised in the north and resources can be devoted to extinguishing the threat in the south. In the event that negotiations flounder, Netanyahu can claim the moral high ground, spending its currency on the reasserted Israeli military presence which will necessarily be required. This strategy places more importance on the Prime Minister’s presentation as a force for peace than his realisation as such in a substantive sense, and may jeopardize the outcome of negotiations. The risk of that eventuation is a function of the level of myopia in the leader’s analysis, regarding West Bank stability and long-term demographic trends.
The current talks are important not only in the outcome but in the redefinition of roles for both parties. Should peace be reached with the PLO, a reorientation in Israel toward eliminating extremist Islamism will occur. Palestinians will commence the monumental task of state-building. If efforts at compromise fail, Israel will, in the short term, return to its policy of containment. In the long term, Israel will struggle with its evolution as a truly bi-national state. Palestine will continue its sectarian violence. At this point, the latter option seems likely, due to the strategic history of the Israeli president and the common knowledge of Palestinian fragmentation.