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OP-ED: Israeli-Palestinian Talks: Why Now and to What End?

WASHINGTON, Aug 16 2013 (IPS) - The recently restarted talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority are the only peaceful political activity amidst ongoing violence in Syria, Iraq, Libya, Yemen, Egypt, Bahrain and elsewhere in the Arab world.

Neither U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry nor Ambassador Martin Indyk are Pollyannaish about the prospects of a major breakthrough regarding the “final status” issues, which the parties have put on the table.  Because Arabs and Israelis have had a history of failure in negotiating a settlement, these talks will require more than optimism and good will.

To enhance the prospects of success and bolster the U.S. “even-handed” approach, Secretary Kerry should have appointed a distinguished Arab American to partner with Mr. Indyk as a co-emissary to the talks.

Before analysing the “Why Now” question, it is imperative to reiterate a basic truism:  Nothing is mysterious about resolving the “final status” issues or achieving the two-state solution.  Palestinians, Israelis and the U.S. sponsor have a clear idea of the contours of these issues, whether about Jerusalem, borders and land swap, refugees, security, the end of occupation, and national sovereignty.

The question remains:  If they could not agree on these issues in the past, despite U.S. prodding, why are the present talks any different?  Several factors, which now seem to be arrayed in an unprecedented way in the region, could contribute to the success of the present talks.

First: The Arab states, especially Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf states, are pushing for a resolution of the conflict because of a growing fear of radicalism of Arabs and Muslims.  These states believe the festering Palestinian issue and Israeli occupation are a contributing factor to radicalisation and the rise of a new generation of jihadists. In their calculation, resolving the conflict would neutralise it as a magnet for recruiting potential extremists.

Second:  As a regional actor, Mahmoud Abbas’s Palestinian Authority is weaker than ever.  Its authority barely covers Ramallah and other towns and cities in Area A and certainly does not extend to Gaza where Hamas is in control. It’s rife with internal divisions.

Despite the PA’s diplomatic efforts at the United Nations, Abbas has been unable to reduce the grip of the occupation on the West Bank or to significantly improve the economy in Palestinian territories. With eroding legitimacy and an anemic economy, Abbas is barely holding on, thanks to the support he receives from Europe and the U.S.

In reality, Abbas knows he cannot cut a deal without Israeli acquiescence. Cognizant of its weak hand, the PA leadership, with Washington’s backing, might be willing to make unprecedented concessions required for a deal with Israel.  He could get some Palestinian support for such an agreement if it promises significant economic improvements to Palestinians’ daily life, and if he could sell the deal as the best arrangement he could get under present circumstances.

Third:  The inclusion of Hamas and its support for any agreement are critical, but Hamas presently is too weak to demand such inclusion.  Its rift with Syria, Iran, and Hezbollah has reduced the organisation’s regional reach and influence.  The military overthrow of Mohamed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt has deprived Hamas of a major source of regional support.

If the Egyptian military decides to restrict the tunnel economy on the Gaza-Egyptian border, Hamas would be dealt a major blow. Unemployment and poverty would become more dire, and Hamas would be held responsible for the resulting misery.

The conventional wisdom has been that although Hamas might not be strong enough to impose a settlement, it is strong enough to defeat one.  Because of its current weakened position, Hamas might not be able to derail a settlement.

Fourth: Although many in the region and globally are beginning to question the practicality of the two-state solution because of the expanding number of Jewish settlements and settlers in the occupied territories, the argument for a one-state solution and other alternatives have not taken root and have been rejected outright by key players who could effect a settlement.

Fifth: Ongoing debates in Israel about the Jewish nature of the state and the perceived Palestinian demographic threat could be pushing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to seek a deal with the Palestinian authority.

In this calculus, Israel’s security interests could be served if the PA continues to fight radicalism and keep Hamas at bay while implicitly recognising Israel’s right to pursue potential terrorists beyond its boundaries. Under such a settlement, which Netanyahu would consider a win-win, the PA also would signal its acceptance of the Jewish nature of Israel.

What could go wrong?

Despite the optimism surrounding the talks, the process could be derailed by several “wild cards” and unexpected developments.  These could include a bloody internecine violence among Palestinians; a sustained Israeli military strike against Iran; an Israeli government decision to stop the promised release of Palestinian prisoners and or to build new settlements, which would severely embarrass Abbas; and a serious terrorist strike inside Israel that could be attributed to Hamas or other Palestinian factions.

Furthermore, if Egypt implodes and the Muslim Brotherhood regains power, Hamas would be in a much stronger position to defeat a prospective settlement regardless of the position of Gulf Arab states. If this occurs, Abbas and the PA would be unable to offer the Israelis tangible concessions to make a settlement possible.

U.S., Israeli and Palestinian leaders are acutely aware that if the talks fail, the stalemate could eventually drag their countries into the surrounding conflicts in the region. Their respective national interests are pushing them toward a settlement.  If they cannot achieve the envisioned end result, it would be years before the post-autocracy convulsions could offer another opportunity.

Emile Nakhleh, a former Senior Intelligence Service Officer, is a Research Professor at the University of New Mexico and author of “A Necessary Engagement:  Reinventing America’s Relations with the Muslim World and Bahrain:  Political Development in a Modernizing Society”.

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