Israel/Palestine: Nothing Left to Talk About
Israel/Palestine: Nothing Left to Talk About
Only the US can stop an Israeli move into Rafah
Only the US can stop an Israeli move into Rafah
Op-Ed / Middle East & North Africa 4 minutes

Israel/Palestine: Nothing Left to Talk About

Amid speculation over how Israelis and Palestinians might resume their talks, a reality is taking hold: The point is fast approaching where negotiations between the two will be, for all practical purposes and for the foreseeable future, over. As emissaries are dispatched and ideas explored, discussions could well carry on. But they will have lost all life, energy or sense of purpose.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu might not have been wholeheartedly committed to a peace deal with the Palestinians, but upon taking office, several factors tugged him in that direction. He worried about U.S. and regional pressure; had concerns about his own public opinion; was unsure about how Palestinians would react to a prolonged impasse.

He imagined that with creative ideas he might sway Mahmoud Abbas to move in directions the Palestinian leader had not foreseen. Plus, history beckoned, as Netanyahu caught a glimpse of himself as the man who finally would bring recognition and security to Israel.

Over the past two years, the fears have receded and the promise has faded. Somewhat to his own surprise, Netanyahu resisted America’s demands, called President Obama’s bluff and came out none the weaker.

Discontent from Arab regimes is real but flimsy; their preoccupations focused more on perpetuating their rule and thwarting Iran. A combination of Israeli military incursions and security measures, heightened cooperation with Palestinian security services and West Bank fatigue dramatically lowered the threat of a new uprising or even of significant violence. The impasse in peace talks did not prompt divided Palestinians to reunite, making plain that for now they are more interested in combating each other than fighting Israel.

Netanyahu also faces little to no pressure from a domestic opinion — let alone his core constituency — wholly disenchanted by and indifferent to the peace process. Of his initial worries, some never manifested themselves; some the prime minister either conquered or stared down; others he’s learned to live with. At times he might still fashion himself a momentous leader, but prospects of making history have become more uncertain as the perils of current politics have grown increasingly real.

Getting together with Abbas has had the perverse effect of drawing the two men further apart. Netanyahu now senses that novel ideas will have little purchase on a man with secure convictions, and that substantive gaps between the two sides are far larger than he had anticipated or hoped.

In the meantime, Netanyahu’s right-wing coalition partners have awakened, menacing retribution in the event of forward-leaning diplomatic moves. For the abstract lure of history to have been more compelling than the concrete constraints of the present, chances of an agreement would have had to appear more likely than those of a political crisis. They might have once. They almost certainly do not now.

Two years ago, Abbas also harbored a faith of sorts. Part of it was innate, fueled by a lifelong belief that Israelis could be persuaded by sheer force of reason and logic of the need for compromise. He also invested high hopes in President Obama and, based on precedent, had little cause to think a right-wing Israeli prime minister necessarily would be worse news than a centrist or left-wing one.

What optimism there was did not last long, replaced by a growing sense of dejection. Abbas faced a heroic task for which he needed help from all. He got it from virtually none. Belief in the U.S. soon started to fade, a victim of Washington’s serial tactical misjudgments and inability to live up to its promises.

Abbas felt betrayed, too, by Arab regimes that had pledged their support only to desert him at the first opportunity. On the domestic front, there is no political weight or momentum behind the negotiations. Instead, there is at best apathy, at worst outright skepticism.

Not unlike Netanyahu, the Palestinian president emerged profoundly discouraged from their meetings, shaken by his counterpart’s demands, staggered by the enormity of the chasm separating their respective positions.

For Abbas, who has staked it all on negotiations, the realization was especially deflating. His rejection of violence is heartfelt and not something he is about to revisit. Yet only now is he psychologically coming to terms with its practical consequences as the failure of the diplomatic strategy highlights the absence of a viable alternative.

The result is a more acute feeling of powerlessness. To which one must add the Palestinians’ wholesale reliance on foreign donors for economic and political support — a dependence that further narrows the scope of possible autonomous action.

It would not be the first time that Israeli-Palestinian negotiations reached an impasse. Yet this would be something different. If Netanyahu fails to reach an agreement, it could be a long while before any other Israeli leader succeeds. It would conclusively establish in the eyes of most Israelis that for now, peace is unattainable. A more centrist successor government would confront a more hostile landscape: A deal signed by the Right would rally the Left in support; a deal signed by the Left would mobilize the Right in opposition.

Abbas in all likelihood is writing his ultimate political chapter. No successor with the required legitimacy or history waits in the wings. After him, the Palestinian movement — already broken and bereft of a common cause — will further tear itself apart. A long and arduous process of redefinition will commence. A historic compromise will not be in the cards.

Netanyahu’s and Abbas’s disillusionment is not merely a crisis. Short of an unexpected and seismic shift, it will represent, in more ways than one, the end of a road.

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