Israel voted on January 22 to return Binyamin Netanyahu for a third term. The elections were also a survey – a poll. There were 51 % of Israelis who voted for parties who proposed a two-state deal. These figures closely mirror a recent survey by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, in Ramallah, who found that 52 % of Palestinians favored a two-state resolution. However unlike Israeli votes, 48% of Palestinians were apprehensive that Mr. Abbas would not be able to sign and deliver to end the conflict.
Israel since independence in 1948 has been governed by a coalition of parties always relying on religious and other parties. This time Netanyahu who only secured 31 of the 120 Knesset seats is set to invite the right wing Bayit Yehudi Party (BYP) who secured 12 seats to join the coalition. The BYP proposes asserting Israeli sovereignty in the West Bank (Area C) which has 350,000 Jewish settlers with naturalization of 50,000 Arabs in the territory annexed. This would ensure Israeli control of geo-strategic areas without dismantling the settlements.
Maybe this is not good news for President Obama’s second term desire to restart the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. In his first term, he was not pushy contemplating that he could do what President Carter successfully did in 1977; mediate between Israel and Egypt for a peace treaty when the parties themselves wanted to make peace. Now President Obama will be in a more difficult position. He cannot use his new mandate to show global leadership and to bring both sides to a two-state solution.
Mr Obama and both sides know that the status quo is not a solution. The Arab Spring, the civil war in Syria; the precarious situation in Jordan and the potential for renewed conflict with Hamas in Gaza and Hezbollah in Lebanon could easily spread into the West Bank; a third Intafada more violent and more devastating than the previous two. The recent eight-day war in Gaza showed that the clock is ticking for a solution. Reliance on technology such as the Iron-Dome rocket defense system cannot prevail in the long term as Hamas and other militants are bound to rearm with more sophisticated rockets and missile.
The clock is also ticking for moderate Palestinians. Mr. Abbas, whose Fatah party controls the West Bank may find Hamas taking control of it as Hamas did in Gaza in 2007 dashing all hopes for an agreement with Israel. Under such circumstances the BYP proposal will gain momentum as it offers full autonomy for a State of Palestine but only to West Bank Area A, which is currently the governance of the Palestinian Authority.
The Palestinian state will need to be functional politically and economically. Naftali Bennett the leader of the BYP is a pragmatist. Peace grows from below – through people and people in daily life is his oft-quoted statement. He can see no value in spending diplomatic cocktails in Oslo, Geneva and Camp David; substantial improvement and sustainable development only comes from real people living together. Adults that have a family and good employment focus on their children’s education and their own businesses above that of strife.
Where does this leave President Obama? Obama’s needs to show diplomatic caution as pressure on Israel may collapse the coalition expected to contain parties with many diverse ideologies. On the other side Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas also lacks legitimacy with his West Bank governance lacking broad support and which is dysfunctional. Obama also needs to consider domestic American politics and the strength of the Israeli lobby.
This would not be the first time that the White House has been in this position. Reminiscent of the 1978 Camp David accords America doesn’t desire to enter a situation where peace is solely based on American financial incentives. The last four years have shown that Obama has little leverage over Netanyahu and even less over Abbas.
One way forward would be for America to step aside from direct involvement; to promote American private entrepreneurs to invest in Palestinian areas; and to utilize different diplomatic paths such as the European Union whose efforts the State Department has been thwarting. Even with this Israel and the Palestinians need to take the risk that something is better than nothing; the clock is ticking and soon neither side could end up with anything but the violence that typifies Syria. A half full glass is better than a half empty glass.