Naomi Chazan

Are Israeli-Palestinian talks doomed?

You'd think there's no hope for any serious peace process, but changes both domestic and regional may revive it
The handshake on the White House lawn, between Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and PLO leader Yasser Arafat, as part of the Oslo accords, overseen by US president Bill Clinton, September 13, 1993. (Wikipedia)
The handshake on the White House lawn, between Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and PLO leader Yasser Arafat, as part of the Oslo accords, overseen by US president Bill Clinton, September 13, 1993. (Wikipedia)

The 25th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Principles on the White House lawn on September 13, 1993, has provided an opportunity for a veritable outpouring of reassessments of the Oslo process which it launched. Dozens of conferences, symposia, workshops and special meetings are being devoted to the topic; documentaries have been aired and multiple interviews conducted; special issues of journals have appeared and several books are being prepared. While evaluations of past events and their significance vary, most agree on one critical point: that the chances for a renewal of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations under present circumstances are dim indeed.

The reasons for this rather bleak conclusion are numerous. The present Israeli leadership has no interest in pursuing talks; Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is fading — both physically and politically; Gaza and the West Bank are hopelessly divided; the United States under Trump appears more adept at imposing its will than on promoting a durable settlement; the Europeans are proving that their bark is mightier than their bite; and the rest of the world is either preoccupied elsewhere or fed up with the conflict in the area. Put together, little hope for any revival of serious discussions seems to exist.

But is this near-consensus realistic? Does it take into account the meaning of major geo-strategic shifts in the region? Does it accurately measure the effects of power changes both domestically and internationally? Does it reflect the complex dynamics of what is taking place today? Probably not. In subtle and nuanced ways, it is highly likely that recent events are putting the seemingly moribund Israeli-Palestinian question back on center stage.

Three interlocking factors are at work in creating this pattern. The first relates to the changing nature of Israel’s relationship with the United States and, by extension, with the rest of the world. To be sure, the Trump-Netanyahu alliance has led to a series of apparent game changers: the opening of the American Embassy in Jerusalem, the withdrawal of US support for UNRWA, the cessation of humanitarian assistance to the Palestinian Authority, the closure of the Palestinian representation in Washington.

The effects of these moves, purportedly designed to force the embattled Abu Mazen back to the negotiating table, have been far different than anticipated. They have increased, rather than diminished, Palestinian resistance on the ground and recalcitrance on the diplomatic front. They have highlighted the calamitous situation in Gaza. They have aroused a backlash in Europe, where democratic governments persistently remind not only Israel, but also the United States, that support for Israel is not just a matter of joint interests, but also and above all, of a commonality of values that are being disregarded all too frequently in recent times. Even in the Jewish world, silence is being replaced by dismay as illiberalism has come to mark the connection between Israel and its most important strategic ally in the world.

There is very little, if any, daylight between President Trump and Prime Minister Netanyahu at the moment. The conflation of state and personal interests complicates matters even further. And as short-term concerns replace long-term links, Netanyahu’s (and Israel’s) dependency on the United States is actually growing on a daily basis. This dependence does not serve the present coalition — or its policies — well. The beginning of a pushback is appearing precisely around Palestinian matters.

This progression is reinforced by a second critical factor: the change in Israel’s stance in the region in the wake of the final stages the civil war in Syria and its aftermath. The balance of power in the Middle East today differs vastly from that which prevailed prior to the entry of Russia into the area barely three years ago. The United States has been shunted to the sidelines. Turkey and Iran have emerged as regional powers. Egypt is struggling to regain some of its regional standing, while Iraq, Libya and Yemen are barely subsisting as functioning states. While most of the Gulf emirates and Saudi Arabia have provided intriguing opportunities for Israeli overtures, in truth alliances are shifting so rapidly that no permanent ties have been fostered. In these shifting currents, Israel has moved from studied passivity to more proactive actions — with all the risks involved — leaving it increasingly subject to Russian oversight devoid of American protection (as recent events so dramatically demonstrate).

As long as the regional picture remains fluid and disorder reigns, Israel — by far the strongest player in the region as well as the most marginalized — has been drawn into juggling for position along with the stronger powers in the area. Their stomping grounds are the weaker states where power vacuums remain to be filled (and for Israel, especially Syria). This competition is often conducted via proxies as various flashpoints abound and radiate throughout the region.

Israel has begun to fit into the new dynamic revolving around power considerations among insecure authoritarian regimes, but suffers not only from its traditional estrangement from the region, but also from the fact that the Palestinian cause, so long neglected by the Arab states, still serves as a common denominator that they can rally around should the need arise. Short-term alliances and concerns therefore leave Israel more involved and more exposed on the regional level than in the past.

Changes in external and regional contexts are reinforced by a third factor: the domestic one. Prime Minister Netanyahu is now fighting for his political life in an election year against the backdrop of a series of investigations on his probity in office. Although the polls are presently predicting another victory for him at the ballot box, his continuation in office relies heavily on his ability to maintain his primacy among right-wing voters. He has therefore either pursued creeping annexation measures and settlement expansion himself, or condoned such initiatives by his coalition partners. These, combined with ethno-nationalist legislation such as the “nation-state bill,” have increased his popularity within his political base, but aroused more discontent among other sectors of the population. In effect, Netanyahu today is more dependent on his coalition and less beholden to the electorate than ever before.

This unique combination of reliance and lack of accountability inevitability highlights social schisms and enhances political polarization. It also redirects political attention to the multiple repercussions—internal as well as external — of the inability to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Questions about the future of this relationship, along with both the futility and dangers inherent in grasping on to an elusive status quo, are growing. These have a bearing on the political scene in the short-term and — much more significantly — on the viability of Israel in the long-term.

For global, regional and domestic reasons, therefore, the seeming permanence of non-movement on Palestinian-related matters is highly questionable. The presumption that Israel’s superior might guarantees its ability to pursue its policies unfettered in the evolving environment in which it exists may be totally misplaced. At every turn, its actions and lacunae accentuate its dependency on others whose interests lie predominantly elsewhere. And, increasingly, this dynamic underlines the strong connection between Israel’s independence and its need to address its relationship with the Palestinians.

So, just as Oslo appears to have been buried, the process it set in motion may be more vital than ever. Now is the time to start thinking and acting creatively to put an end to the one issue that Israel has sidestepped for much too long: the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Otherwise, it will be forced to do so by others.

About the Author
Naomi Chazan is professor (emerita) of political science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. A former Member of the Knesset and Deputy Speaker of the Knesset, she currently serves as a senior research fellow at the Truman Research Institute at the Hebrew University and the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute.
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