The United States has just announced that it will be dispatching its top negotiators Jared Kushner, Jason Greenblatt and Dina Powell to the region at the end of the month to explore ways to restart the moribund Israeli-Palestinian peace process. What do the representatives of a beleaguered president at home and an unpredictable leader on the global scene expect to achieve in talks with two besieged politicians — Binyamin Netanyahu and Mahmoud Abbas — who appear to be on their way out?
On the surface, the answer is all too obvious: nothing much at all. Conventional wisdom suggests that delicate negotiations — especially in conflicts that have festered for generations — must be conducted from a position of strength — when leaders boast popular support and have the ability to implement sensitive agreements. When all those involved are flailing politically, the best they can expect is to create a diversion that will give them a bit of a respite from their staggering troubles at home.
At second glance, however, the answer may be more complicated. If recent history is any guide, then it is not too farfetched to assume that the three leaders in question may actually believe that they still have a fighting chance of shaping the lasting solution to a century-old dispute that has heretofore eluded all their predecessors. On balance: both responses, contradictory though they are, may prove correct — enough of a reason to proceed, even under the most inauspicious of circumstances.
Israeli-Palestinian relations in the present century are essentially the story of the intimate connection between domestic political weakness and stepped-up initiatives on the peace front. This pattern started in 2000 and continues to this very day.
Ehud Barak launched an all-out effort to reach an agreement with Palestinians barely days after he had lost his parliamentary majority in the summer of 2000, and only a few months before the American elections which brought to an end eight years of Democratic Party rule in Washington. President Clinton — fully aware of the limited time at his disposal, but unwilling to acknowledge that Israeli-Palestinian relations were bogged down by violence and misunderstandings — succumbed to pressure from his Israeli counterpart, and agreed to convene the parties yet again (despite the obvious reluctance of Yasser Arafat) at Camp David.
Their failure to arrive at any understanding had widespread effects. It sounded the death knell of the Oslo process. It contributed directly to the outbreak of the ever so violent Second Intifada. It broke down Israeli and Palestinian trust in a negotiated settlement. And it hastened Barak’s political demise (his claim that “there is no partner on the Palestinian side” notwithstanding).
To the very end, the Israeli prime minister pursued talks with the Palestinians at Taba, until forced, just weeks before the special elections which he lost to Ariel Sharon, to withdraw on the verge of what he still claims to be a “historic agreement”. The negotiating process had come to an end, but the Clinton parameters disseminated just weeks before he left the White House became, in many respects, the framework for all future negotiating efforts both on the official and unofficial levels (including subsequent international resolutions and track two discussions which led, among others, to the Geneva Accord).
The seemingly inextricable connection between political weakness—especially on the Israeli side—and renewed efforts to pursue peace was also apparent during the tenure of Barak’s successors. Ariel Sharon bypassed bilateral talks by promoting the unilateral withdrawal from Gaza. But when he lost the support of his Likud base and prepared for new elections under the Kadima party banner, he began to prepare for the possibility of new talks. His successor, Ehud Olmert, entered such discussions with Arafat’s replacement, Mahmoud Abbas (Abu-Mazen) in 2007, on the urging of George W. Bush and under the close guidance of his Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, towards the end of his second term.
By that time, Olmert was fast losing popularity not only because of his poor performance in the Second Lebanon War, but also because of the growing suspicions surrounding his conduct in public office. A series of preliminary discussions with Abu-Mazen culminated in the Annapolis conference, which opened the door for further negotiations. Although the Israeli and Palestinian versions of these events vary substantially (with the former claiming unprecedented concessions including two capitals for two states in Jerusalem and the latter that these contained nothing beyond the Clinton parameters), no progress was registered despite intense efforts just prior to Olmert’s resignation on the eve of his indictment on charges of embezzlement and breach of trust.
Binyamin Netanyahu returned to the Prime Minister’s office in 2009 with little political impetus to engage in negotiations with the Palestinians. Although efforts on the part of the new occupant of the White House, Barack Obama to bring the parties back to the negotiating table in 2010, led by then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, petered out rather quickly, American efforts were renewed in Obama’s second term. John Kerry’s considerable investment in the process broke down in early 2014, with mutual recriminations abounding. In the political morass that ensued in Israel, Netanyahu decided to call snap elections, which he won handily, contrary to predictions, in March 2015. One of Obama’s last political acts as President was to abstain on UN Security Council resolution 2334 condemning the settlement enterprise.
Donald Trump’s victory in the November 2016 elections was hence doubly embraced by Netanyahu, who hoped that pressure from Washington would abate drastically. During the past few months, however, just as his domestic situation has deteriorated as investigations of wrongdoing have proliferated, he has cooperated with the new administration’s initiatives to prepare the groundwork for yet another round of talks. Just yesterday, he made it clear that he would welcome the team from Washington when they arrive at the end of the month.
Netanyahu’s purported willingness to engage in serious negotiations with his Palestinian counterpart at this juncture is hardly credible. If it diverts attention from other matters, it nevertheless serves his political purposes. It also thwarts any untoward pressure from a mercurial administration in Washington. But what the Prime Minister doesn’t realize is that for the first time since the commencement of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, not only is the Israeli leadership in a downward political spiral, the Palestinian one is as well, with Abu-Mazen coming to the end of his tenure.
With two leaders in their waning days, little credibility can be placed in the renewal of negotiations at this juncture. This does mean that another round of talks is not useful. These may lead to some easing of the absolutely appalling situation in Gaza. They may highlight the significance of the regional framework in future talks. They may finally entertain some creative ideas about how to allow for two states in a homeland claimed by two people, setting the scene for long-term interaction and even reconciliation. And thus, they might also leave a substantive legacy to the successors of Binyamin Netanyahu and Mahmoud Abbas.
Leaders who lack political legitimacy, however, do not have the power to forge agreements and carry them out. The link between internal politics and external capabilities continues to prevail. The forthcoming round of talks will therefore achieve little, but could offer much for other leaders who succeed in establishing robust constituencies for peace.