Three years ago, in the summer of 2010, President Obama and then-Secretary of State Hilary Clinton sat down with Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Fatah head Mahmoud Abbas in an attempt to jumpstart perpetually stalled Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. No compromise could be made, however, as both parties came to the table with intractable preconditions: Israel wanted a formal denunciation of the terrorist group Hamas, which was elected to govern the Gaza Strip in 2006, while Abbas insisted that Israel halt its illegal construction of settlements in the West Bank. Neither made a move to satisfy these demands, and so despite continuous urging by the United States, the status quo persisted.
Now, three years later, new Secretary of State John Kerry has decided that the time has come for renegotiation. Any semblance of peace – say, a mutually respected, long-term ceasefire – has been noticeably absent from the region, and both Israelis and Palestinians are hard-pressed to believe that Kerry can orchestrate successful negotiations between their governments.
The Israeli government is, if anything, more intransigent than ever, with a majority right wing, religious Parliament elected in January 2013. The Beyetenu-Likud coalition, created by Binyamin Netanyahu in 2013 in order to secure his position at the head of Israeli governance, is obdurately nationalistic and therefore incredibly resistant to any concession of land to the Palestinians. The contested area is the West Bank, appropriated by Israel after its victory in the 1967 Six-Day War. United Nations Security Council Resolution 242, adopted unanimously in the aftermath of said war, called for the “withdrawal of Israel armed forces from territories occupied in the recent conflict.” Resolution 242 dictated that Israel should allow the West Bank to be used for the construction of a formal Palestinian state, in order to achieve “respect for and acknowledgment of the sovereignty, territorial integrity and political independence of every State in the area and their right to live in peace.” Almost half a century later, Israel seems no closer to abiding by this international mandate than it was in ’67; if anything, it may be further away. Israel’s Foreign Minister, Avigdor Liberman, recently wrote an article for the Jerusalem Post in which he remonstrates the international community for acting “in a biased and one-sided manner” and avers the need for Israel to act alone, according to its own agenda.
In 2005, under the infinitely more moderate Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, Israel withdrew from the Gaza Strip, despite protests from the far right and the resignation of then-Finance Minister Binyamin Netanyahu. The clout of the Israeli right has increased since then, and now Kerry is faced with the formidable task of brokering a deal with an administration that is, in the words of former Israeli foreign minister Shlomo ben Ami, “[fatalistic] about the chances of peace.”
Kerry’s efforts, though substantial, have so far only resulted in hesitant commitments from both parties to meet face to face. He has made five trips to the region since March, meeting with Israeli and Palestinian officials as well as the Jordanian government in order to plan four-way peace talks that will hopefully occur in September, around the 20th anniversary of the Oslo Accords. Though the US Secretary of State urges Abbas and Netanyahu to come to the table without preconditions, each has already made preemptive demands: Abbas wants a moratorium on Israeli settlements in the West Bank, as well as the release of about 120 Palestinian prisoners who have been jailed in Israel since before the 1993 Oslo Accords; Netanyahu wants explicit security promises coupled with a recognition by Palestine of Israel as a Jewish state. Neither side seems to be taking great strides to meet the demands of the other: on Monday, June 24th, rockets from the Gaza Strip landed in Southern Israel civilian centers, violating the ceasefire agreed to in November of last year. These attacks prompted retaliatory Israeli strikes on weapons storage bases in Gaza, and a call by Israeli envoy to the UN Ron Prosor for formal UN condemnation of Hamas activity. The UN, diplomatic as ever, simply urged restraint on both sides. Tension was raised when Israel gave the go-ahead for construction on pre-approved settlements on the West Bank on Thursday, June 27th, the day before Kerry was to meet with Abbas in Amman. Abbas is similarly no closer to formally acknowledging Israel as a Jewish state – in fact, according to a poll conducted jointly by the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research (PCPSR) in Ramallah in June 2012, a majority of Palestinians (55%) oppose a mutual recognition of national identity with Israel even once a Palestinian state is established.
As he left the region on Sunday, Kerry was exhausted but optimistic, insisting that he had brought the two sides closer to being ready for negotiation. Not many in the area belief him: another PCPSR survey showed that though a majority of Israelis (62%) and Palestinians (53%) support a two-state solution, they also believe that it is bound to fail – 51% of Israelis believe that the issue of settlements will undermine the solution, while 58% of Palestinians consider a two-state solution no longer viable. Neither Palestinians nor Israelis want a one state solution in which Arabs and Jews are equal, and most are resigned to a failure of negotiations and a resumption of armed conflict.
I am not so cynical. I applaud Kerry’s efforts as messenger-boy between Abbas and Netanyahu, and the achievement of a reluctant moratorium on new settlement plans in the West Bank throughout the duration of the negotiations (however, pre-approved settlements numbering in the thousands are still liable to be constructed.) Ultimately, peace, or at least durable ceasefire, will only be achieved when (I say when, and not if) Israel stops – and I mean really stops – building in the West Bank, and when Abbas – and the international community – stops treating Hamas and the Islamic Jihad as victims of oppression and regards them as terrorists, who blatantly and unabashedly hide their weapons and themselves in the midst of innocent civilians and take pride in the murder of Israelis.
This toxic combination of issues – settlements and security – have brought Israeli-Palestinian peace talks to a stalemate on numerous occasions. As it stands, The real dilemma is that of initiation: who will go first? Who will compromise for the sake of the other? Like two children standing at the edge of a cold pool and dipping their toes in, the governments of Abbas and Netanyahu are each afraid to jump first.
Neither wants to make the leap – once in the air, the fall is inevitable, the decision intractable. There is no guarantee that the other will follow. Holding hands and jumping together, considering a history of animosity, is unlikely. The only option left is that they be pushed – and, hopefully, the cold water will bring them to their senses.