Still hope for peace talks?

At ForeignPolicy.com, Brent Sasley paints a more optimistic picture of Israeli domestic politics, and how they might impact the possibility of new negotiations with the Palestinians, than I did yesterday. The pessimistic scenario says that Netanyahu himself is a right-wing nut to begin with, leading a Likud Party that has lurched from center-right to hard-right, so he’s unlikely to negotiate seriously with the Palestinians. Worse, if he does make any move that seems like a concession to the Palestinians, the ultra-right nuts in his coalition will collapse the government, leading to the election of an even-more right-wing coalition, and that would be the end of the ballgame.

Professor Sasley takes a different view of things. He acknowledges that the pessimistic scenario is possible, but argues that a closer reading of the political tea leaves in Israel offers some hope. For one thing, Netanyahu has been willing to punch back when his junior coalition partners have made disparaging statements about the peace process:

In June, in response to [Naftali] Bennett’s [head of the Jewish Home Party, which calls for full annexation of the West Bank, or at least its most habitable land] public opposition to a Palestinian state, Netanyahu firmly announced that “foreign policy is shaped by the prime minister and my view is clear. I will seek a negotiated settlement where you’d have a demilitarized Palestinian state that recognizes the Jewish state.” After the formation of the government, he told foreign ministry officials that failure to make peace would result in a binational state, which in turn would be the end of Jewish self-determination.

Since John Kerry announced the reopening of talks (or, more accurately, the reopening of talks about reopening talks), Netanyahu’s rhetoric has focused on the security benefits that Israel would accrue from a negotiated peace, since it could then focus on other regional threats like Iran and an unstable Syria. Meanwhile, Likud may have moved further right, but not without fracturing itself and leaving Netanyahu essentially unchallenged for party leadership. Bennett, on the other hand, has threatened to collapse the government if Netanyahu restarts talks, but would be taking huge risks in doing so, as he does have rivals for party leadership and has to worry about smaller hard-right parties siphoning votes away from Jewish Home. He’s at risk from inside the party if he’s seen as going along with negotiations, and from outside the party if he takes any action that ushers in new elections:

… Bennett knows that if he takes Jewish Home out of the coalition, he’d be damaging his own prospects for getting back in to the coalition. Bennett’s party is a merger of at least two different parties, comprised of would-be challengers to his own leadership. It was a difficult process to unify them, and, given that they are all right or far-right, it’s not clear that it could survive remaining in a government that concedes territory.

Polls show Strong Israel, a small far-right party, winning two to three seats. Strong Israel is probably taking support away from Likud-Beiteinu, and it couldn’t pass the electoral threshold (2 percent of the popular vote) to enter the Knesset in the January election. But it’s a challenge to Jewish Home’s dominance of the religious Zionist and far right vote. Its leaders, Michael Ben Ari and Aryeh Eldad, have ties to some people in Jewish Home and its members used to be part of National Union, which itself once comprised a faction in Jewish Home’s predecessor. There is, then, the possibility of an intra-far right struggle for the party.

If he loses his position Bennett won’t have another institutional home. This is a strong incentive to bring the party along with negotiations.

Plus, the coalition’s more centrist parties that need negotiations, and successful ones at that, to have any hope of making electoral gains:

… the coalition is composed of more centrist parties that have been more explicit about promoting the peace process. Tzipi Livni’s Hatnua party is small (six members) but she’s determined to push the negotiations forward, putting constant pressure on Netanyahu; it’s the only issue on which she ran. As recently as June she publicly insisted that “We will not remain in the government without a peace process.” The last few polls have the party dropping two to three seats; a successful negotiating process is her only chance to stay relevant.

Also in the government is Yair Lapid, leader of Yesh Atid. His ambition is to become prime minister, and as soon as possible … To do this he’ll need a lot more votes than he received in the last election (19 Knesset seats). He’ll certainly play to the right to this end, taking a more hawkish stance on peace process issues. But his party is comprised of several doves and centrists, who — combined with the need to take some votes from the left — will pull him toward a more moderate position. In short, engaging in a genuine negotiating process is his best chance to build support.

And, last but not least, the parties that have been left out of the coalition, like the center-left Labor and the ultra-orthodox Shas, might be willing to join it if the hard-right parties pull out. Shas in particular would have joined the coalition but for the fact that Bennett and Lapid insisted that it be kept out (they oppose the ultra-orthodox platform, which demands state financial support for Haredi communities as well as exemption from compulsory military service for the Haredim). Meanwhile the left seems amazingly resurgent; Labor seems to be on a bit of an upswing after almost collapsing in the mid-2000s, and might be willing to backstop Netanyahu if his partners to the right abandon him, while the further-left Meretz is also gaining popularity:

Similarly, the Labor Party has in recent weeks been talking about the need for a real peace process, after ignoring the issue in favor of social-economic issues. Its leader, Shelly Yachimovich, has been prompting Netanyahu to return to talks, telling him in May to respond positively to the reintroduced Arab League peace plan. She’s gone so far as to send him a letter assuring him the party would serve as a “safety net” to protect him during peace talks.

Public opinion surveys bear out Lapid’s concerns, and Shas’s and Labor’s hopes. In the most recent poll, conducted on July 17, Likud-Beiteinu drops from 31 to 29 seats; Labor increases from 15 to 17 mandates; Yesh Atid falls from 19 to 15 seats; and Shas, too, drops from 11 to nine. Bearing these challenges out even more is the support that Meretz, a party to the left of Labor and one that has also made the peace process a major part of its platform, has gotten from public polling. Currently at six seats, the last poll gave it 11 seats; the one before, nine.

There is a final reason to be optimistic: Israeli popular opinion supports negotiations at a rate of between 60 and 70 percent, depending on the poll. Netanyahu has pledged to put any agreement to a national referendum, maybe because he knows it would likely pass and that doing so would give him a great deal of political cover with respect to his coalition partners.

While I will freely cop to being a neophyte in terms of internal Israeli politics, the problem as I see it is that the scenario Prof. Sasley lays out is fairly speculative. The pessimistic scenario is also speculative, to be sure, but there’s enough history of aborted and sabotaged Israeli-Palestinian negotiations that a little pessimism is not unreasonable.

Meanwhile, we haven’t even really talked about the problem on the Palestinian side, which is that there’s really no credible entity to negotiate for them, and any negotiations that take place without a settlement freeze only reduce their credibility further. Also at ForeignPolicy.com, Brookings’ Khaled Elgindy describes the situation:

Meanwhile, nothing does more to undermine Palestinian confidence in the “peace process” than ongoing Israeli settlement expansion. And nothing does more to undermine the Palestinian leadership’s domestic credibility than continuing to engage in a negotiation process while Israel persists in colonizing Palestinian land — which brings us to Mahmoud Abbas and his Palestinian Authority.

Far from the “state in waiting” many Palestinians had once hoped it would be, today’s PA is financially bankrupt, has no functioning parliament, and continues to suffer from a debilitating split between the Fatah-dominated West Bank and the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip. The notion that such a divided and dysfunctional leadership, which lacks either electoral or consensual legitimacy, would have a mandate to negotiate the sort of wide-ranging compromises that a peace deal with Israel would require is fanciful at best.

Any negotiation process that ignores these two corrosive issues is virtually assured of failure.

In short, the PA and Mahmoud Abbas need to wring a settlement freeze out of the Netanyahu government in order to be seen as credible negotiators by the Palestinians, and despite the optimistic scenario portrayed by Prof. Sasley it still seems unlikely that Netanyahu would agree to such a demand. Going ahead with talks absent a settlement agreement would doom them to failure and, as Elgindy writes, probably wipe out whatever shred of popular support the Palestinian Authority still has left, which could lead to chaos in the West Bank and more, not less, violence. If Secretary Kerry wants these talks (or talks about talks) to result in a step forward, rather than a step (or several) backward, he’s got to get Netanyahu to take real steps on the settlement issue.

Author: DWD

writer, blogger, lover, fighter

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