This week Israel celebrated its 69th birthday, Mahmoud Abbas went to visit the President at the White House, Hamas announced seemingly cosmetic changes in its Charter, and the President appears to be planning a May visit to Israel prior to the 50th anniversary of the Israeli reunification of Jerusalem. At the end of this flurry of activity, other than some rhetoric, what has changed in the Middle East? In fact other than the conversation and some of the participants, does anyone in the region truly want to move ahead with new negotiations?
For the U.S., the President projects a sense that making peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians is as simple as deciding the primary color to paint the walls in a newly acquired office building. Trump may have negotiated to build a hotel in the Middle East, but he has never had to step into a bargaining session between to Middle Eastern players. Jimmy Carter tore his hair out as Begin and Sadat jockeyed for twelve days at Camp David. While trying to negotiate a cease fire in 1973, Henry Kissinger logged enough frequent flyer miles to fly around the world several times while only travelling between the regions’ capitals. Trump and his group of novice negotiators do not begin to comprehend that in the Middle East each word needs to be parsed—in several languages. Nothing is as simple as it seems.
Abbas may well be headed for his roundup. He must deal with hardliners who are being encouraged by the Palestinian prisoners enduring a hunger strike in Israeli prisons. The Hamas leadership struggle in Gaza is playing with Abbas as well in his on-going struggle for leadership of all the Palestinians. At the same time Abbas is struggling to present to his own people and to the entire Arab world an image of being a conciliatory leader——who is genuinely interested and capable of reconciling with the Israelis.
Netanyahu had believed he would have the full-fledged support from the Trump Administration given the extensive forceful rhetoric that he heard during the presidential campaign. He is now struggling with a reality which may not be quite as forthcoming. Bibi is being asked to adopt a negotiating position that is significantly more forthcoming towards the Palestinians than many in his political coalition are ready to accept.
Beyond all the public charges and allegations as well as the daily events, Bibi may be in the most difficult position. He needs Trump’s support as Europe, the U.N., the BDS movement continue to ratchet up the pressure. Meanwhile, Netanyahu must confront continued isolated incidents of terrorist activity which work to diminish his domestic political clout.
Bibi may be on the verge of being forced to accept an indefinite settlement freeze if Trump can persuade Abbas to agree to make some conciliatory gestures towards Israel; thus restarting negotiations. There are very few signs that Netanyahu will be able to accept such a freeze given the growing strength of the Israeli right and the intense pressure from hardliners. Even a Trump decision in late May to move the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem may not be sufficient to permit Bibi to accept an indefinite settlement freeze and a return to the negotiating table.
The sad reality is that the necessary steps to move the talks forward to actual negotiations is easy. All that it requires is the political will on all sides; but that is a very big “all”.