Regardless of the excuses or rationalizations from both sides, this time the Israel-Palestinian negotiations might be different. While there is always a possibility for a derailment at any time, as of this writing, both sides appear to have their eyes focused on finding a way to keep the talks on track.
The Palestinians have not walked away from the table despite the fact that the Israelis have resumed settlement expansion. The Israel government has permitted some expansion of existing settlements, but do not appear to be moving quickly to create new ones. The Arab League, which is scheduled to issue an advisory to the Palestinians whether to break the negotiations, has already postponed its meeting twice. There have been no confrontations on the West Bank, no defiant threats, and no dramatic walk-outs.
The Palestinians have voiced their unsettledness but with more sound than fury. In his UN speech, Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman painted a bleak picture of the negotiations, yet almost no one on either side made much of his bluster. U.S. chief negotiator George Mitchell, after almost two years, appears to have figured out that the hot desert winds of the Middle East blow differently than those that come off the Irish Sea. Even Hamas, curiously, is biding its time. The talks appear at present only to be “on hold.”
So what is this happening and why might it work?
President Abbas has seen serious progress on the West Bank in economic terms as well as in public safety and security. The economic picture today shows a 5 percent increase in the overall real GDP growth rate in 2009 over 2008. This is largely due to dramatically improved management techniques, locally created economic reforms, the infusion of funds from donor countries, and, principally, the empowerment of Prime Minister Salam Fayyad to reorganize the economy. This improvement has also been facilitated by Israeli willingness to permit more expeditious, less restrictive movement throughout the West Bank.
Abbas knows he may not have another chance to create a two-state solution, and that he needs to secure control of the Hamas faction on the West Bank and demonstrate as well to the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip that Hamas can only deliver violence and fear, while he can improve their lives. Abbas appears to have bought President Obama’s appeal that, in order to win concessions both substantively and politically from Prime Minister Netanyahu, he must surprise the Israelis by changing the Palestinian negotiating posture and adopting a much more Western model.
Netanyahu also appears to realize that this may be his moment in history, just as his Likud predecessors Menachem Begin and Ariel Sharon had theirs. His coalition government has two strong right-wing factions — Shas and Yisrael Beitenu — plus some very hard-line members in his own party, but he alone can hold the coalition together. If his right-wing partners seriously threaten to bolt from the government, he could challenge his political partners to dismiss them and try to bring in Kadima from the left.
According to a number of recent analyses, the Israeli settler movement, except for the most radical “hilltopers,” is beginning to see the handwriting on the wall. Many of the residents in the less populated areas are already considering what might be their options, including economic restitution from the government, if they relocate. No one is making any moves yet, but there is a growing sense, except among the most militant, that their dream may be coming to end.
Obama also has invested so much into moving this process along that he cannot even contemplate the breakdown of the talks. Unlike domestic and legislative programs, here he does not need Congress’ acquiescence. Less than a month before the looming, critical mid-term elections, the president appears ready to offer extensive carrots to both sides, to ensure that he can ride into November with an ongoing positive foreign policy initiative.
There are many substantive hurdles to be climbed assuming both sides can start actually moving ahead on borders, security, refugees, and Jerusalem. It remains to be seen if there will actually be results: whether settlers will be up-rooted; whether the demand for Arab refugees’ return will be resolved with compensation; whether a demilitarized West Bank can be tolerated; and whether a way can be found to create a Palestinian capital in Jerusalem. It does seem, however, that this time perhaps Abbas, Netanyahu, and Obama may have grabbed the moment to try to make it work.
However, as the scorpion explained to the tortoise after it had fatally stung the tortoise during their crossing of the river, “who knows why I stung you, but — it’s the Middle East.”