Garvan Walshe was Natronal and International Security Policy Adviser to the Conservative Party until 2008
Like that of Mark Twain, Rumours of the death of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process are exaggerated. Benjamin Netanyahu’s own political survival is altogether more uncertain. The latest “breakdown” in talks has the Palestinians taking advantage of the misbegotten camel that is his coalition government.
These latest talks came about because of a change in Palestinian strategy. Israel and the Palestinians have fought five wars since 1948 over how the land within which Arthur Balfour had promised as a Jewish national home would be divided between them. Each time the Palestinians lost, and found themselves being able to aspire to an ever smaller portion of territory.
Finally, under pressure to outflank Hamas, which then enjoyed the support of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood government, Mahmoud Abbas tried something new. Not only did he abjure violence, he co-operated seriously with Israel to keep a lid on terrorists, winning American respect. At the same time, he plotted a diplomatic offensive to normalize the idea of Palestine as a member of the international system of states.
The first phase culminated in the UN vote on Palestinian recognition which, though blocked by the United States, left Israel – which was itself recognized by the UN – in an awkward position. The second phase, which Abbas revived last week, would see Palestine apply to join a series of lower profile institutions. Dismiss for now talk of taking Israel to the International Criminal Court. But consider that a Palestine embedded in international institutions would behave as Cyprus used to, and employ every instrument at its disposal to gum up the works of technical bodies responsible for telecommunications, civil aviation, international shipping and so on, in the smooth running of which Israel’s open economy has a major interest.
Though Israeli security measures had worked well enough to allow Israelis to eventually ignore Palestinian nationalism in their everyday life, this “diplomatic intifada” would interfere in Israel’s economic growth in a manner much more subtle than the crude and counterproductive “Boycott, Disinvestment and Sanctions” campaign. All kinds of international projects would be held hostage to a Palestinian demand for statehood that most countries see as reasonable and with the possible exception of the United States, most would direct their resultant irritation at Israel.
Washington stepped in with a deal that would, at its improbable best, produce an agreement that would at least forestall this maddening campaign of hit and run diplomacy. It’s not clear whether this Israeli administration can stick to it.
Netanyahu’s coalition is divided – between the right, which believes conflict with the Palestinians as inevitable, never ending and to be won; and the centre, which has no sympathy for the Palestinians, but believes that a deal needs to be done. Nor is Bibi’s party position secure. Avigdor Lieberman, the Foreign Minister, is after the leadership of their Likud-Beitenu party, and has appealed to the right by announcing he would prefer new elections to John Kerry’s deal. Elections are not obviously in the offing however. An alternative coalition of the centre and left, supported by one of the religious parties, is possible (in its own way also a camel since the centrist party of Yair Lapid, the Finance Minister, is hostile to the religious sector’s agenda).
The United States is now showing, or choosing to display, obvious signs of being peeved with the Israeli prime minister, and especially his allies in the settler movement. Uri Ariel, the Housing Minister, had infuriated the White House by choosing the perfect moment to announce 700 housing tenders “he’d prepared earlier.” As Israel’s only reliable ally, with the possible exception of Germany, American pressure cannot be ignored.
So in this dispute over prisoner releases and the resumption of negotiations, Netanyahu has somehow to stop the right leaving his coalition while also preventing the irretrievable breakdown in relations with Washington.
This all has the feel of an orchestrated collapse in the talks. The Palestinians haven’t broken off negotiations yet, only given notice that that is what they intend to do. Expect Netanyahu to return instead. The question is: will his show of being dragged there be enough to keep his right wing on side, or will it flounce out to inveigh against a government of the left from opposition?
Exasperated Victorian Tories could frequently be heard to splutter: “the trouble with the Irish Question is that whatever we give them the answer, the Irish change the question. ” Mahmoud Abbas is changing the Palestinian question. If he also changes the Israeli Prime Minister, he will have done very well indeed.